Bush Lead During Weakest Economy in Decades

At his final news conference Monday, President George W. Bush repeated his long-standing call for creation of a Palestinian state, discussed democracy in Iraq and commented on the struggling economy.
By Neil Irwin and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 12, 2009

President Bush has presided over the weakest eight-year span for the U.S. economy in decades, according to an analysis of key data, and economists across the ideological spectrum increasingly view his two terms as a time of little progress on the nation's thorniest fiscal challenges.

The number of jobs in the nation increased by about 2 percent during Bush's tenure, the most tepid growth over any eight-year span since data collection began seven decades ago. Gross domestic product, a broad measure of economic output, grew at the slowest pace for a period of that length since the Truman administration. And Americans' incomes grew more slowly than in any presidency since the 1960s, other than that of Bush's father.

Bush and his aides are quick to point out that they oversaw 52 straight months of job growth in the middle of this decade, and that the economy expanded at a steady clip from 2003 to 2007. But economists, including some former advisers to Bush, say it increasingly looks as if the nation's economic expansion was driven to a large degree by the interrelated booms in the housing market, consumer spending and financial markets. Those booms, which the Bush administration encouraged with the idea of an "ownership society," have proved unsustainable.

"The expansion was a continuation of the way the U.S. has grown for too long, which was a consumer-led expansion that was heavily concentrated in housing," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a onetime Bush White House staffer and one of Sen. John McCain's top economic advisers for his presidential campaign. "There was very little of the kind of saving and export-led growth that would be more sustainable."

"For a group that claims it wants to be judged by history, there is no evidence on the economic policy front that that was the view," Holtz-Eakin said. "It was all Band-Aids."

From 2002 to 2006, the housing boom generated about 600,000 to 800,000 jobs that otherwise would not have been created -- about 10 percent of total job growth in that span, according to the consulting firm IHS Global Insight. Such data, expert say, suggest the economy was not as fundamentally strong as it seemed.

"Some of the recovery, some of the expansion, was based on very shaky foundations," said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at Global Insight.

"It's sad to say, but we really went nowhere for almost ten years, after you extract the boost provided by the housing and mortgage boom," said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Economy.com, and an informal adviser to McCain's campaign. "It's almost a lost economic decade."

The president's current aides say they are proud of their economic record. They note, for instance, that they attempted to rein in the growth of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the housing finance companies whose vast expansion they see as a central cause of the financial crisis. Independent analysts generally view them only as contributors to the crisis.

"It does look like a great eight years, aside from the last quarter, unfortunately," Edward P. Lazear, chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, said in a recent interview. "In the long term, things look good. The reason things look good is this economy will rebound, and it will rebound strongly. . . . We expect things to turn around, and I would say early in President Obama's administration."

Even excluding the 2008 recession, however, Bush presided over a weak period for the U.S. economy. For example, for the first seven years of the Bush administration, gross domestic product grew at a paltry 2.1 percent annual rate.

The administration also failed to gain traction on some of the fundamental economic and fiscal issues facing the nation -- including solidifying the finances of Medicare and Social Security, simplifying the tax code, or making health care more affordable. Resolution of those issues might have left the government more flexibility to respond to the current crisis by lowering the nation's future budget deficits.

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