Vice President of the United States

President of the United States


George H. W. Bush's signature

The presidency of George H. W. Bush began at noon EST on January 20, 1989, when George H. W. Bush was inaugurated as 41st President of the United States, and ended on January 20, 1993. Bush, a Republican, took office after a landslide victory over Democratic Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election. He was the first sitting Vice President to be elected president since Martin Van Buren in 1836. Later, Bush, the 41st President, and his oldest son, George W. Bush, the country's 43rd (2001–2009), would become the second father and son pair to become President. (John Adams and John Quincy Adams were the first.)[1] Following his defeat, he was succeeded by Democrat Bill Clinton, who won the 1992 presidential election.

International affairs drove the Bush presidency. Bush helped the country navigate the end of the Cold War and a new era of U.S.–Soviet relations. After the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush successfully pushed for the reunification of Germany. He also led an international coalition of countries which forced Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait in the Gulf War, and undertook a U.S. military invasion of Panama. Though it was not ratified until after his presidency, Bush signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which created a trilateral trade bloc consisting of the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

From the beginning of his term, Bush faced the problem of what to do about the federal budget debt. At $2.8 trillion in 1990, the deficit had grown to three times larger than it was in 1980. Bush was dedicated to curbing the deficit, believing that America could not continue to be a leader in the world without doing so. He began an effort to persuade the Democratic controlled Congress to act on the budget; with Republicans believing that the best way was to cut government spending, and Democrats convinced that the only way would be to raise taxes, consensus building proved difficult. Ultimately, Bush had no choice but to compromise with Congress, and to renege on his 1988 "no new taxes" campaign promise.[2] He also had to address the continuing Savings and Loans industry crisis, which proved equally contentious.

Although his presidency was initially regarded fairly poorly, now, two decades later, there is a consensus across much of the political spectrum that Bush was a president of some consequence, a man of conscience and reason, a steady hand at a time of geopolitical instability.[3] A 2014 survey of 162 members of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Bush 17th among the 43 individuals who had at that time been president, immediately beneath James Monroe and above Barack Obama. Respondents also identified him (along with Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman) as the most underrated president.[4]

Presidential election of 1988

Vice President Bush campaigns in St. Louis, Missouri, with John Ashcroft, 1988

Bush, the Vice President of the United States from 1981 to 1989, began planning a presidential run as early as 1985, and he entered the Republican primary in October 1987.[5] His challengers for the Republican presidential nomination included U.S. Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, U.S. Representative Jack Kemp of New York, former Governor Pete DuPont of Delaware, and conservative Christian televangelist Pat Robertson. Though considered the early frontrunner for the nomination, Bush came in third in the Iowa caucus, behind winner Dole and runner-up Robertson.[6] Much as Reagan did in 1980, Bush reorganized his staff and concentrated on the New Hampshire primary.[5] With Dole ahead in New Hampshire, Bush ran television commercials portraying the senator as a tax raiser;[7] he rebounded to win the state's primary. Following the primary, Bush and Dole had a joint media appearance, when the interviewer asked Dole if he had anything to say to Bush, Dole said, in response to the ads, "yeah, stop lying about my record" in an angry tone. This is thought to have hurt Dole's campaign to Bush's benefit. Bush continued seeing victory, winning many Southern primaries as well.[8] Once the multiple-state primaries such as Super Tuesday began, Bush's organizational strength and fundraising lead were impossible for the other candidates to match, and the nomination was his.[9] Bush chose little-known U.S. Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana as his running mate. Despite the popularity of President Ronald Reagan popularity, Bush trailed Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, then Governor of Massachusetts, in most polls for much of 1988.[10]

Bush, occasionally criticized for his lack of eloquence when compared to Reagan, delivered a well-received speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention. Known as the "thousand points of light" speech, it described Bush's vision of America: he endorsed the Pledge of Allegiance, prayer in schools, capital punishment, gun rights, and opposed abortion.[10] The speech at the convention included Bush's famous pledge: "Read my lips: no new taxes."[11]

The 1988 presidential electoral votes by state

Bush defeated Dukakis and his running mate, Lloyd Bentsen, in the Electoral College, by 426 to 111.[11] In the nationwide popular vote, Bush took 53.4% of the ballots cast while Dukakis received 45.6%.[8] Bush became the first serving Vice President to be elected President since Martin Van Buren in 1836 as well as the first person to succeed someone from his own party to the Presidency via election to the office in his own right since Herbert Hoover in 1929.[5] In the concurrent Congressional elections, Democrats retained control of both houses of Congress.


