Forbes Magazine's online edition performed a valuable
public service in July when it ran a story comparing
the economic performance of the ten postwar
presidents. Forbes is the right-leaning business
publication that goes by the tagline, "Capitalist
Tool." Its publisher, Steve Forbes, is a big hitter
in Republican circles and ran as a Republican
candidate for president in 1996 and 2000.
The magazine proposed six different metrics by which a president's economic performance should be judged.
They are: GDP growth, real disposable personal
income, employment, unemployment, inflation, and
deficit reduction. All are mainstream benchmarks with
their data easily accessible to any serious inquirer.
It is a measure of Forbes' integrity that it let the
chips fall where they may: the top three performing presidents - Clinton, Johnson, and Kennedy - were all Democrats while the bottom three performers - Nixon, Eisenhower, and Bush the Elder - were all Republicans.
The middle of the pack was a mixed bag of all the
rest: Reagan; Ford; Carter; and Truman.
Interestingly, however, Forbes did not include the
current occupant of the White House in the comparison.
In fairness, George W. Bush's first term is not yet
over, though the fact of a short duration did not stop
Forbes from including Gerald R. Ford or John F.
Kennedy in its evaluation. Both served less than full
One wonders if the reason Forbes did not include Bush
is that Bush would have come out rather poorly for the comparison. The numbers are readily available.
Surely they ran them.
But with an election looming, it is worthwhile looking
at Bush's record and comparing it with that of the
last president, Bill Clinton. The reason for choosing
Clinton is that he is not only the only Democratic
president of the last twenty years, many of Clinton's
economic advisers are now working with John Kerry. If Clinton's economic philosophy might inform Kerry's
policies, the comparison would be very useful.
The first measure Forbes uses is real GDP growth.
"Real" means that the number has been adjusted for the
effects of inflation. In Clinton's first 3.5 years,
real GDP grew by 3.2%. Over the similar period for
Bush, the number was 2.4%, substantially less. Now,
to be fair, there was a recession in 2001, but it was
one of the mildest on record. And it was preceded by
over six months of Bush aggressively talking down the
state of the economy. So perhaps he owns more of it
than he's been willing to acknowledge.
Today, part of Bush's standard stump speech includes
the boast that the economy is growing at the fastest
rate in the past 20 years. But this is based on only
a nine-month window, not unlike a marathon runner
sprinting for 500 yards and marveling that he's
running the fastest marathon ever recorded. Over the
more telling period of time, the duration of his
presidency, Bush loses handily. Clinton 1: Bush 0.
The second measure in Forbes' schema is real
disposable personal income. As with GDP, the "real"
part adjusts for the effect of inflation. The
"disposable" part adjusts for taxes. Real disposable
personal income, therefore, is what a person's income
actually buys after inflation and taxes. It is one of
the most meaningful measures of economic well-being.
During Clinton's first 3.5 years, real disposable
personal income rose by 10.4%. Over a comparable
period under Bush, it rose by 9.3%. But the real gap
in performance is actually understated. The reason is
that "real disposable personal income" doesn't
indicate how the income is distributed. It simply
measures total income in the economy and divides by
the number of workers. Since Bush's tax cuts skewed
after-tax income to the wealthy, those Americans not
in the highest bracket are actually less well off than
Bush's number would suggest. Clinton 2; Bush 0.
Employment was the third measure Forbes used to judge
economic performance. How many people hold full time
jobs. When Clinton took office there were 109 million
jobs in the U.S. Three-and-a-half years later, there
were 120 million, or a net growth of 11 million jobs.
In raw numbers, this is the most prodigious record of
job creation in modern history. In percentage terms,
it trails only Jimmy Carter's accomplishment of adding
10 million jobs in the late seventies.
Bush's record on employment is equally legendary
though for the opposite reason. When he took office,
there were 132 million jobs in the U.S. Today, more
than three-and-a-half years later, there are just over
131 million for a net loss of one million jobs. The standard-and truthful-rebuke is that Bush has been the first president since Herbert Hoover to have presided over a net loss of jobs. As with GDP, Bush is now out trying to claim heroic results for a recent short period but the odium of the larger failure, especially when put into historical context, is inescapable.
Clinton 3; Bush 0.
Forbes' fourth measure is unemployment-what percentage
of the workforce was without jobs. When Clinton took
office, the unemployment rate stood at a fairly high
7.5%. This rate dropped each year until by the summer
of 1996, it stood at 5.4%--a rate that economists used
to believe would start triggering inflation. But
Clinton's policies continued to push the rate down
without significant inflation until in stood at the extraordinarily low rate of 4.0% in December of 2000.
