Presidency of George H. W. Bush

George Herbert Walker Bush served as the 41st President of the United States from 1989 to 1993. A Republican from Texas, Bush had previously served as Vice President of the United States under Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1989. Bush is often referred to as "George H. W. Bush", "Bush 41", "Bush the Elder", "Poppy Bush", or "George Bush Sr." to distinguish him from his eldest son, George W. Bush, who served as the 43rd President of the United States from 2001 to 2009. Bush took office after the 1988 presidential election, in which he defeated Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis.

Foreign policy drove the Bush presidency: military operations were conducted in Panama and the Persian Gulf; the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Soviet Union dissolved two years later. Domestically, Bush reneged on a 1988 campaign promise and, after a struggle with Congress, signed an increase in taxes that Congress had passed. In the wake of a weak recovery from an economic recession, along with continuing budget deficits and the controversy over his appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, he lost the 1992 presidential election to Democrat Bill Clinton.

Major acts as president

Domestic Policy

Foreign Policy

Supreme Court nominations


1988 electoral vote results.
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.[1] 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%.[2]

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.[3]



The Bush Cabinet
Office Name Term
President George H. W. Bush19891993
Vice President Dan Quayle19891993
Secretary of State James Baker19891992
Lawrence Eagleburger19921993
Secretary of Treasury Nicholas Brady19891993
Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney19891993
Attorney General Dick Thornburgh19891991
William Barr19911993
Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan19891993
Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter19891991
Edward Madigan19911993
Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher19891992
Barbara Hackman Franklin19921993
Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole19891990
Lynn Martin19911993
Secretary of Health and
Human Services
Louis Sullivan19891993
Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos19891990
Lamar Alexander19901993
Secretary of Housing and
Urban Development
Jack Kemp19891993
Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner19891992
Andrew Card19921993
Secretary of Energy James Watkins19891993
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Ed Derwinski19891993
Chief of Staff John H. Sununu19891991
Samuel Skinner19911992
James Baker19921993
Administrator of the
Environmental Protection Agency
William Reilly19891993
Director of the Office of
Management and Budget
Richard Darman19891993
Director of the Office of
National Drug Control Policy
William Bennett19891991
Bob Martinez19911993
United States Trade Representative Carla Anderson Hills19891993

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.[4] Quayle was often mocked for his verbal gaffes, and many Republicans urged Bush to dump Quayle from the ticket.[5] 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 Bush's Secretary of State.[6] Bush's Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, had served as Gerald Ford's Chief of Staff and would later serve as vice president under George W. Bush.

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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[11] 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;[13] "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.[12]

The mission was controversial, but American forces achieved control of the country and Endara assumed the Presidency.[14] Noriega surrendered to the United States and was convicted and imprisoned on racketeering and drug trafficking charges in April 1992.[15]

Soviet Union

Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Helsinki summit in 1990

In 1989, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush met with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail 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; General Brent 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,[16] something that he did December 2 and 3, 1989.[17] 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."[18] The meeting was received as a very important step to the end of the Cold War.[19]

While Britain and France were wary of a re-unified Germany, Bush pushed for German reunification alongside West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.[20] After negotiations among Bush, Gorbachev, and Kohl, Gorbachev agreed to allow a reunified Germany that would also be a member of NATO.[21] 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.[21] In return, Kohl agreed to limit military personnel and refrain from developing or maintaining weapons of mass destruction.[21] With the signing of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, Germany officially reunified in October 1990.[22]

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".[23]

The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, marking the end of the Cold War. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin met in February 1992, declaring a new era of "friendship and partnership."[24]

Gulf War

Main article: 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[25] and began rallying opposition to Iraq in the US and among European, Asian, and Middle Eastern allies.[26] Secretary of Defense Richard Bruce "Dick" Cheney traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Fahd; Fahd requested US military aid in the matter, fearing a possible invasion of his country as well.[25] The request was met initially with Air Force fighter jets. Iraq made attempts to negotiate a deal that would allow the country to take control of half of Kuwait. Bush rejected this proposal and insisted on a complete withdrawal of Iraqi forces.[26] The planning of a ground operation by US-led coalition forces began forming in September 1990, headed by General Norman Schwarzkopf.[25] 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."[27] With the United Nations Security Council opposed to Iraq's violence, Congress authorized the use of Military force[25] with a set goal of returning control of Kuwait to the Kuwaiti government, and protecting America's interests abroad.[26]

Bush meets with Robert Gates, General Colin Powell, Secretary Dick Cheney and others about the situation in the Persian Gulf and Operation Desert Shield, 15 January 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.[26] 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."[28]

Bush's approval ratings skyrocketed after the successful offensive.[26] Additionally, President Bush and Secretary of State Baker felt the coalition victory had increased U.S. prestige abroad and believed there was a window of opportunity to use the political capital generated by the coalition victory to revitalize the Arab-Israeli peace process. The administration immediately returned to Arab-Israeli peacemaking following the end of the Gulf War; this resulted in the Madrid Conference, later in 1991.[29]

Somali Civil War

Main article: 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.[30] 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.[31] 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.[32] Fighting would escalate and continue into the Clinton administration.[33]