Chief Justice William Rehnquist administering the oath of office to President Bush during Inaugural ceremonies at the United States Capitol, January 20, 1989.

Bush was inaugurated on January 20, 1989, succeeding Ronald Reagan. He entered office at a period of change in the world; the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet Union came early in his presidency.[12] He ordered military operations in Panama and the Persian Gulf, and, at one point, was recorded as having a record-high approval rating of 89%.[13]

In his Inaugural Address, Bush said:

I come before you and assume the Presidency at a moment rich with promise. We live in a peaceful, prosperous time, but we can make it better. For a new breeze is blowing, and a world refreshed by freedom seems reborn; for in man's heart, if not in fact, the day of the dictator is over. The totalitarian era is passing, its old ideas blown away like leaves from an ancient, lifeless tree. A new breeze is blowing, and a nation refreshed by freedom stands ready to push on. There is new ground to be broken, and new action to be taken.[14]


The Bush Cabinet
Office Name Term
President George H. W. Bush 1989–1993
Vice President Dan Quayle 1989–1993
Secretary of State James Baker 1989–1992
Lawrence Eagleburger 1992–1993
Secretary of Treasury Nicholas Brady 1989–1993
Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney 1989–1993
Attorney General Dick Thornburgh 1988–1991
William Barr 1991–1993
Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan 1989–1993
Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter 1989–1991
Edward Madigan 1991–1993
Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher 1989–1992
Barbara Hackman Franklin 1992–1993
Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole 1989–1990
Lynn Martin 1991–1993
Secretary of Health and
Human Services
Louis Sullivan 1989–1993
Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos 1988–1990
Lamar Alexander 1990–1993
Secretary of Housing and
Urban Development
Jack Kemp 1989–1993
Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner 1989–1992
Andrew Card 1992–1993
Secretary of Energy James Watkins 1989–1993
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Ed Derwinski 1989–1993
Chief of Staff John H. Sununu 1989–1991
Samuel Skinner 1991–1992
James Baker 1992–1993
Administrator of the
Environmental Protection Agency
William Reilly 1989–1993
Director of the Office of
Management and Budget
Richard Darman 1989–1993
Director of the Office of
National Drug Control Policy
William Bennett 1989–1991
Bob Martinez 1991–1993
United States Trade Representative Carla Anderson Hills 1989–1993

After wrapping up the 1988 Republican nomination, Bush selected Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana as his running mate, surprising many who expected Bush to select a more experienced running mate.[15] Quayle was often mocked for his verbal gaffes, and many Republicans urged Bush to dump Quayle from the ticket.[16] Bush selected a mostly new Cabinet, but kept around many former Reagan officials, including Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. Bush's long-time friend James Baker, who had served as Reagan's Chief of Staff, became Secretary of State.[17] Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney had previously served as Gerald Ford's Chief of Staff and would later serve as vice president under George W. Bush. Bush's first pick for Defense Secretary, John Tower, was rejected by the Senate, becoming the first cabinet nominee of an incoming president to be rejected.[18] Brent Scowcroft was appointed as the National Security Advisor, a role he had also held under Ford.[19]

Judicial appointments

Supreme Court

Bush appointed the two justices to the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1990, Bush appointed the largely unknown appellate judge David Souter to replace liberal icon William Brennan. Souter was easily confirmed and served until 2009, but joined the liberal bloc of the court, disappointing Bush.[20] In 1991, Bush nominated the conservative Clarence Thomas to succeed Thurgood Marshall, another long-time liberal stalwart. Thomas won confirmation after contentious hearings in a narrow 52-48 vote, and Thomas became one of the most conservative justices of his era.[21]

Other courts

In addition to his two Supreme Court appointments, Bush appointed 42 judges to the United States Courts of Appeals, and 148 judges to the United States district courts. Among these appointments was future Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and Vaughn R. Walker, who would later be revealed to be the earliest known gay federal judge.[22] Bush also experienced a number of judicial appointment controversies, as 11 nominees for 10 federal appellate judgeships were not processed by the Democratically-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee.[23]

