How Bad Does Trump Have to Be to Match George W. Bush?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Former President George W. Bush has been out and about, charming people with his paintings and his inability to put on a poncho, all in a bid to get people to buy his book of paintings to raise money for veterans. It sounds nice, but of course Bush is the reason so many of these vets need money in the first place–they were wounded, disabled, and sometimes killed in the tremendously expensive wars he started. Yet because Donald Trump has moved the Republican Party so far to the right, Bush now strikes many people as a moderate, and it’s become increasingly common for Trump critics to pine for the 00’s and praise the Bush administration. This nostalgic narrative will likely become more dominant as the memory of the 00’s continues to fade. But today I want to tilt against this windmill and show how much work Trump will have to do to fail as hard as Bush failed.

Now, I don’t want to be unfair here–wherever possible, I will give Bush the benefit of the doubt, using whatever credible estimates are most favorable to him. Let’s start by looking at what I’ll call “unnecessary deaths”–the number of people directly killed by a president’s bad foreign policy decisions. These are people who didn’t need to die. So if for instance we believe that World War II was a necessary war, then we would not count all the deaths caused by American war policy as “unnecessary”. We’ll leave off those people who were killed indirectly through bad economic and domestic policy which may have increased homelessness, obesity, or other social ailments which reduce life expectancy, because these figures are more difficult to calculate. My aim here is not to be fully comprehensive, but to give you a broad feel for the scale of the damage Bush did relative to what Trump has done or has talked about doing.

The Iraq War was clearly unnecessary–Iraq did not possess nuclear weapons and was not on a path to acquiring them. Even if it were, the Iraq War was probably not the right policy response. Other states have acquired nuclear weapons without a US invasion, such as North Korea, and this has yet to trigger any major disasters. The Afghan War often draws more mixed reviews, but given that it clearly has not destroyed Al Qaeda and its offshoots (and that Afghanistan offered to hand over Bin Laden early on and Bush said no, preferring to overthrow the government and begin a long nation-building mission), I think it counts as unnecessary too. Some argue that Bush could have prevented the 9/11 terrorist attack (he received the infamous brief entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” prior to the attack), but we’ll give Bush the benefit of the doubt on this.

As for Trump? So far, he’s commissioned a raid in Yemen which some allege did not produce any valuable intelligence, yet resulted in the death of an American soldier and between 14 and 27 civilian deaths. Some people in the military claim that useful intelligence was gathered, but even if there was useful intelligence gathered, it’s unlikely that intelligence justifies the cost in lives, given the limited strategic importance of the Yemeni Civil War to the United States. I’ll count this raid as unnecessary, but we’ll give Trump the benefit of the doubt and use the low figure for civilian deaths. Here’s how Trump compares to Bush so far:

That’s a long way to go. I’ve heard it suggested that Trump’s efforts to deregulate the energy sector and bring back coal might help him be more competitive in this category by increasing the number of air pollution and climate change related deaths, even if he doesn’t launch any major wars. This is an interesting argument, but it’s hard to quantify. In any case, we should also remember that Bush withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol and declined to create many new regulations, preventing them from coming into existence until Obama’s presidency. So it’s not straightforward that Trump can or will best (or worst?) Bush on this issue either.

Next, let’s look at what I’ll call “money wasted”–this is money the government spent or failed to tax where the tangible benefits were disproportionately small or non-existent. For Bush, we’ll include both of the aforementioned wars, as well as the Bush tax cuts (because these predominately gave tax relief to rich people who did not require it, and they also did not produce sustainable economic growth–Bush had one of the lowest average annual GDP growth rates of any modern president, at less than 2%). We won’t charge Bush for the Wall Street bailout, because the crisis would have been worse without the Troubled Asset Relief Program, in spite of its many flaws.

Trump hasn’t yet passed a budget, so he hasn’t had an opportunity to waste any large sums of money. But we’ll do a calculation which reflects his campaign promises to build a wall, increase military spending, and cut taxes on the rich, as we’ve argued before in prior posts that none of these policies are necessary. We’ll also throw in the cost of the Osprey that was destroyed in the Yemen raid. We won’t count infrastructure stimulus as a waste, because we’ve argued that depending on how that’s implemented it could be valuable.

In all of these cases, I used the lowest credible estimates I found. Here’s what we get:

Trump’s tax plan is estimated to be much more expensive than Bush’s, but the wall, military spending, and Osprey cannot compete with Bush’s two wars, especially when you take into account the healthcare costs we’re still paying for the veterans physically and psychologically maimed in those wars.

Let’s also take a look at some of the big macroeconomic statistics from the Bush years. We won’t know how Trump stacks up until the end of his presidency, but we can get a sense for just how bad he’d have to be to hang with Bush. As I mentioned, Bush had the poorest GDP growth rate of any post-war president–Obama nearly did as bad, but not quite:

When Bush took office, top 1% income share was 17.3%. Prior to the global economic crisis, it peaked at 20.1%. It fell during the crisis, but has since recovered–the most recent data puts the current share at about 20.2%. If Trump is as bad as Bush, he’ll have to raise the top 1% share by the same amount, either in absolute or relative terms. If Trump matches Bush in absolute terms, top 1% share will hit 22.9%. If Trump matches Bush in relative terms, it will go as high as 23.4%. Either figure would be the highest figure on record for the US.

Under Bush, real median household income in the United States fell by 4.18%. This was the worst figure of any recent president:

Current median household income is $56516. If Trump does as badly as Bush, this will have to fall to around $54143, slightly lower than it was in 1997. He’ll also have to hurt African-American families more–Bush increased the black/white income disparity by about 3 points. For Trump, this would require him to reduce the black percentage of white income from 61.3% to 58.3%. This would be well below 1994 levels, when the census begins making this data available. It’s one thing to say things that sound bigoted, it’s another thing to enact real policies that increase racial disparities.

Bush also managed to eliminate all the private sector jobs he created by the end of his presidency, leaving the country about 400 thousand jobs poorer than it was when he started:

Can Trump do this much damage? It’s possible, but we should certainly hope he doesn’t. And unless and until he does, treating Bush as a figure of nostalgia while condemning Trump as already the worst president ever is going to seem rather excessive, particularly to the veterans and left behind workers who were directly harmed by Bush’s policies. Bush left behind an immense mountain of failure, and while it’s possible to climb that mountain it’s a remarkable feat of ineptitude and should be treated as such. Trump may yet prove to be as bad as Bush. But he has to earn it. The fact that he frequently sounds worse, that he often says things that are not just foolish but mean-spirited and even overtly bigoted in a way Bush never would, is not equivalent to leaving behind a very real trail of destruction and woe. We don’t have to pretend Trump has already failed on Bush’s scale to effectively oppose Trump policies that would send his administration down the same dark path.