If President Obama’s economic recovery continues apace, and his re-election prospects grow along with it, it won’t be because Congress went out of its way to help. As we noted Tuesday, Obama’s economy has benefitted from less of Washington’s largesse than did crypto-Keynesian Ronald Reagan’s. But this is actually part of a broader pattern. Recently, Republican presidents have benefited from accommodating Congress during times of economic weakness, while Democratic Presidents Clinton and Obama watched Congress suddenly grow stingy under their watch.
That pattern has significant implications for how these presidents weathered economic downturns politically, and to a great extent explains the political troubles Obama’s faced in his first term.Here’s the growth trend for government spending since 1981 when Reagan was sworn into office.
And here’s how that breaks down by each of these presidents’ first terms.
Republicans like to portray Democrats as big spenders. But the truth is more complicated. Democratic Congresses were pliant under Reagan and the first Bush, and thus federal spending (particularly military spending under Reagan) grew dramatically. For Bush 41, this trend didn’t hold when he needed it and he lost his re-election bid amid a weak economy.
Working with a Republican Congress, George W. Bush too presided over a major increase in federal spending. This, along with the large tax cuts he passed in 2001 and 2003, exploded federal deficits, but also likely helped him through the economic hard times at the beginning of his first term.
Clinton and Obama, who both lost control of the federal purse strings to an intransigent opposing party halfway through their first terms, were comparatively hamstrung. Politically, this proved to be a much bigger problem for Obama than it was for Clinton — Obama, after all, inherited a historic financial and economic crisis. But Obama’s economy is finally picking up on its own, and just in time. This Congress isn’t about to give him a hand — and, for good measure, thanks to last year’s debt limit deal, Obama’s consigned to a continued downward trend in spending for the next couple of years at least.