Foreign policy

Bush speaks on the telephone regarding Operation Just Cause with General Brent Scowcroft and Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, 1989


In the 1980s, Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega, a once U.S.-supportive leader who was later accused of spying for Fidel Castro and using Panama to traffic drugs into the United States, was one of the most recognizable names in America and was constantly in the press. The struggle to remove him from power began in the Reagan administration, when economic sanctions were imposed on the country; this included prohibiting American companies and government from making payments to Panama and freezing $56 million in Panamanian funds in American banks. Reagan sent more than 2,000 American troops to Panama as well.[24] Unlike Reagan, Bush was able to remove Noriega from power, but his administration's unsuccessful post-invasion planning hindered the needs of Panama during the establishment of the young democratic government.[25]

In May 1989, Panama held democratic elections, in which Guillermo Endara was elected president; the results were then annulled by Noriega's government. In response, Bush sent 2,000 more troops to the country, where they began conducting regular military exercises in Panamanian territory (in violation of prior treaties). Bush then removed an embassy and ambassador from the country, and dispatched additional troops to Panama to prepare the way for an upcoming invasion.[24] Noriega suppressed an October military coup attempt and massive protests in Panama against him, but after a U.S. serviceman was shot by Panamanian forces in December 1989, Bush ordered 24,000 troops into the country with an objective of removing Noriega from power;[26] "Operation Just Cause" was a large-scale American military operation, and the first in more than 40 years that was not related to the Cold War.[25]

The mission was controversial, but American forces achieved control of the country and Endara assumed the Presidency.[27] Noriega surrendered to the United States and was convicted and imprisoned on racketeering and drug trafficking charges in April 1992.[28]

End of the Cold War

Fall of the Eastern Bloc

Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Helsinki summit in 1990

Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had eased Cold War tensions during Reagan's second term, but Bush was initially skeptical of Soviet intentions.[29] In December 1988, Gorbachev had publicly indicated that the Soviet Union would no longer uphold Soviet-aligned governments in Eastern Europe. Over the next several months, Communists governments fell in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, while the governments of Bulgaria and Romania instituted major reforms. In November 1989, the government of East Germany opened the Berlin Wall, and it was subsequently demolished by gleeful Berliners. The U.S. played no direct role in these upheavals, but the Bush administration avoided the appearance of gloating over the demise of the Eastern Bloc to avoid undermining further democratic reforms.[30]

In December 1989, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush met with Gorbachev in a conference on the Mediterranean island of Malta. The administration had been under intense pressure to meet with the Soviets, but not all initially found the Malta Summit to be a step in the right direction; Scowcroft, among others, was apprehensive about the meeting, saying that it might be "premature" due to concerns where, according to Condoleezza Rice, "expectations [would be] set that something was going to happen, where the Soviets might grandstand and force [the U.S.] into agreements that would ultimately not be good for the United States." But European leaders, including François Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher, encouraged Bush to meet with Gorbachev,[31] something that he did December 2 and 3, 1989.[32] Though no agreements were signed, the meeting was viewed largely as being an important one; when asked about nuclear war, Gorbachev responded, "I assured the President of the United States that the Soviet Union would never start a hot war against the United States of America. And we would like our relations to develop in such a way that they would open greater possibilities for cooperation.... This is just the beginning. We are just at the very beginning of our road, long road to a long-lasting, peaceful period."[33] After the summit, Bush would seek cooperative relations with Gorbachev throughout the remainder of his term, believing that the Soviet leader was the key to peacefully ending the Soviet domination Eastern Europe.[34]

While Britain and France were wary of a re-unified Germany, Bush pushed for German reunification alongside West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.[35] Gorbachev also resisted the idea of a reunified Germany, reunification, especially if it became part of NATO, but the upheavals of the previous year had sapped his power at home and abroad.[36] After negotiations among Bush, Gorbachev, and Kohl, Gorbachev agreed to allow a reunified Germany that would also be a member of NATO.[37] At the time of the negotiations, the Soviet Union had over 300,000 soldiers stationed in East Germany, and Gorbachev agreed to pull the soldiers out within three to four years.[37] In return, Kohl agreed to limit military personnel and refrain from developing or maintaining weapons of mass destruction.[37] With the signing of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, Germany officially reunified in October 1990.[38]

