I like Stan Collender’s take on Bush’s fiscal legacy in his most recent Roll Call column. (And here’s the post on Stan’s Capital Gains and Games blog.) I think Stan feels pretty much the same way as I do about it, but he better identifies the range of feelings one might subjectively attach to the disappointing facts of our federal-budget reality, as anywhere from “missed opportunity” to “colossal failure.”
I agree with Stan that the “missed opportunity” of the Bush Administration was a huge one:
At best, Bush’s budget legacy has to be characterized as a huge missed opportunity. No other president has ever been presented with the extraordinary chance that Bush had to change the country’s fiscal outlook so positively and more or less permanently. But Bush didn’t just fail to take advantage of that obvious invitation to make budgetary and presidential history — he missed it completely.
And I agree with Stan that in squandering that tremendous opportunity, President Bush has left President Obama with very little “wiggle room” and many fewer opportunties, when it comes to easy policy options to strengthen the economy:
The government borrowing not eliminated by Bush has set the stage for what will now be a series of far more difficult budget decisions than otherwise would have occurred for years, or decades, to come. For example, the extraordinary borrowing the government is doing now for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, AIG and a stimulus program wouldn’t be as much of a concern if Bush had paid down the debt as promised.
The easy options are no longer, but the opportunities still exist; as Stan indicates, they’re just much tougher choices that now have to be made by our new president. Good thing President Obama comes into the White House with so much support from the American people, and with so much wisdom within himself and his advisors that it might indeed be possible to finally make these necessarily tough choices for the country. This week’s Economist magazine sees this contrast between the Bush Administration’s squandering of opportunities, and the possibility that the Obama Administration will seize their (now more limited and therefore precious) opportunities–because we really cannot afford to waste them:
…it is the domestic economy which will consume most of Mr Obama’s time. And here American renewal must take two opposite forms. In some ways, the times cry out for more active government: for stronger regulation of banks and near-banks, for much more short-term government spending to counteract the contraction elsewhere in the economy, and for the establishment of a basic health-care system for everyone. But Mr Obama also needs a plan to shrink other aspects of government over the longer term. Without reform of expensive entitlements, the federal government faces bankruptcy. Cutting entitlements at the same time as buying hundreds of billions of dollars-worth of bad loans from Wall Street is difficult politics, to say the least. But at least Mr Obama has acknowledged that he will have to do it. A more equitable health system coupled with a path towards budget reform would, on their own, make Mr Obama’s presidency a remarkable one. And at least he has the votes in Congress to make it happen…
Mr Bush (see article) had a simplistic tendency to see the world through ideological and partisan spectacles. He hung on to bad advisers for longer than he should have; he divided the world too often into good and evil; and he plotted to establish a Republican hegemony although he had sold himself to the electorate as bipartisan. In economic matters, he was too prone to sacrifice the long-term good for short-term gain. He seemed curiously incurious about vital details, such as the conduct of the war in Iraq.
Mr Obama seems to be different. By offering the most prized cabinet job to his rival, Hillary Clinton, and by keeping on Robert Gates, the defence secretary, who has done a good job, Mr Obama has shown a determination not to surround himself with cronies. He has put together a team which has impressed almost everyone with its calibre and its centrism. He has been tough already, dispatching blunderers and being prepared to admit to mistakes. He has repeatedly warned Americans that he will have to do unpleasant things.
The next four, or eight, years may be a disappointment, a triumphant renewal or something in between. Mr Obama is inexperienced, and right now the world looks especially forbidding. But he is a respectful and thoughtful man, and that is a good start.