Reflections on the Economic Legacy of President George H.W. Bush

Learn more about J.H. Cullum Clark.
J.H. Cullum Clark
Director, Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative
George W. Bush Institute

President George H.W. Bush provided peerless leadership in addressing the economic challenges of his time and laid the foundation for unprecedented prosperity over the two decades following his Administration.

President George H.W. Bush famously avoided discussing his “legacy.” But in the wake of his passing late last year, it’s timely to recall what has become clear to historians: the Bush 41 Administration left a profoundly positive legacy in economic affairs, just as it did in geopolitics. 

European economic integration: President Bush’s success in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful close stands as one of the outstanding Presidential achievements of the 20th century. But his crowning diplomatic achievement had a vital economic dimension setting the stage for the integration of Central European countries with more than 120 million people into the European Union and the global economy over the subsequent two decades. The economic revolution in these countries sparked one of the most rapid, far-reaching improvements in human well-being in history, and brought tremendous benefits to the American people through growing trans-Atlantic integration. 

Brady bond program restructuring developing countries’ debt: This innovative initiative solved an intractable sovereign debt problem that had made the ’80s a lost decade for dozens of developing economies. It enabled more than two decades of high growth and rising living standards for hundreds of millions of people in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The program is likely to become a template for addressing international financial crises in the future. 

North American trade: President Bush initiated the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations and got them to the 1-yard line, leaving it to the Clinton Administration to reach the end zone. By promoting the development of integrated North American supply chains, the agreement made North America the most competitive trading bloc in the world and contributed significantly to U.S. prosperity. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act: One of President Bush’s signature domestic achievements, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) added to the prosperity of all Americans by permitting millions of citizens to participate more fully in contemporary economic life. The remaking of workplaces to create mobility for three million-plus wheelchair-bound Americans, for instance, opened up work opportunities for a vast population that previously suffered low workforce participation due to physical constraints. 

Fiscal responsibility: Although commentators have dwelled on the revenue increases in the 1990 budget compromise, the real significance of the deal was that it set in motion two decades of restraint on domestic spending.   

President Bush showed Americans the abundant benefits of U.S. international economic leadership, compassionate but limited government, and a steady hand in the face of domestic and international crises. For this legacy, the American people are justly grateful.