Dissolution of the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union had the occupied and annexed the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in the 1940s, and many of the citizens of these nations had never accepted Soviet rule. Lithuania's March 1990 proclamation of independence was strongly opposed by Gorbachev, who feared that the Soviet Union could fall apart if he allowed Lithuania's independence. The United States had never recognized the Soviet incorporation of the Baltic states, and the crisis in Lithuania left Bush in a difficult position. Bush needed Gorbachev's cooperation in the reunification of Germany, and he feared that the collapse of the Soviet Union could leave nuclear arms in dangers hands. The Bush administration mildly protested Gorbachev's suppression of Lithuania's independence movement, but took no action to directly intervene.[39] Bush warned independence movements of the disorder that could come with secession from the Soviet Union; in a 1991 address that critics labeled the "Chicken Kiev speech," he cautioned against "suicidal nationalism."[40]

Another summit was held in July 1991, where the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) was signed by Bush and Gorbachev in Moscow. The treaty took nine years in the making and was the first major arms agreement since the signing of the Intermediate Ranged Nuclear Forces Treaty by Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987. The contentions in START would reduce the strategic nuclear weapons of the United States and the USSR by about 35% over seven years, and the Soviet Union's land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles would be cut by 50%. Bush described START as "a significant step forward in dispelling half a century of mistrust".[41]

In August 1991, hard-line Communists launched a coup against Gorbachev; while the coup quickly fell apart, the coup broke the remaining power of Gorbachev and the central Soviet government. The Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991, marking the end of the Cold War.[42] Fifteen states emerged from the Soviet Union, and of those states, Russia was the largest and most populous. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin met in February 1992, declaring a new era of "friendship and partnership."[43]

The Soviet Union and the United States had generally been considered the two superpowers of the Cold War era; with the collapse of the Soviet Union, some began to label the United States as a "hyperpower." Political scientist Francis Fukuyama speculated that humanity had reached the "end of history" in that liberal, capitalist democracy had permanently triumphed over Communism and fascism.[44] However, the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Communist governments led to conflicts in Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Africa.[45] The Yugoslav Wars broke out in 1991 as several constituent republics of Yugoslavia sought independence, and the Bush administration supported relief efforts and European-led attempts to broker peace.[46]


China presented an early foreign policy challenge to the Bush administration in the form of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Across two hundred cities in China, students and other individuals protested in favor of democracy and intellectual freedom. In June 1989, the People's Liberation Army violently suppressed a demonstration in Beijing in what became known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Bush was eager to maintain good relations with China, which had drawn increasingly closer to the United States since the 1970s, but he was outraged by China's handling of the protests. In response to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the United States imposed economic sanctions and cut military ties.[47]


In Nicaragua, the Reagan administration had sought to overthrow the socialist Daniel Ortega by funding the right-wing Contras, resulting in the Iran–Contra affair. Bush and Secretary of State Baker sought to find a bipartisan way to settle the issue. With the support of Congress, the Bush administration ended military aid to the Contras in return for a promise from Ortega to hold full and free elections in 1990. In the election, Ortega was defeated by Violeta Chamorro of the National Opposition Union.[48]

Gulf War

President Bush visited American troops in Saudi Arabia on Thanksgiving Day, 1990

On August 2, 1990, Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein, invaded its oil-rich neighbor to the south, Kuwait; Bush condemned the invasion[49] and began rallying opposition to Iraq in the US and among European, Asian, and Middle Eastern allies.[9] The administration feared that a failure to respond to the invasion would embolden Hussein to attack Saudi Arabia or Israel, and wanted to discourage other countries from similar aggression.[50] Iraq made attempts to negotiate a deal that would allow the country to take control of half of Kuwait, but Bush rejected this proposal and insisted on a complete withdrawal of Iraqi forces.[9]

The planning of a ground operation by US-led coalition forces began forming in September 1990, headed by General Norman Schwarzkopf.[49] Bush spoke before a joint session of the U.S. Congress regarding the authorization of air and land attacks, laying out four immediate objectives: "Iraq must withdraw from Kuwait completely, immediately, and without condition. Kuwait's legitimate government must be restored. The security and stability of the Persian Gulf must be assured. And American citizens abroad must be protected." He then outlined a fifth, long-term objective: "Out of these troubled times, our fifth objective – a new world order – can emerge: a new era – freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony.... A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak."[51] With the United Nations Security Council opposed to Iraq's violence, Congress authorized the authorization of military force[49] with a set goal of returning control of Kuwait to the Kuwaiti government, and protecting America's interests abroad.[9]

