Will George W. Bush become a surprise Obama asset?

By Nicholas Wapshott
June 21, 2012

Whatever happened to George W. Bush? While 88-year-old George H.W. Bush still goes skydiving and chats about Justin Bieber with his granddaughter Jemma, the faux Texan who brought us two wars, waterboarding, an economic meltdown and record public borrowing is strangely missing. Just as well, you might think. What could he possibly say?

But George W. is a key witness in the trial of Barack Obama. Under attack from Mitt Romney for presiding over a stagnant economy, Obama blames his plight on the gaping hole in the country’s finances left by his predecessor. “Huge reckless bets were made with other people’s money,” Obama told an audience in Cleveland, this month. “And too many, from Wall Street to Washington, simply looked the other way.” Then, “in the fall of 2008 it all came tumbling down with a financial crisis that plunged the world into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.”

Obama has made light of his sour inheritance, joking: “Some have said I blame too many problems on my predecessor, but let’s not forget that’s a practice that was initiated by George W. Bush.” But in invoking the ghost of George W. he is deadly serious. To be left nursing the worst economy since Herbert Hoover is no laughing matter. The figures for the Bush years suggest Obama has a lot to complain about. Whether you judge it by stock market prices, or the number of Americans in poverty, or median household income, or growth in public debt, or GDP growth, or job growth, or number of Americans without health insurance, Bush passed on to Obama an economy heading South.

Americans seem to understand this. Bush, not Obama, is mostly blamed for the wretched state of the economy, according to a recent Gallup poll. Even Republicans are split, holding Bush and Obama equally responsible. This perhaps surprising evidence of fair play among voters goes a long way to explain why Obama continues to pound away at the narrative that he inherited a wrecked economy and deserves more time to fix it.

So what does W. think about the economy he left behind? In April, he spoke at Southern Methodist University in Dallas about the “decision that contradicted a principle I told the American people I stood on, which is that markets are the best way to allocate goods, resources, and services. That decision was to use taxpayers’ money to bail out Wall Street in order to make sure that we didn’t have an economic disaster.” The remark echoed what he wrote in his 2010 memoir Decision Points, that he believed the intervention “helped spare the American people from an economic disaster of historic proportions … the Second Great Depression that Ben Bernanke warned about did not happen.”

In a candid admission, he told his Dallas audience: “I can’t prove that we were going to have an economic disaster. I can just tell you we didn’t have one. I have thought often about this decision. I will just tell you this: had I had to make it again, I would make the same exact decision.” Tea Party supporters remember with horror Romney’s support for the Bush bailout. “We were on a precipice unlike anything we have known before in modern history with the potential of a complete collapse of our currency system and our financial system,” said Romney. “Had we not taken action, you could have seen a real devastation.”

Much to Romney’s relief, W. rarely steps away from his Texas fastness, and when he does, he keeps his utterances short. His endorsement of Romney was a mere five words – “I’m for Mitt Romney” – delivered just as the doors of an elevator abruptly closed upon his grinning visage. Bush has let it be known he will not be going on the stump for Romney, nor will you hear encomiums to the Bush years on Romney’s lips. Romney’s managers have decided that reminding the electorate of Bush’s existence is a sure vote loser.

Next month, however, the ghost of Bush will be spooking Romney once again. He has written an introduction to a collection of essays on promoting economic growth and has agreed to give at least one keynote interview. Over the course of the last year, the economic language here and in Europe has switched from a choice between a Keynesian stimulus and a Hayekian free-for-all to a similarly stark choice between growth and austerity.

Romney is, as ever, behind the curve and still trumpets cutting debt, reducing public-sector jobs, and imposing austerity, a prescription that in a number of European countries, including Britain, has delivered a double-dip recession. If next month George W. Bush champions growth over austerity, he will be handing Obama a nail-barbed bludgeon with which the president can chase Romney all the way to November.

Nicholas Wapshott is the author of Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Read extracts here.

PHOTO: Former President George W. Bush (R) and President Barack Obama look on before the unveiling of Bush’s official White House portrait in the East Room of the White House in Washington, May 31, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing

19 comments

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Let me shed some crocodile tears for Romney b/c W won’t stump for him. Bush was one of the WORST public speakers one can remember, and his legacy can reasonably be argued to be the worst administration in American history. By sheer fact that America is still growing and unemployment isn’t 25% Obama should be considered a success. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… frankly there’s no compelling reason to believe that Romney will do a better job. The only thing that could possibly change is that a Conservative congress would be less obstinant having one of their own in the Oval Office.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Obama can’t make a speech without a teleprompter. He is the WORST president this country has ever seen. November can’t get here fast enough. Oblamo is one and done.

Posted by moonhill | Report as abusive

Washington (both sides of the aisle) has no solutions. Blame game is the only way to get re-elected and that is what is most to our “leaders”. The longer I live. the more obvious it is to me that our “leaders” are more concerned with their party and political career than the future of this once great nation.

Posted by davidky | Report as abusive

Two horrible presidents in a row! The American electorate is to blame…. We (I am part of the “we”; despite my votes for different candidates) elected Bush twice; hopefully we won’t make the same mistake again by electing Obama twice… What has made us great in the past has been topped off by great leaders. Now, we have a declining culture electing poor leaders……

Posted by jarjajo | Report as abusive

A president is not a Messiah. Both parties D and R deserve equal blame. Time for a new party who covenant to 1 term and policies favoring the middle class.

Posted by BrentRJones | Report as abusive

Obama the worst President?! Who started two wars and failed to catch the mastermind of 9/11? What President went from budget surpluses to record deficits during his time in office?

