Remember Clinton's Booming Economy? Remember His Comparatively Restrained Government, Too

Tonight, former President Bill Clinton will make the case for Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention. The gist of his message will be that President Obama has gotten off to a good start cleaning up the economic mess made by Republicans during the Bush era. Clinton has the credibility to make this case mostly because during his presidency the economy was undeniably strong. As Dylan Matthews charts at The Washington Post, unemployment dropped from above 7 percent when Clinton took office to below 4 percent when he left; economic growth averaged 3.8 percent, better than the majority of presidents after World War II; core inflation held steady around 2.6 percent; income inequality increased, but so did median income. Good times were had by all.

That’s the economic picture. But presidents don’t have direct influence over those metrics; a commander in chief can’t simply push a button to increase economic growth or decrease unemployment. Presidents do, however, have influence over the government’s finances. And under Clinton’s watch, they also looked pretty good. Yes, marginal tax rates were higher. But the size of government was kept in check relative to the rest of the economy. Total federal debt levels dropped as a percentage of America’s total economic output; annual budget deficits were almost nonexistant — by far the lowest of any president in the post-war era; by the end of Clinton’s presidency, federal spending accounted for just 18.2 percent of the economy. In 2011, by contrast, federal outlays equaled 24.1 percent of the nation’s total economic product.


In order for Clinton to make a case that Barack Obama can return us to the boom times of the 1990s, he needs to make a case that Obama would return us to the comparatively restrained spending, debt, and deficit levels of the 1990s. (This is not to idealize the Clinton years. Government's growth was masked in part by the tech boom, which is why I emphasize its size relative to the rest of the economy.)

Liberals will no doubt argue that we should also return to Clinton-era marginal tax rates. But that’s not enough. As Ezra Klein shows, analyses from groups on both the left and right of the political spectrum make clear that the great majority of the $12 trillion increase in debt that’s occurred since Clinton left office come from spending — spending on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the build-up of defense spending, on Medicare Part D, on  economic recovery measures of dubious value, on the ever-expanding interest payments on our ever-expanding debt.

But it will be tough for Clinton to make that case. Obama has run record deficits and piled on record debt. He has shown no interest in limiting the size and scope of government, no desire for what most Americans want, which is a government that does less but does it better. Speakers at this week’s Democratic convention have barely mentioned public debt levels, while calls for greater spending — sorry, investment — have been nearly as frequent as vacant promises to move the country forward. The question, of course, is forward into what? Even greater levels of spending and debt? In his speech tonight, Clinton will ask people to recall the thriving economy that accompanied his presidency. But what people should also remember is the relatively restrained government that went along with it. 

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    RELEASE THE BUBBA!

  • Brutus||

    That second pic is one for the ages.

    I saw it a few days ago with the caption, "I'M HERE FOR THE FREE PUSSY RIOT!!"

  • Calidissident||

    I found it, and it is hilarious! Honestly one of the funniest memes I've ever seen!

  • ubercynic||

    The Obama facepalm makes it even better.

  • free2booze||

    Any chance Bubba slips a few lines into his speech, and takes a subtle shot at Obama?

  • Caleb Turberville||

    Bubba had a Nixon-esque hunger for power, but the guy's administration had a strong economy, some lip-service to small government, and a return of cheesy Swedish pop that makes the guy so lovable.

  • Sevo||

    A good impeachment threat does wonders for the country!
    Bubba was fortunate it came after his wacko-wife's 'medical plan' went down in flames; Obozo would be better off if Pelosi had spend time smelling up the joint at Giants games instead of log-rolling for that disaster.

  • ||

    has he spoken yet? i can't miss that shit.

  • ||

    Also why write this?

    It is not as if Tony or Shrike will give you any credit.

    I predict by next week each will call you a Republican shill.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "Clinton has the credibility to make this case mostly because during his presidency the economy was undeniably strong"

    The previous recession ended and the economic recovery began before he took office in his fist term and it ended before he left it in his second term.

    He had absolutely nothing to do with creating it or sustaining it.

    "But the size of government was kept in check relative to the rest of the economy. "

    Courtesy of the Republicans who took over Congress in the mid term elections and kept Clinton and dems from spending what they wanted.

    "Total federal debt levels dropped as a percentage of America’s total economic output; annual budget deficits were almost nonexistant — by far the lowest of any president in the post-war era; by the end of Clinton’s presidency, federal spending accounted for just 18.2 percent of the economy."

    Courtesy of increased tax revenue due to the economic expansion that Clinton had nothing to do with and spending restraint due to the Congressional Republicans.

    And by the way Clinton gets no credit for welfare reform (that Obama is trying to undo) either. He simply saw it had the legislative momentum to happen and he jumped out in front of the train and tried to claim credit for being the engineer driving it.

  • Sevo||

    Gilbert Martin| 9.5.12 @ 11:25PM |#
    "But the size of government was kept in check relative to the rest of the economy. "
    Courtesy of the Republicans who took over Congress in the mid term elections and kept Clinton and dems from spending what they wanted.

    Yes, and the impeachment effort kept either team from causing more harm.
    If the repubs had had their way, I'm sure they'd have found funding 'needs', but it was 'way more important to hang Clinton's dick around his neck.
    To the benefit of us all.

  • Calidissident||

    Clinton does deserve some credit for being somewhat cooperative and not going full retard like Obama has. And of course, once a Republican was in the White House, all the limited government stuff went out the window for the GOP

  • John C. Randolph||

    during his presidency the economy was undeniably strong

    Thanks to gridlock that thwarted his plans.

    -jcr

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    Too bad Dumbya saw no gridlock.

  • loving||

  • Drake||

    After WWII and the end of the New Deal, civilian government spending was always fairly constrained. It was Cold War defense spending that drove the size of government and the deficits. Once the Cold War ended, HW Bush began a massive draw down of military spending.

    Clinton - with help from Congress - continued the big military cuts along with some small controls on welfare spending. It was only during the Bush (particularly after the Dems took Congress) and Obama Administrations that really let civilian spending explode.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "It was only during the Bush (particularly after the Dems took Congress) and Obama Administrations that really let civilian spending explode"

    Entitlement spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security have been steadily ramping up for decades.

    That counts as civilian spending too.

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