Bush meets with Robert Gates, General Colin Powell, Secretary Dick Cheney and others about the situation in the Persian Gulf and Operation Desert Shield, January 15, 1991

Early on the morning of January 17, 1991, allied forces launched the first attack, which included more than 4,000 bombing runs by coalition aircraft. This pace would continue for the next four weeks, until a ground invasion was launched on February 24, 1991. Allied forces penetrated Iraqi lines and pushed toward Kuwait City while on the west side of the country, forces were intercepting the retreating Iraqi army. Bush made the decision to stop the offensive after a mere 100 hours. Critics labeled this decision premature, as hundreds of Iraqi forces were able to escape; Bush responded by saying that he wanted to minimize U.S. casualties. Opponents further charged that Bush should have continued the attack, pushing Hussein's army back to Baghdad, then removing him from power.[9] Bush explained that he did not give the order to overthrow the Iraqi government because it would have "incurred incalculable human and political costs.... We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq."[52] Bush's approval ratings skyrocketed after the successful offensive.[9]

In the aftermath of the war, the Bush administration encouraged rebellions against Iraq, and Kurds and Shia Arabs both rose against Hussein. The U.S. declined to intervene in the rebellion, and Hussein violently suppressed the uprisings. Hussein and the United States would continue to clash over the next twelve years.[53]

Somali Civil War

Faced with a humanitarian disaster in Somalia, exacerbated by a complete breakdown in civil order, the United Nations had created the UNOSOM I mission in April 1992 to aid the situation through humanitarian efforts, though the mission failed.[54] The Bush administration proposed American aid to the region by assisting in creating a secure environment for humanitarian efforts and UN Resolution 794 was unanimously adopted by the Security Council on December 3, 1992.[55] A lame duck president, Bush launched Operation Restore Hope the following day under which the United States would assume command in accordance with Resolution 794.[56] Fighting would escalate and continue into the Clinton administration.[57]


From left to right: (standing) President Carlos Salinas, President Bush, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney; (seated) Jaime Serra Puche, Carla Hills, and Michael Wilson at the NAFTA Initialing Ceremony, October 1992

In 1987, the U.S. and Canada had reached a free trade agreement that eliminated many tariffs between the two countries. President Reagan had intended it as the first step towards a larger trade agreement that would eliminate most tariffs among the United States, Canada, and Mexico.[58] With that goal in mind, the Bush administration, along with the Progressive Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, spearheaded the negotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The treaty would also restricts patents, copyrights, and trademarks, and outlines the removal of investment restrictions among the three countries.[59]

The agreement came under heavy scrutiny amongst mainly Democrats, who charged that NAFTA resulted in a loss of American jobs.[9] NAFTA also contained no provisions for labor rights; according to the Bush administration, the trade agreement would generate economic resources necessary to enable Mexico's government to overcome problems of funding and enforcement of its labor laws. Bush needed a renewal of negotiating authority to move forward with the NAFTA trade talks. Such authority would enable the president to negotiate a trade accord that would be submitted to Congress for a vote, thereby avoiding a situation in which the president would be required to renegotiate with trading partners those parts of an agreement that Congress wished to change.[60] While initial signing was possible during his term, negotiations made slow, but steady, progress. President Clinton would go on to make the passage of NAFTA a priority for his administration, despite its conservative and Republican roots—with the addition of two side agreements—to achieve its passage in 1993.[61] NAFTA remains controversial for its impact on wages, jobs, and overall economic growth.[62]

Domestic policy

Fiscal policy

Early in his term, Bush faced the problem of what to do with leftover deficits spawned by the Reagan years. At $220 billion in 1990, the deficit had grown to three times its size since 1980. The federal government did not have the revenues for any large, new domestic ventures, nor did the political climate lend itself to enacting them. Bush had not campaigned on any specific domestic programs,[63] and, given the budget issues, he continued to stress "a limited agenda," that included volunteerism, education reform, and anti-drug efforts. Having pledged during the campaign not to raise taxes, the president found himself in the difficult position of trying to balance the budget and reduce the deficit without imposing additional taxes on the American people. He also faced a Congress controlled by the Democrats. While Republicans favored drastically cutting domestic spending, the Democrats wanted to raise taxes on the richest Americans.[2]