What has Obama accomplished that makes Republicans think he’s done such a terrible job? Adopted a (formally) conservative idea for healthcare reform? Ended the war in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan? Was he able to raise taxes? Does he even want to raise taxes on 99% of taxpayers?

Or maybe Republicans think Obama is the worst President ever because he allows gays to openly serve in the military? Or because his wife thinks Americans are too fat? Or maybe he’s considered too smart, compared to his predecessor?

It amazes me how many Republicans can marvel at the science of medicine or digital technology, but can’t accept the science of climate change or evolution. The strength of the Republican Party is evidence of America’s neglect of the educational system over all too many years.

Posted by johnzbesko | Report as abusive

Are you kidding Nick? You appear to have joined the ranks of those who’ve lost their minds in ideological foaming mouth rants blaming George W. Bush for everything that goes wrong past, present and future. Are you training your children to grab this baton when you pass on? Sad.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

No, George W. Bush was not America’s worst President. You must remember the dwarves Andrew Johnson and Richard M. Nixon and perhaps even poor Herbert Hoover all wrecked the country with almost insane vision. Now Dick Cheney was a “shadow” President who would certainly have been far worse than “W”. And was to the extent he made policy.

Obama is at least somewhat a victim, but he continued the Iraq War for 4 years, is still fighting the Afghan War, and threw his own trillion dollar bailout of Wall Street in, together with over a trillion dollars additional for our erstwhile “ally” Israel. This hardly the stuff of greatness. And will Romney be any different? It certainly does not sound like it, though he very likely will start at least another war by invading another country somewhere.

Altogether, Americans can expect to be considerably poorer in 4 years, excluding the darling saviors of our economy, the highest 10% by income, with shorter life expectancies and higher taxes and fewer benefits, worse roads and higher unemployment among all age groups.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

George W. and Obama are pretty bad, but you all must be very young. Does anyone remember Jimmy Carter?

Posted by Trachonitis | Report as abusive

I like the vast majority of Americans long for a “the buck stops here” President… what we have now, yeah he’s about as far from that as one can possibly get.

Posted by Ollerus | Report as abusive

Yes, the Bush/Cheney regime was a total train wreck for America and it will take a decade or more to recover from their mis-management.

Posted by widollar | Report as abusive

Oh Reuters what happened to objective journalism ?

Wipe that brown spot off your nose and be a new organization for a change !

Posted by NJ989 | Report as abusive

Poor Wapshott working his entire life as an effete journalist does not know about the real world.

In any job, from lowly clerk to high level CEO if you have been in a job for three and a half years you own it. Sure you predecessor may have screwed things up (though I think little Nicholas exaggerates to boost his hero Obama).

Obama has owned the economy for well over three years now. During his tenure the economy has declined in terms of job numbers.

If you (reading this) or I were in a job for over three years without any even passable success guess what would happen? They would fire us.

As I said Wapshott being a journo simply does not get this, but Mr Average does.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

I think I’m going to start calling foaming mouth anti-Bush extremists, who want to blame Bush for everything past, present and future to a ridiculously irrational, character-flawed extent “Bushers”. Similar mentality to “Birthers” isn’t it? Nick, you’re officially “Busher #1″ in my book.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

After reading the majority of these posts I am beginning to understand why so many Americans fail in areas of cognitive reasoning. Why are people attacking the author of this article? Do any of these detractors understand causation? Calling people names is something people do because they can’t form a reasonable argument or rebuttal. Stating that George W. Bush was a major factor in the decline of the U.S. economy is not ridiculously irrational. Personally, I am glad Americans are struggling right now, because it’s only those who are capable of hard work and perseverance that are going to weather this storm. Our current dilemma has and still is performing a wonderful latent function of weeding out the weak, uneducated, misinformed, lazy, gullible, and lazy people in our work force. The buddy system is dying and we are primed and ready for a proletariat revolt. It’s time to put on your “big boy pants” and fix the problems we have internally instead of attacking journalists who are offering their opinion (in the opinion section by the way) to a rather ludicrous election cycle. Most of these posts show very serious evidence of people with control issues who will negate and object to any opinions outside of their own. To those people I say: waaaah…

Posted by Obsilutely | Report as abusive

you guys out there smoking dope??let me explain.home construction has always been on “the front line”so to speak.the economy does good?you feel it..the economy goes bad?oh yeh,,you are going to feel it.all this crap(the bad economy)started around 06..probably the end of 06.isn’t amazing the dems gained control of both the house and senate during this time?strange things indeed..as far as bush goes…i thought he did a pretty good job .until his last 2 years that is.all i can tell you folks is:this has been the worst 4 years i’ve ever seen.worse than carter even.obama has no business being re-elected,,everything he’s done is tainted and does not work..put someone in there who can run a company,,that’s what we need,,the govt run to make a profit,,,and streamlined at that..as for me?i’ll vote romney

Posted by vejer | Report as abusive

“Bush has let it be known he will not be going on the stump for Romney, nor will you hear encomiums to the Bush years on Romney’s lips. Romney’s managers have decided that reminding the electorate of Bush’s existence is a sure vote loser.”

A scoundrel’s agreement, to be sure.

Posted by amibovvered | Report as abusive

the seeds were sown for the mortgage and housing mess long before Bush took office. wall street runs this country.

Posted by SGOLDEN | Report as abusive

If president Obama were a WASP, there would not even be an election – he would be lauded for having ended wars, killed America’s enemies, launched a health initiative using Republican ideas both in theory (Heritage Foundation) and in practice (Massachusetts), etc.

His more than “one drop” has simply deranged a lot of people, mostly white men.

Posted by Global55 | Report as abusive