Don't Blame George Bush for the Debt!

The first George Bush, that is. The second you can blame all you like.

Jim Fallows has posted a provocative chart that measures how much the debt grew under each president since Truman. Where the debt burden decreased, the terms are colored green. Where the debt burden increased, the presidents are in red. Notice anything similar about the "red" presidents?


The quick way to sum up this chart might be*: The debt grew under every Republican president in the last 30 years, and it never grew under a Democratic president in the last 60 years (not including the current president whose term has not ended).

But that's too facile, for a few reasons. First, significant debt reduction in mid-century had as much to do with the end of World War II as prudent budgeting. Second, this is a democracy not a dictatorship, so it's hasty to blame the White House for the sins of a Congress that is also historically loathe to cut spending.

Third, the same way that the current president has been caught with a debt crisis, the first President Bush also cannot be blamed for the debt rise on his watch. In fact, Bush I signed the Omnibus bill of 1990 to raise taxes on income, gas, even federal telephones, to reduce the growing debt left over from the 1980s. So whereas the chart makes him look like the half-century's greatest debt monster, he was arguably one of the most fiscally responsible presidents in recent memory.

One could also make the argument that since Reagan entered office during a double-dip recession caused by leftover inflation, it would be unfair to blame him for the entirety of his debt accumulation. This is a harder argument to make persuasive, however, since Reagan's tax cuts in the early 1980s, even if they contributed to strong economic growth, still led to a tripling of the US debt in that decade thanks to elevated defense spending.

As for President George W. Bush, it's more difficult to stage a defense. The 01/03 tax cuts did not pay for the war in Iraq, The Medicare law did not pay for the war in Afghanistan. Dubya came into office with a recession and left office with a recession. Neither were directly his fault, but in the intervening years, his administration did practically nothing to mend the gaping budget holes created by wars, high domestic spending, and profligate tax cuts.

*To be clear, this is a strawman, not a claim Jim was making in his original post.