On top of the budget crisis, Bush started his presidential tenure as the Savings and Loans industry was collapsing. The federal and state governments had deregulated the industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the industry ventured into riskier investments that destabilized it. The collapse of the Savings and Loans and the subsequent government bailout only added to the difficult financial environment that Bush confronted during his presidency.[2]

The fiscal outlook was further damaged by the relatively mild recession of the early 1990s, which began in 1990.[64] By 1992, interest and inflation rates were the lowest in years, but by midyear the unemployment rate reached 7.8%, the highest since 1984. In September 1992, the Census Bureau reported that 14.2% of all Americans lived in poverty.[8]


Bush and the Democratic Congress agreed to avoid major changes to the budget for Bush's first year in office (fiscal year 1990), but both sides knew that major changes would need to be enacted the following year to avoid the draconian automatic domestic spending cuts required by the Gramm–Rudman–Hollings Balanced Budget Act.[65] The Bush administration engaged in lengthy negotiations for the passage of fiscal year 1991's budget. In September 1990, Bush and Congressional Democrats announced a compromise that would cut funding for mandatory and discretionary programs while also raising revenue; the compromise additionally included a "pay as you go" provision that required that new programs be paid for at the time of implementation. The compromise was strongly criticized by conservatives such as Newt Gingrich, as it represented a departure from Bush's promise not to raise taxes. Liberals also criticized the budget the cuts in the compromise, and in October, the House rejected the deal, resulting in a brief government shutdown. Without the strong backing of the Republican Party, Bush was forced to agree to another compromise bill, this one more favorable to Democrats. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 (OBRA-90) raised the top income tax bracket from 28% to 31%. It included cuts to domestic spending, but the cuts were not as deep as those that had been proposed in the original compromise. Bush's decision to sign the bill damaged his standing with conservatives, but it also laid the groundwork for the budget surpluses of the late 1990s.[66]

Civil rights

In 1990, Bush signed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The ADA created legal protections against discrimination for those with disabilities.[67] The act also required that employers and public accommodations to make "reasonable accommodations" for the disabled, while providing an exception when such accommodations impose an "undue hardship."[68] The legislation had passed with overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress, though some members of the business community opposed it, fearing the cost of compliance.[68] Bush, whose son Neil suffered from dyslexia, sympathized with the disability rights movement and had endorsed similar legislation during the 1988 campaign.[68]

Bush vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990, which was intended to help women and minorities prove discrimination in hiring.[69] In vetoing the bill, Bush argued that it would lead to racial quotas in hiring.[70][69] Congress failed to override the veto, but re-introduced the bill in 1991.[71] Bush ultimately signed the Civil Rights Act of 1991.[72]


In dealing with the environment, Bush reauthorized the Clean Air Act. The legislation sought to curb acid rain and smog by requiring decreased emissions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide.[73] The measure was the first major update to the Clean Air Act since 1977, and was the result of a compromise between Congress and Bush.[74] Bush also signed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. However, the League of Conservation Voters criticized some of Bush's other environmental actions, including his opposition to stricter auto-mileage standards.[75]

Points of Light

President Bush devoted attention to voluntary service as a means of solving some of America's most serious social problems. He often used the "thousand points of light" theme to describe the power of citizens to solve community problems. In his 1989 inaugural address, President Bush said, "I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good."[76]

Four years later, in his report to the nation on The Points of Light Movement, President Bush said, "Points of Light are the soul of America. They are ordinary people who reach beyond themselves to touch the lives of those in need, bringing hope and opportunity, care and friendship. By giving so generously of themselves, these remarkable individuals show us not only what is best in our heritage but what all of us are called to become."[76]

In 1990, the Points of Light Foundation was created as a nonprofit organization in Washington to promote this spirit of volunteerism.[77] In 2007, the Points of Light Foundation merged with the Hands On Network with the goal of strengthening volunteerism, streamlining costs and services and deepening impact.[78] Points of Light, the organization created through this merger, has approximately 250 affiliates in 22 countries and partnerships with thousands of nonprofits and companies dedicated to volunteer service around the world. In 2012, Points of Light mobilized 4 million volunteers in 30 million hours of service worth $635 million.[79]

