I may have gone a president too far in going through all of our Chief Executives. Bill Clinton still inspires a lot of controversy today, and not just for his dalliance with intern Monica Lewinsky. However, he did preside over the longest sustained period of growth in US history. And yes, he does deserve much of the credit.
Conservatives like to say that Clinton did nothing, that his success all comes from the efforts of Ronald Reagan paying off during his term. Most men who have sat in the Oval Office would find that assessment extremely offensive, including – and maybe especially – Ronald Reagan. There is, however, a kernel of truth. Reagan’s (and Bush’s) success stems from shattering a petrified structure that grew out of the Great Society, Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to reinvent the New Deal. Love trickle down or hate it, the freewheeling eighties could not have happened with the huge tax rates of the seventies or the burdensome regulations that contributed to the stagnation of the American economy.
That said, Reaganomics represented a course-correction, not a new vision. What Reagan did was put forth a program and challenge the nation to do better. They responded. But when capitalism has the safeties taken off (something, incidentally, Adam Smith frowned upon, since being a douchebag actually went against the ideas he put down in The Wealth of Nations), it has a nasty habit of pulling apart the middle class. Clinton sought to reinvent government, offering a scaled-down version of the New Deal while massaging the markets by slashing the deficit, a perpetual thorn in the side of George H.W. Bush. It almost did not happen.
While Clinton’s appetites later became a distraction, early on, it was Clinton’s informal management style and failure to comprehend Washington politics that almost sank his presidency within the first six months. Clinton had three goals when he took office: create jobs, slash the deficit, and reform health care. (Sounds like Obama’s mandate, doesn’t it?) This last, of course, went down in flames, resulting in little more than reforming the health insurance industry. (And no, I have no nostalgia for the HMO’s of the 1990’s.) The latter was stalled until mid-decade by discretionary spending caps, but later fueled by the tech boom. That same boom would not have been possible were it not for his biggest first-term victory, the deal to slash the deficit by $480 billion.
To look at Clinton, I read Bob Woodward’s The Agenda. Woodward paints a portrait of a chaotic White House populated by about a dozen Type A personalities from the president himself to Hillary Clinton (more an adviser and informal cabinet member than a First Lady, hence her later Secretary of State posting) to point man George Stephenopoulos to consultant (and now CNN analyst) Paul Begala. Everyone on Clinton’s economic team had their own pet projects, as did Secretary of Treasury Lloyd Bentsen (channeling the ghost of LBJ), Hillary Clinton, and Vice President Al Gore. Whenever someone had to compromise, they would loudly complain. Whereas getting a consensus served Governor Bill Clinton well in Arkansas, it bogged him down with indecision early on as president.
Eventually, Clinton found his voice, his theme, and his spine. It took counseling from none other than Richard Nixon, who told him it was fine to compromise on the deficit, but he would have to hit Congress hard in demanding any new programs. Americans, the disgraced former president said, wanted a leader.
I do remember being impatient with not just Clinton, but the Congressional leadership under both parties. The Democrats in his first two years in office proved to be a fractured and contentious lot, unable to agree on much without nearly sinking their own cause. (They would do this to Obama from 2009 to 2011.) When the Republicans took over, the government ground to a needless halt because Clinton held his ground, Newt Gingrich held his breath (and stamped his feet and whined), and Bob Dole, normally a master deal-maker, wanted to be president in 1996. Even Ross Perot, the last credible third-party candidate for president, so incensed me that, in 1996, I voted for my only write-in candidate for president, writing in Richard Lamm, who lost the Reform nomination to Perot. Yeah, I was pissed off over the government shutdown. (These days, I refuse to vote for any representative or senator who held a seat in Congress in October, 2013. Sorry, but there must be consequences. If I did that at my job, I wouldn’t even be eligible for unemployment.)
Clinton presented an affable image to the public. To admirers, he cared about the middle class and minorities. To detractors, he was a snake oil salesman. There’s truth to both views, but ultimately, his 1993 deal to hack $480 billion from the deficit by 1997 ultimately led to a budget surplus in 2001. Yes, Reagan and Bush 41 definitely deserve credit for loosening up the economy in the 1980’s, but Clinton managed to balance fiscal prudence with investment in the nation’s infrastructure, education, and technology.
Since he left office…
The deficit exploded, America has lost its standing in the world, and attempts to reinvest in America have been underwhelming. As I said in my post about the elder George Bush, something seemed to leave when our best one-term president retired. Clinton managed to pick up on it and, for a time, rediscover it, but since the twenty-first century began, leadership in Washington has been spectacularly absent in two of the three branches of government.