That is the unemployment rate that George Bush
inherited from Clinton's second term: 4.0%. But in
stark contrast to Clinton's policies, Bush's policies
raised that rate every year until it reached 6.0% in
December 2003. Since then, the rate has come down a
bit: in July it stood at 5.4%. But this is still substantially higher than where Bush inherited it.
Clinton reduced unemployment. Bush has increased it.
Clinton 4; Bush 0.
The fifth measure is inflation. Here, Bush does
somewhat better. The average annual rate of inflation
over the past three and a half years has been 2.3%.
Under Clinton, the rate was 2.9%. Since the measure
is in percentage terms, the actual gap is six one
thousandths: .023 versus .029-a negligible
More importantly, inflation is already accounted for
in the real GDP and real disposable personal income
measures, already discussed. Inflation is really only
a worry when prices rise faster than incomes or
output. But that is not the case. Even after
inflation, output was greater and incomes were higher
under Clinton than Bush. And since inflation is
commonly the product of high economic growth-a
goodness-it is not entirely clear that in this range
it is a liability at all. We can fairly call this one
The final measure Forbes uses is deficit reduction.
Here, the gap in performance is simply off the charts.
Bush the Elder's last deficit was $292 billion, the
largest in history to date. Clinton took office in
1993 and immediately reversed Bush's supply side
policies, raising taxes on the highest bracket tax
payers. That policy allowed Clinton to work down the
deficit to $107 billion by 1996. In cumulative terms, Clinton's first four years saw deficit reduction of $183 billion.
Clinton would go on in his second term to not only
eliminate deficits but deliver the largest surpluses
in history. In 2000, the surplus reached $236
billion. Bush quickly reversed course and turned
Clinton's record surpluses into record deficits. For
2004, the deficit has soared to $422 billion. In
cumulative terms, by reversing Clinton's surpluses,
Bush has delivered $1.2 trillion of additional red
And the red ink goes on for as far as the eye can see.
When Bush took office, the government was forecast to
run $5.6 trillion in surpluses over the next 10 years.
OMB Watch now forecasts $7.8 trillion of deficits for
the next 10 years-a literally incomprehensible
reversal of $13.4 trillion. This will prove an
immense boon to Bush's wealthy backers who will be the
ones loaning the money and at higher rates of
interest. But it will gravely cripple future economic
The reason is that deficits must eventually be paid
for. These bills will fall to future generations and increasingly onto the working and middle classes. But since paying those bills must come out of future incomes, they must compete with other demands on those incomes. Once basic consumption is paid for, that typically means competing with investment-the basis for sustained economic growth.
Bush's deficits, by putting inescapable claims on
future incomes, have already reduced the possible
levels of future investment and therefore future
economic growth. Coming generations will suffer
reduced living standards-perhaps dramatically so-to
pay for Bush's astronomical deficits. Clinton 5; Bush
A last, additional measure of economic performance is
poverty. Forbes did not include this measure,
possibly because accurate data on poverty levels were
not kept before the 1960s. Comparisons between all of
the postwar presidents are therefore impossible. But
they have been kept since then, making a Clinton/Bush comparison not only possible but desirable.
When Clinton entered office, the official poverty rate
stood at 15.1%. He reduced it to 13.8% three and a
half years later. When George W. Bush took office,
poverty had fallen still further, to 11.3%. But it
has risen steadily under Bush, to 13.8% in June of
this year. Clinton reduced poverty. Bush raised it.
Clinton 6; Bush 0.
Confronted with such data, Republicans routinely cavil
that the comparison is stacked to favor Democrats.
But it can hardly be said of Forbes that it is a
left-leaning publication. Quite the contrary.
Forbes' framework is persuasive precisely because it
comes from an unimpeachable Republican source.
And knowing all too well Bush's abysmal record,
Republicans have taken lately to claiming that
presidents really don't have that much to do with
economic performance. Forbes addresses this as well,
stating directly, "Fairly or not, each president is
judged by how much prosperity is delivered on his
Donald Rumsfeld is fond of saying that people are
entitled to their own opinions but they are not
entitled to their own facts. The facts are
undeniable: Bush's economic policies lose by every
measure. He fails not just one but every single
comparison. The differences could not be more stark.
Bush promises four more years of policies like those
he has already inflicted on the American public. But
America cannot afford four more years of such
destructive ineptitude. The more people understand
the facts, the more likely they are to demand a
Robert Freeman writes on economics, history and
education. He can be reached at