Whatever happens over the next 16 months, President Bush will leave office having presided over one of the fastest accumulations of government debt in the history of the United States.
During his time in office, federal debt held by the public – Washington's equivalent of a credit-card balance – will have increased by more than 50 percent, to about $5.5 trillion. Uncle Sam will be paying interest on that sum for years to come.
Much of that borrowed money paid for military expenses after the 9/11 attacks – spending unanticipated when Mr. Bush took office. Measured against the size of the US economy, the public debt isn't far outside historical norms.
But US debt had declined during President Bill Clinton's last four years. Some budget experts say Bush has missed a historic opportunity to improve the nation's fiscal position.
"Federal debt – that's the Bush legacy on the budget," says Stan Collender, a veteran Washington budget expert and managing director of Qorvis Communications.
In recent weeks, Bush has been talking like a born-again fiscal conservative. On Sept. 24, he reiterated his stance that Congress needs to wrap up work on its annual spending bills – but without exceeding targets contained in the proposed budget Bush sent to Capitol Hill in January.
Individual appropriations bills that are too big will be vetoed, Bush vowed. He said that overall the Democratic Congress was planning to spend $22 billion more than he wants.
"And the $22 billion is only for the first year," Bush told a group of business leaders. "With every passing year, the number gets bigger and bigger, and so, for the next five years, the increase in federal spending would add up to $205 billion."
Under the plan submitted by Bush, the budget's long-term numbers would move into the black by 2012.
But 2012 is a long way off, and the next president will surely have priorities that affect that forecast, say experts. Meanwhile, during the Bush administration's previous years, the US accumulated massive amounts of red ink.
The budget deficit for fiscal 2006 was a record $248 billion. This year it has declined to $158 billion.
The Republican record
Presidents alone don't control the checkbook, of course. Congress, via the appropriations process, has a large say. But Capitol Hill was controlled by Republicans until 2006, and spending still went up.
From the start of Bush's term through the end of this fiscal year, US spending rose 7 percent per year, notes Brian Riedl, a Heritage Foundation budget expert.
That's double the spending growth rate of the Clinton years.
Expansion of Medicare to include prescription-drug coverage is one reason. In addition, increases in national security spending "have not been balanced with reductions in lower-priority programs," says Mr. Riedl.
The bottom line: Uncle Sam's credit-card balance has become very large. Federal debt held by the public – the figure experts use to measure the US fiscal burden – was $3.3 trillion when Bush took office. It will be $5.5 trillion when he leaves, according to projections of the White House Office of Management and Budget.
The US has to pay interest to maintain that debt, just as individuals have to pay interest on their Visa and Mastercard balances. The rates are better – Uncle Sam has a lot of leverage in the credit markets – but the cost is still a considerable burden. This fiscal year, the US laid out $235 billion in net interest, according to Congressional Budget Office figures. That's a number that's half the size of the Pentagon budget.
When the next president takes office, interest will be the third largest item in the budget, after military spending and Social Security, says Mr. Collender of Qorvis Communications. It will chew up cash that might better be used handling the coming fiscal crisis of Social Security and Medicare, he says.
"It's absolutely the most uncontrollable part of the budget," says Collender.
What did US get for its money?
However, the size of the debt should be measured against the value of what the money was spent on, says Riedl. During the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan was criticized for piling on debt to pay for a military buildup. Yet that spending helped end the cold war, says Riedl – something that saved huge amounts of money in the long term.
The public debt is now about 37 percent of the size of the US gross domestic product, says Riedl. That figure was higher during the 1990s, following the Reagan buildup.
The US can handle the current amount of red ink, he says. "It is not at a level that would significantly increase interest rates or cripple economic growth."
[Editor's note: The sub-headline in the original version misstated the publicly held federal debt.]