Fighting two costly wars, massively expanding the federal role in health care and adding trillions of dollars to America’s national debt—sounds like President George W. Bush, right? Well, it does describe Bush’s policies, but unfortunately, it also describes President Obama’s track record more than a year into his presidency.These massive interventions at home and abroad made Bush a terrible president. Engaging in the same policies has taken Obama’s job-approval ratings from stratospheric highs to worrying lows.Is there a road map for success for Obama? As a nonpartisan advocate for smaller government, I submit that he should carefully consider the presidency of Bill Clinton as a model. Clinton’s government takeover of health care failed in Congress and among the American public. While Obama may have “succeeded” in pushing his health care plan through Congress, this is likely the high-water mark of his presidency in terms of legislative accomplishments. He has spent a great deal of his political capital to achieve what reform’s ultimate supporters—such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH)—admit is a “bad bill.”In just over one year, the political zeitgeist has gone from frustration with Bush and willingness to embrace vaguely defined notions of “hope and change” to fear that the federal government is going to expand unchecked while spending us into the poorhouse. Obama’s “success” on health care further aligns him with Bush. After all, it was Bush who passed the government-expanding, debt-increasing Medicare prescription drug bill. If he is going to turn his presidency around and get re-elected, Obama needs to change his ways. He can start by putting the clamps on spending. Bush presided over a $2.5 trillion increase in the public debt through 2008. Setting aside 2009 (for which Bush and Obama share responsibility for an additional $2.6 trillion in public debt), Obama’s budget would add $4.9 trillion in public debt from the beginning of 2010 through 2016, according to Brian Riedl at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.The best way to measure the true size of the federal government’s fiscal health (or lack thereof) is to compare indebtedness to the size of the overall economy. After all, debt that would cause a small country to go bankrupt is less of a problem for a big country with a robust economy. So, it is worth noting that the national debt under President Bush rose from 57.3 percent of the GDP to 69.2 percent when he left office. That’s a dramatic increase, but under Obama the debt has already jumped to an astounding 100.8 percent. Under Clinton, on the other hand, the national debt as a percentage of GDP dropped from 64.1 percent to the 57.3 percent it was when Bush started out.Clinton’s positive track record does not stop there. He also compromised with Republicans to reform America’s broken welfare system. As Douglas J. Besharov and Peter Germanis of the Welfare Reform Academy pointed out, this led to dramatic drops in welfare rolls nationwide. Many poor Americans got jobs and improved their skills and education, rather than continuing to receive welfare checks. Obama should take a cue from Clinton by working with his Republican opponents on Medicare and Social Security entitlements, which are eating up more of the federal budget with every year that goes by. According to the 2009 Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports, the combined unfunded liability of these two programs has reached nearly $107 trillion. That is about seven times the size of the U.S. economy and 10 times the size of the outstanding national debt.If Obama succeeds in rehabbing Social Security and Medicare he’ll rightfully be a hero to the left. After all, unchecked, an ever-greater portion of the federal budget will be consumed by entitlements, thus leaving fewer dollars left over to solve society’s other ills.Only time will tell which presidential model Obama will follow. So far, it looks like he is intent on pushing to expand the federal government on all fronts at his (and his party’s) electoral peril. For the good of the country, I hope Obama takes a close look at Clinton’s presidency and embraces the possibilities it offers in terms of a more responsible federal budget.
Paul Gessing is the president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation, an organization that promotes limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.