A couple of days ago @georgepearkes asked Twitter which of the past 5 presidents had the best understanding of the global economy during their term. I briefly responded on Twitter at the time but I figure I have an hour to kill so why not put a longer answer here? (Also, this is my first ello. Yay.)
My initial answer was GWB, although upon reflection I would be willing to put Reagan in contention for first place as well. I put Clinton in last place, with Obama and GHWB somewhere in the middle, although I think GHWB should probably be higher than Obama.
Clinton clearly fails because his economic outlook was centered on the idea that government borrowing crowds out productive private investment -- "expansionary austerity". There may be circumstances when that perspective is useful, but the US in the 1990s was not one of them.
All financial assets are someone else's liability. Similarly, it is impossible for every sector of the economy to accumulate more than they earn in the form of financial assets. Someone has to be a net issuer. If it's not the government, the domestic private sector and/or the current account have to pick up the slack. Speaking of which, another bad mark against the Clinton/Rubin/Summers team was their love of the strong dollar, which ruled out the possibility that a current account surplus would offset fiscal contraction.
So this, plus Clinton's cheerleading for the "new economy" nonsense, encouraged households to save less and shift what savings they did have into riskier assets. The flood of capital encouraged businesses to go on a binge of wasteful investment spending that was followed by a glut and massive retrenchment. It's pretty easy to draw a straight line from Clintonomics to the credit bubble of the 2000s, ending up at the financial crisis and great recession. (Joe wrote more on that here.) Clearly last place. Kind of amazing people still think Clinton is a genius at econ.
GHWB inherited a rough hand. Reagan's supply-side reforms and the Volcker disinflation were really powerful but eventually encouraged an excess in credit tied to real estate. It was a mini-balance sheet recession and people at the time talked about a credit crunch. (As they said in BSG, all of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again...) Unlike the 2000s, though, the system was more decentralized and less prone to runs, while the bubble was smaller. Instead of a huge downturn followed by a lackluster recovery we got a small downturn and a lackluster recovery.
So what did GHWB do about all of this? The government did a decent job of restructuring the S&Ls by setting up a bad bank and by prosecuting fraudsters who had taken advantage of the bubble. GHWB didn't complain about the weakness of the dollar and his Treasury department even did some (ineffectual) purchases of the yen and dmark to improve US competitiveness -- much to the annoyance of the Fed, which was still raising rates. Policy-wise that may have been pointless but it illustrated sound macro in terms of what would be good for the US at that time.
Another interesting fact about GHWB is that he tried to nominate doves to the Fed board and got blocked/delayed by Democrats in the Senate who didn't want the recovery to be strong enough in time for the 1992 election. All of this has happened before, etc.
On the downside, GHWB presided over some nasty increases in taxes in the midst of the (mini) balance sheet recession. At the same time, the government used the end of the Cold War as an excuse to cut back on defense spending. I'm not saying the defense spending shouldn't have been cut, but there was nothing to replace it and the areas worst-affected included CA and New England, which happened to be the parts of the country worst-hit by the real estate bust. So that wasn't helpful.
Both of these decisions were based on an unwise belief in the merits of a balanced budget independent of circumstances, although it's hard for me to judge how much this was a fervent belief -- as it was for Clinton and Rubin -- as opposed to a concession driven by relations with Congress.
My main gripe with Obama is that he subscribes to the banking crisis theory of the recession: there was a problem in the plumbing of the credit system and if you fix that problem, the rest of the economy will basically be fine. I'm not saying there was no problem, but this attitude leaves out a lot of things, like the deleveraging consumer. As a result, we got an administration that didn't invest much energy in dealing with the core problem of the crisis -- an overhang of private nonfinancial debt -- even as it invested a ton of political capital and real resources into saving the status quo banking system.
The net effect was insufficient stimulus, insufficient attention to mortgage relief, and a disgusting reluctance to prosecute wrongdoers in the financial sector (much less restructure defunct institutions).
I think on international stuff, though, Obama has been quite good. (Basically Europe and Asia.) I also give him credit for having something of an Austrian business cycle view on the housing bubble and its after-effects, even if that didn't translate into a useful policy response. Also, he can't be last place because the banking-first approach, while bad, isn't as bad as Clinton's expansionary austerity.
This is getting long so I'll stop now.