There is no question that Obama's policies, including the federal stimulus program and the auto industry bailout, have swollen the deficit and deepened the debt. And three years into his presidency, Obama often falls back on complaints about the bad situation he inherited when defending his own economic performance.
But while Obama may be overly eager to blame the Bush years for the nation's problems, GOP presidential contenders seem just as eager to pretend those years never happened.
"George W. Bush is still too fresh in the minds of voters," said Republican operative Michael Dennehy, a top staffer for Sen. John McCain's presidential bid four years ago. "The Democrats' strategy is to try to pin the bad economy on him. ... It's smarter to just avoid being directly drawn into that line of attack right now."
Taking office in 2001 with a balanced federal budget and a surplus in the Treasury, Bush quickly pushed through sweeping tax cuts without nipping expenditures a corresponding amount. The Bush tax cuts were set to expire after 10 years, but Obama allowed them to remain in place temporarily in exchange for an extension of unemployment benefits and a payroll tax cut.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks never were budgeted and have cost taxpayers more than $1.4 trillion so far. Obama ordered the last troops out of Iraq in December, but the Afghanistan conflict is set to continue through 2014.
Bush also signed legislation in 2003 enacting a prescription drug benefit as part of Medicare, the government health care plan for seniors, a huge entitlement program projected to cost as much as $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
The Troubled Asset Relief Program, the bank bailout program widely loathed by many conservatives, was another Bush-era package. Congress authorized nearly $700 billion for the program at the recommendation of Bush's treasury secretary, former Goldman Sachs executive Henry Paulson, in response to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent financial crisis in the fall of 2008. As a presidential candidate, Obama supported the TARP bailout, as did his GOP rival, Sen. John McCain.
Romney shared a deep sense of respect for the Bush family while glancing at the picture in the corner, which featured the faces of the former presidents, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.
"I love that picture over there of the two presidents. Father and son," Romney said as reporters were leaving the office. "What a legacy."
AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.
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