Other initiatives

Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990,[80] which led to a 40 percent increase in legal immigration to the United States.[81] The bill more than doubled the number of visas given to immigrants on the basis of job skills, and advocates of the bill argued that it would help fill projected labor shortages for various jobs.[82] Bush had opposed an earlier version of the bill that allowed for higher immigration levels, but supported the bill that Congress ultimately presented to him.[82]

Bush became a member of the National Rifle Association early in 1988 and had campaigned as a "pro-gun" candidate with the NRA's endorsement during the 1988 election.[83] In March 1989, he placed a temporary ban on the import of certain semiautomatic rifles.[84] This action cost him endorsement from the NRA in 1992. Bush publicly resigned his life membership in the organization after receiving a form letter from NRA depicting agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms as "jack-booted thugs." He called the NRA letter a "vicious slander on good people."[85]

In 1989, Bush proposed the Educational Excellence Act of 1989, which would have rewarded high-performing schools with federal grants and supported the establishment of magnet schools. Conservatives, who generally sought to shrink the role of the federal government in education, opposed the bill, while Democrats were unenthusiastic about Bush's proposed reforms. After Congress did not act on his education proposals, Bush introduced the voluntary "America 2000" program, which sought to rally business leaders and local governments around education reform.[86]


As other presidents have done, Bush issued a series of pardons during his last days in office. On December 24, 1992, he granted executive clemency to six former government employees implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal of the late 1980s, most prominently former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.[87] Bush described Weinberger, who was scheduled to stand trial on January 5, 1993, for criminal charges related to Iran-Contra, as a "true American patriot".[87]

In addition to Weinberger, Bush pardoned Duane R. Clarridge, Clair E. George, Robert C. McFarlane, Elliott Abrams, and Alan G. Fiers Jr., all of whom had been indicted and/or convicted of criminal charges by an Independent Counsel headed by Lawrence Walsh.[88]

Elections during the Bush presidency

1990 midterm elections

In the 1990 mid-term elections, Bush's Republicans suffered a net loss of one Senate seat and nine House seats. Republicans argued that the relatively mild mid-term losses represented a victory, as mid-terms usually end in defeat for the president's party.[89] Regardless, Democrats kept control of both houses of Congress.

1992 presidential campaign

The 1992 presidential electoral votes by state

Bush announced his reelection bid in early 1992; with a coalition victory in the Persian Gulf War and high approval ratings, reelection initially looked likely.[90] As a result, many leading Democrats declined to seek their party's presidential nomination.[90]

Conservative political columnist Pat Buchanan challenged Bush for the Republican nomination, and shocked political pundits by finishing second, with 37% of the vote, in the New Hampshire primary. Bush responded by adopting more conservative positions on issues, in an attempt to undermine Buchanan's base.[9] Bush swept the primaries and claimed the 1992 Republican presidential nomination. Once he had secured the nomination, Bush faced his challenger, Democratic Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Clinton attacked Bush as not doing enough to assist the working middle-class and being "out of touch" with the common man.[91]

In early 1992, the race took an unexpected twist when Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot launched a third party bid, claiming that neither Republicans nor Democrats could eliminate the deficit and make government more efficient. His message appealed to voters across the political spectrum disappointed with both parties' perceived fiscal irresponsibility.[92] Perot later bowed out of the race for a short time, then reentered.[93]

Clinton had originally been in the lead, until Perot reentered, tightening the race significantly.[94] Nearing election day, polls suggested that the race was a dead-heat,[8] but Clinton pulled out on top, defeating Bush in a 43% to 38% popular vote margin. Perot won 19% of the popular vote, one of the highest totals for a third party candidate in U.S. history, drawing equally from both major candidates, according to exit polls.[9][95] Bush received 168 electoral votes to Clinton's 370.[96]

Several factors were key in Bush's defeat. The ailing economy which arose from recession may have been the main factor in Bush's loss, as 7 in 10 voters said on election day that the economy was either "not so good" or "poor".[97][98] On the eve of the 1992 election, after unemployment reports of 7.8% appeared (the highest since 1984),[99] economic recession had contributed to a sharp decline in his approval rating – to just 37%.[100]

Public image

Bush's approval ratings (red) compared to his disapproval ratings (blue) for his four-year presidency.