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

Bush's administration, along with the Progressive Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, spearheaded the negotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which would eliminate the majority of tariffs on products traded among the United States, Canada, and Mexico, to encourage trade amongst the countries. The treaty also restricts patents, copyrights, and trademarks, and outlines the removal of investment restrictions among the three countries.[34]

The agreement came under heavy scrutiny amongst mainly Democrats, who charged that NAFTA resulted in a loss of American jobs.[26] 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.[35] 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.[36] NAFTA remains controversial for its impact on wages, jobs, and overall economic growth.[37]

Domestic 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. 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, Bush faced problems when it came to consensus building.[26]

In the wake of a struggle with Congress, Bush was forced by the Democratic majority to raise tax revenues; as a result, many Republicans felt betrayed because Bush had promised "no new taxes" in his 1988 campaign. Perceiving a means of revenge, Republican congressmen defeated Bush's proposal which would enact spending cuts and tax increases that would reduce the deficit by $500 billion over five years. Scrambling, Bush accepted the Democrats' demands for higher taxes and more spending, which alienated him from Republicans and gave way to a sharp decrease in popularity. Bush would later say that he wished he had never signed the bill.[26] Near the end of the 101st Congress, the president and congressional members reached a compromise on a budget package that increased the marginal tax rate and phased out exemptions for high-income taxpayers. Although he originally demanded a reduction in the capital gains tax, Bush relented on this issue as well. This agreement with the Democratic leadership in Congress proved to be a turning point in the Bush presidency; his popularity among Republicans never fully recovered.[38]

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

Coming at around the same time as the budget deal, America entered into a mild recession, lasting for six months. Many government programs, such as welfare, increased.[26] As the unemployment rate edged upward in 1991, Bush signed a bill providing additional benefits for unemployed workers.[38]

By his second year in office, Bush was told by his economic advisors to stop dealing with the economy, as they believed that he had done everything necessary to ensure his reelection. 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.[38] At a press conference in 1990, Bush told reporters that he found foreign policy more enjoyable.[26]

Major initiatives

In 1990, Bush signed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The ADA created legal protections against discrimination for those with disabilities.[39] 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."[40] 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.[40] Bush, whose son Neil suffered from dyslexia, sympathized with the disability rights movement and had endorsed similar legislation during the 1988 campaign.[40]

Bush vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990, which was intended to help women and minorities prove discrimination in hiring.[41] In vetoing the bill, Bush argued that it would lead to racial quotas in hiring.[42][41] Congress failed to override the veto, but re-introduced the bill in 1991.[43] Bush ultimately signed the Civil Rights Act of 1991.[44]

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.[45] 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.[46] 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.[47]

Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990,[48] which led to a 40 percent increase in legal immigration to the United States.[49] 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.[50] 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.[50]

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.[51] In March 1989, he placed a temporary ban on the import of certain semiautomatic rifles.[52] 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."[53]

Points of Light

Main article: 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."[54]

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."[54]

In 1990, the Points of Light Foundation was created as a nonprofit organization in Washington to promote this spirit of volunteerism.[55] 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.[56] 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.[57]


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.[58] 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".[58]

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.[59]


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.[60] 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.[61] As a result, many leading Democrats declined to seek their party's presidential nomination.[61]

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.[26] 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.[62]

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.[63] Perot later bowed out of the race for a short time, then reentered.[64]

Clinton had originally been in the lead, until Perot reentered, tightening the race significantly.[65] Nearing election day, polls suggested that the race was a dead-heat,[38] 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.[26][66] Bush received 168 electoral votes to Clinton's 370.[67]

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".[68][69] On the eve of the 1992 election, after unemployment reports of 7.8% appeared (the highest since 1984),[70] Economic recession had contributed to a sharp decline in his approval rating – to just 37%.[71]

Public image

Bush is visiting NAS JRB, New Orleans personnel before receiving briefs on the status of Joint Task Force Katrina relief efforts, October 2005

George Bush was widely seen as a "pragmatic caretaker" president who lacked a unified and compelling long-term theme in his efforts.[72][73][74] 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.[75][76][77] "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".[78]

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,[79] rousing bipartisan approval,[80] though his decision to withdraw without removing Saddam Hussein left mixed feelings, and attention returned to the domestic front and a souring economy.[81] A New York Times article mistakenly depicted Bush as being surprised to see a supermarket barcode reader;[82][62] the report of his reaction exacerbated the notion that he was "out of touch".[82] Amid the early 1990s recession, his image shifted from "conquering hero" to "politician befuddled by economic matters".[83][62]

Although Bush became the first elected Republican president since Hoover in 1932 to lose a reelection bid (facing a 34% approval rating leading up to the 1992 election), the mood did not last. Despite his defeat, Bush climbed back from election day approval levels to leave office in 1993 with a 56% job approval rating.[84] By December 2008, 60% of Americans gave Bush's presidency a positive rating.[85] In the 2010s, Bush was fondly remembered for his willingness to compromise, which contrasted with the intensely partisan era that followed his presidency.[86]


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