During the tour to promote his presidential memoir, Decision Points, George W. Bush defended his fiscal record in an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC's Today Show.
In the interview, Bush said that the ratio of the deficit to gross domestic product during his time in office "was lower than Ronald Reagan's by half. Lower than my dad's. And only [worse than] Bill Clinton among modern presidents. ... My debt to GDP was the lowest or one of the lowest of modern presidents. My taxes to GDP was the lowest and my spending to GDP" was too.
We thought it would be worthwhile to see if Bush was correct. So we turned to a historical table from the Office of Management and Budget that shows tax receipts, spending and the deficit as a percentage of GDP -- essentially, as a percentage of the nation's economy as a whole.
The challenge is figuring exactly how to compare recent presidents.
Let's start with the deficit. The most obvious way to do it is to add up all of the annual percentages for a president and divide by the number of years served, to produce an average.
Calculating it this way -- and beginning our list of "modern" presidents with President Dwight Eisenhower -- we came up with the following order: Eisenhower (deficits averaged 0.53 percent of GDP), Clinton (0.76 percent of GDP), Richard Nixon (0.93 percent), Lyndon Johnson (1.1 percent), George W. Bush (2.0 percent), Jimmy Carter (2.4 percent), George H.W. Bush (3.98 percent), Reagan (4.23 percent). (We excluded John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford because of their short tenures.)
You can do the same with spending and tax receipts.
For spending as a percent of GDP, the ranking from low to high is Eisenhower (18.1 percent of GDP), Johnson (18.7 percent), Nixon (19.2 percent), George W. Bush (19.6 percent), Clinton (19.8), Carter (20.8), George H.W. Bush (21.9), and Reagan (22.4).
For tax receipts as a percentage of GDP, the ranking from low to high is Eisenhower (17.5 percent of GDP), Johnson and George W. Bush (tied at 17.6 percent), George H.W. Bush (17.9 percent), Reagan (18.2 percent), Nixon (18.3 percent), Carter (18.4 percent) and Clinton (19 percent).
Whether Bush is correct depends heavily on which presidents you consider "modern." If you only go back to Reagan -- the earliest president that Bush himself cited by name in the interview -- then Bush is basically correct. Only Clinton did better when measured by deficit as a percentage of GDP, while no president dating back to Reagan scored better on spending or tax receipts as a percentage of GDP.
By contrast, if you go back to Eisenhower -- the first fully post-World War II president -- Bush is in the middle of the pack on the deficit and on spending, and he's near the top on tax receipts.
But there's another way to look at the deficit -- to compare a president's first deficit as a percentage of GDP to their last. This shows what direction the deficit went during their tenures.
And on this one, George W. Bush does the worst of any president dating back to Eisenhower.
The younger Bush went from a 1.3 percent surplus to a 3.2 percent deficit, a decline of 4.5 percentage points. The best was Clinton, who moved the deficit from a 3.9 percent deficit to a 2.4 percent surplus -- a positive change of 6.3 percentage points. The other presidents all had changes up or down that were roughly two percentage points or smaller.
This suggests that Bush's fiscal record wasn't so sterling if you use a different measure than the one he did. But to analyze the accuracy of his statement, we'll stick closely to the words he used. George W. Bush is correct that he outperformed his father, Reagan and (mostly) Clinton. So if you consider those the "modern" presidents, he's essentially right. If you broaden the "modern presidents" to include those serving in the entire post-World War II period, Bush is about average. While we wouldn't have chosen to define the "modern presidents" to include just the four that Bush mentioned by name, we'll give him some deference in framing the question. So we rate his statement Mostly True.