President George H.W. Bush's domestic agenda reflected a change in ideology. Learn about the domestic challenges Bush faced, his handling of the issues and his overall achievements.
Entering the White House
One of the more important promises that President George H.W. Bush campaigned on regarding domestic affairs was the notion of a 'kinder, gentler America.' In retrospect, this pledge was simply a combination of maintaining the status quo that was set in place by President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s (no tax hikes for instance) and an increased call for American volunteerism.
However, as you will see, Bush decided to move away from the conservative ideology of his predecessor toward a more moderate stance on domestic affairs. In doing so, Bush lost a significant amount of American support. By the end of his term in 1992, Bush's domestic policy and its legislation was widely considered an average accomplishment.
Balancing the Economy
The foremost task of Bush's domestic agenda was finding a way to balance the American economy. By 1990-91, the federal debt had climbed to roughly three trillion dollars, the economy entered into a mild recession and the unemployment rate was rising. Bush's ability to address domestic issues was curtailed to the point where he encouraged Americans to volunteer to help alleviate societal ills. Ultimately, Bush could not continue working with limited federal funds and an economy that was teetering on the brink of a major recession.
Bush opened discussions with Congress on solving the economic crisis. It was an uphill battle for the president as he faced a House of Representatives and a Senate that were controlled by Democrats. Members of the Democratic Party wanted Bush to tax the top earners in the nation and extend welfare benefits to the unemployed and impoverished. The Republican minority in Congress demanded that no new taxes be introduced. Instead, Republicans wanted Bush to slash federal funding for unnecessary domestic programs.
The political showdown eventually forced Bush's hand. The president understood that he had to cater to the Democratic majority in order to pass an economic package. Therefore, he supported legislation that raised taxes; it also included a rider that guaranteed federal spending cuts. Unfortunately, the Republicans were able to garner enough support to defeat Bush's proposal. Bush then had to settle on an agreement that catered purely to the Democrats.
The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 called for a sizable tax hike on Americans in addition to increased spending on assistance programs, such as unemployment. Republicans were dismayed and alienated by the government, but their discontent for the Bush Administration grew greater following the Savings and Loan collapse. In an effort to bail out the Savings and Loan industry, Bush called for a massive federal appropriations package to ease the crisis. This action alone cost American taxpayers millions of dollars.
Instead of maintaining the limited federal spending and tax increases of the Reagan Administration, Bush had done the complete opposite. With the introduction of new taxes and the rising unemployment rate, the popularity of Bush's domestic agenda within the United States drastically fell.
Bush's popularity rebounded slightly with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993. Initiated and signed by Bush in 1992, the agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico eliminated tariffs on traded goods between the three nations. The hope was that the establishment of free trade would boost the American economy by creating new jobs and manufacturing. While Bush signed the agreement in 1992, Congressional negotiating on the agreement extended beyond his presidential term. He ultimately was an important part of drafting the very liberal trade agreements for the United States and its fellow hemispheric nations.
While Bush's handling of the economy was questionable, he was able to achieve several notable domestic accomplishments. In 1990, Bush took on environmental issues when he passed several amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1963. The amendments called for action on issues, such as smog and acid rain, as well as establishing protocols for toxic emissions. While Bush's program was costly, his desire to aid the environment was assisted by the memory of the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, which witnessed millions of gallons of oil dumped into Alaskan waters.
Bush also took on several civil rights issues. The first was his passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). This was a landmark piece of legislation because it provided legal relief and accommodation to disabled Americans - legislation a first of its kind. The legislation primarily prohibited discrimination against the disabled in the workplace, in public facilities and public transportation. Additionally, the law gave disabled Americans new legal rights and precedents that could be used in lawsuits.
Many hailed the passage of the ADA as a remarkable achievement of the Bush Administration. Not only did it provide new protections for the disabled, but it reduced federal welfare expenditures by keeping the disabled in the workforce and off of federal assistance.
The second important piece of domestic civil rights legislation was the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Fearing the political backlash of his veto on an earlier piece of civil rights legislation in 1990, Bush moved forward with the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and provided Americans with the right to take workplace discrimination claims to court. Americans could also pursue emotional distress damages due to discrimination under the new civil rights agreement.
It is important to note that discrimination was defined as both racial and gender under the improvised law. Republicans were outraged by the decision, claiming that the Civil Rights Act of 1991 established an unfair precedent that favored the hiring of minorities and women due to discrimination law. Needless to say, Democrats hailed the legislation as an important stride toward complete equality.
Other notable achievements of Bush's domestic agenda included the Immigration Act of 1990, which increased the allowance of immigrants into the United States while reducing exclusions (such as language testing). Also notable was the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provided monetary relief for those who had been exposed to the byproducts of atmospheric nuclear testing from the 1950s to the 1980s.
President George H.W. Bush's campaign promises of maintaining the domestic status quo of his predecessor were quickly broken. With a growing federal debt and rising unemployment, Bush opted to agree to the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990, which witnessed a rise in taxes and increased federal spending.
His domestic reputation was salvaged in part by his successful negotiating of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), as well as his passage of important amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1963. He also passed landmark legislation, like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1991. In short, President Bush garnered more praise for his foreign policy than his domestic agenda.
When you've studied the information in this video, you could have the ability to:
- Identify the successes George H.W. Bush had through the passage of NAFTA, ADA, and the Civil Rights Act of 1991
- Discuss his inability to sustain the status quo of the past eight years under Reagan
- Recall the fact that his mantra of 'No New Taxes' became his noose