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DECISION '92: SPECIAL VOTER'S GUIDE TO THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION : THEIR RECORDS: An examination of the successes and failures of Bush as President and Clinton as governor : BUSH


WASHINGTON — That George Bush's first-term record looms as a problem even for him is evident in the strategy he has adopted for reelection. Rather than dwell upon the past four years, the President has mostly tried to change the subject.

He is glad to talk about his agenda for American "renewal." He is eager to talk about Democrat Bill Clinton's record as Arkansas' governor. But he dares not ask voters whether they are better off now than when he took office. This election, he now insists, should focus on the future.

That approach carries deep irony: While incumbency is usually regarded as an advantage, Bush's past has proved a burden. Not since World War II has a President presided over an economy so stagnant. In promising better times ahead, Bush finds himself conceding that "times have been very, very difficult for many Americans."

The sense of "Marching In Place," as a new book on the Bush presidency is titled, extends across a wide domestic spectrum. In his first term, Bush has done what he promised not to do--raise taxes--and stopped short of what he vowed to be--the environmental and education President.

If the past has become a handicap, that fate also serves as a reminder of politics' cruel tricks. With the Cold War over and the Gulf War won, Bush discovered that great successes only make voters yearn for more. Victorious abroad, Americans demanded similar victories at home.

Here is a closer examination of the Bush record:


Bush took office with promises of massive job growth and sunny prosperity. Instead, Americans lost ground in three crucial areas--economic growth, income and jobs.

Under Bush, the economy has grown by just 1% a year. And median family income, when adjusted for inflation, has actually declined. Bush promised to create 30 million jobs in eight years; but in a little less than four years, total employment has increased by just 2.8 million, and the number of private-sector jobs has actually declined. The jobless rate, 5.4% when he took office, has shot upward, standing at 7.5% in the latest report. One American in 10 is now on food stamps.

The statistics are not uniformly bleak. The U.S. economy remains the world's largest; inflation, its bane a decade ago, no longer poses a serious threat. And interest rates are at their lowest level in 20 years, setting the stage for a spree of investment that Bush claims leaves that nation "poised for a dramatic recovery."

To listen to the President, the poor economic record is mostly Congress' fault. As an example, he points to lawmakers' steadfast refusal to pass the capital gains tax-cut proposal that has been the most consistent element of his economic agenda.

Bush's advisers also point to the structural slowdown in the defense industry brought about by the end of the Cold War. With various major weapon programs being canceled or slowed, thousands of jobs have been loss.

But it is also true that, until this year, Bush devoted little attention to the state of the economy. When he finally did so, his election-year proposals had virtually no chance of winning the embrace of a Democratic-controlled Congress.


For all his disdain of taxing and spending, Bush has presided over large increases in both. The income tax increase he reluctantly approved (he now calls it a "mistake") in a 1990 budget-agreement with Congress was the second-largest in American history. Since he took office, federal spending, adjusted for inflation, has shot up 8.7% a year.

Bush justified his support for the tax hike as a necessary step to maintain budget discipline. But it has not had that effect. In just four years, the federal deficit has nearly doubled, swelling to $290 billion this year. The total federal debt has increased to $4 trillion, from $2.6 trillion four years ago.

To be sure, Bush tried but failed to persuade Congress to accept a cut in the capital-gains tax rate. His own spending proposals have been consistently smaller than those ultimately approved by Congress. But as a would-be deficit-cutter, he has been less than courageous. While calling for spending cuts, he has refused to identify the programs he would shrink or eliminate.

Total federal debt

1988: $2.6 trillion

1992: $4 trillion

Annual federal budget deficit

1988: $155.1 billion

1992: $333.5 billion (estimate)

Unemployment rate

January, 1989: 5.4%

September, 1992: 7.5%

Inflation rate

January, 1989: 4.6%

August, 1992: 3.1%

Median household income

1988: $31,344

1991: $30,126


So much more impressive is Bush's record here that he has sought to use it as a symbol. "If we can change the world, we can change America," he has said. But just as the resulting defense build-down has contributed to economic problems at home, so too have extraordinary successes made the next steps more confusing.

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