Bush was widely seen as a "pragmatic caretaker" president who lacked a unified and compelling long-term theme in his efforts.[101][102][103] Indeed, Bush's sound bite where he refers to the issue of overarching purpose as "the vision thing" has become a metonym applied to other political figures accused of similar difficulties.[104][105][106] "He does not say why he wants to be there", wrote columnist George Will, "so the public does not know why it should care if he gets his way".[5] A New York Times article mistakenly depicted Bush as being surprised to see a supermarket barcode reader;[107][91] the report of his reaction exacerbated the notion that he was "out of touch".[107]

Facing a Democratic Congress and a large budget deficit, Bush focused much of his attention on foreign affairs.[108] His ability to gain broad international support for the Gulf War and the war's result were seen as both a diplomatic and military triumph,[12] rousing bipartisan approval,[109] though his decision to withdraw without removing Saddam Hussein left mixed feelings, and attention returned to the domestic front and a souring economy.[110]

Amid the early 1990s recession, his image shifted from "conquering hero" to "politician befuddled by economic matters".[111][91] Bush became the first elected Republican president since Hoover in 1932 to lose a reelection bid. Despite his defeat, Bush climbed back from low election day approval ratings to leave office in 1993 with a 56% job approval rating.[112] By December 2008, 60% of Americans gave Bush's presidency a positive rating.[113] In the 2010s, Bush was fondly remembered for his willingness to compromise, which contrasted with the intensely partisan era that followed his presidency.[114]


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  107. ^ a b Goldberg, Jonah (August 22, 2008). "The Corner: The Supermarket Scanner Story Cont'd". National Review. Retrieved November 5, 2015. But here is the AP story from the time... It turns out the supermarket scanner that drew President Bush's attention at a grocers' convention last week really did have some unusual features. It can read labels – the so-called universal product codes – that are ripped up and jumbled. That is apparently what prompted Bush to tell the National Grocers Association in Orlando Feb. 4 he was "amazed" by the technology. It was widely reported that Bush was surprised to see an ordinary supermarket scanner. 'The whole thing is ludicrous,' Bob Graham, an NCR Corp. systems analyst who showed Bush the scanner, said in a telephone interview from Pleasanton, Calif. 'What he was amazed about was the ability of the scanner to take that torn label and reassemble it.' … [complete description of historical event continues] … The exhibitor had Bush put the machine through its paces before he showed off what he called the machine's "really quite amazing" new feature. He had Bush scan a card with a universal product code ripped and jumbled into five pieces. The machine read it and rang up the correct sale. "Isn't that something," the president said… The New York Times ran a front page account under the headline, "Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed." Cartoonists, broadcasters and columnists lampooned the president as a political Rip Van Winkle. Charles Osgood, the CBS radio correspondent, offered a mea culpa in his daily broadcast Tuesday. "Fair is fair, and especially since I joined the herd last week and took the occasion to pontificate about how unfortunate it is that we isolate our presidents so much," said Osgood. The scanner Bush saw "is amazing, and what it does is really something." … Then came a round of debunking stories, disclosing that Times reporter Andrew Rosenthal never saw the incident but wrote the story from two paragraphs in a pool report. The author of the pool report, Gregg McDonald of the Houston Chronicle, didn't even mention the incident in his own story. The Times returned fire Thursday, saying it had reviewed a network videotape of the Great Scanner Scandal and that Bush "was clearly impressed" by the garden-variety gadget. Not so, says Newsweek, which screened the tape and declared that 'Bush acts curious and polite, but hardly amazed.' 
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Works Cited

  • Herring, George C. (2008). From Colony to Superpower; U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-507822-0. 
  • Greene, John Robert (2005). The Presidency of George Bush (2nd ed.). Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 978-0-7006-2079-1. 
  • Naftali, Timothy (2007). George H. W. Bush. Times Books. ISBN 0-8050-6966-6. 
  • Wilentz, Sean (2008). The Age of Reagan. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-074480-9. 

Further Reading

U.S. Presidential Administrations
Preceded by
G. H. W. Bush Presidency
Succeeded by