Ruminations, June 22, 2014
Bill Clinton, the most admired president of the last 25 years
***A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC/Annenberg Poll, conducted in early June, found that Bill Clinton was the most admired president in the past 25 years. And it wasn’t even close. Clinton got 42 percent of the vote and the other 3 presidents were “pick-em:” Barack Obama 18 percent, George W. Bush 17 percent and George H.W. Bush 16 percent.
How good was Clinton? He certainly had a better public presence than the two Bushes and arguably better than Obama. On substance, there are two things that shape Clinton’s legacy: (1) foreign policy, and (2) the economy.
Foreign policy. Clinton is remembered for a relatively quiet period in foreign policy as compared with the two Bushes, both of whom went to war against Saddam Hussein, and the war on terrorism that followed. However, memory is not that accurate.
In Somalia, Bush had sent troops to aid a humanitarian mission of supplying food to a starving nation. As Clinton took over, mission creep set in and troops were dispatched to chase down a warlord. The chase resulted in the killing of 19 Americans in Mogadishu, and in response to the American public, Clinton withdrew troops, leaving Somalia in chaos for years afterward.
Clinton took Saddam Hussein seriously. He imposed sanctions on him and authorized the U.S. Air Force to patrol no-fly zones and to respond to Iraqi firing. When Saddam moved some 64,000 troops to the Kuwait border in 1994, Clinton countered by moving U.S. troops to Kuwait. In his State of the Union Address in 1998, Clinton said. “Saddam Hussein has spent the better part of this decade … developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them. … I say to Saddam Hussein … ‘You have used weapons of mass destruction before; we are determined to deny you the capacity to use them again.’” Later that year, Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 that stated “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein ..." Clinton later directed his national security advisor and secretaries of state and defense to Ohio State University where they tried to make a case for attacking Saddam.
In the Balkans Clinton took a more proactive position by authorizing air strikes against Bosnian Serbs, although he initially deferred to European allies who were reluctant to use force. Peace was ultimately achieved through the Dayton Agreement.
Clinton was aware of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda and made efforts to move against them, though largely unsuccessful. Failure to accept a Sudanese offer to deliver bin Laden to the U.S. is largely unsubstantiated.
Clinton also was instrumental in dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli issues. His intervention resulted in the Oslo Accords and the Wye River Memorandum. The fact that these agreements did not result in lasting peace is in spite of his efforts.
As with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Clinton offered his offices to broker a deal in Northern Ireland. Through his appointee, former Senator George Mitchell, the Good Friday Agreement was signed and, after some fits and false-starts, eventually began to fall into place.
In Haiti, Clinton used American troops to aid the restoration of Jean Bertrand-Aristide to the Haitian presidency. Aristide has the distinction of being ousted twice by coups. Clinton bowed to political pressure from Haitians to aid in Aristide’s restoration to power. During Aristide’s presidencies, he gave little indication of vision and leadership.
Economic policy. In the telling of economic history, the President usually gets 100 percent of the credit or blame of what occurs during his tenure and Congress is ignored. For example, during the Great Recession of 2007-2008, people often forget that Democrats controlled congress and during Clinton’s term of office, the Republicans essentially controlled congress in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001, when the budget was in surplus.
Clinton’s first budget was designed to reduce the deficit, and given a credible deficit reduction plan, he assumed investors would bid up treasuries, which in turn would lower interest rates making funds for business expansion and mortgages cheaper. But Clinton also had to increase social programs to appease his supporters. His first budget also included a tax increase on the top two percent of earners. An interesting point to remember is that Clinton’s plan never was to balance the budget – just to reduce it to a more manageable figure.
But when the Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, they announced a goal of balancing the budget in seven years and Clinton signed on (bipartisanship). At the time, the Washington Post editorialized: “Mr. Clinton’s new position on the budget is much better than the old one. He should have taken it six months ago. The Republicans have driven him to say that he too wants, if not to balance the budget, at least to get the deficit into the neutral zone.”
But Clinton had help. The Republicans' welfare reform bill reduced the deficit by an estimated $55 billion over five years, and an unanticipated increase in tax revenues due primarily to capital gains tax revenue (which almost quadrupled during the Clinton Administration) and stock options due to the dot-com bubble – neither of which Washington had anything to do with.
In 1999, Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act into law. One of the provisions of this bill repealed the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act which had separated banks from security firms. Many believe that this contributed to the Great Recession as security operations dragged down many of the banks that were associated with them. While Clinton and others (e.g., The American Bankers Association) dispute this, it is still a contentious issue. In fact, the so-called Volcker Rule of the Dodd-Frank Act is designed to reintroduce a separation of investment and commercial banking again.
We can credit Clinton and his Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin with maintaining a strong dollar, leading to increased investment in the U.S. economy.
And there was one more factor that contributed to the Clinton economy: the economy was already in recovery mode after the recession that had ended in mid 1992.
But, was John Kerry right when he said in 2004 that George W. Bush had “inherited the strongest economy in the world - and brought it to its knees?" Not even close.
In 2000, the last year of Clinton’s term, the economy began to slow and then went into recession. Some Keynesian economists blame the Clinton surpluses. They say that the $236 billion surplus in 2000 was equivalent to the government hoarding cash and it had a deflationary impact on the economy.
But presidents cannot control the whole economy. Still, one place where they can make a difference is in tax policy. Clinton raised taxes his first year in office. He also instituted a stealth tax – because taxes were not indexed for inflation, taxpayers were pushed into higher and higher brackets. Economist Brian Wesbury reported to CNN that the taxes paid by those in the top three tax brackets went from $85 billion in 1993 to $246 billion in 2000, and that as a share of the national economy, the U.S. tax burden went from 17.5 percent in 1992 to 20.9 percent in 2000.
Should Clinton be the most admired? On closer examination, Clinton, who many laud for his economic policy, was not very good on the economy. He was far from a failure but was no genius either. In terms of foreign policy, Clinton was better than most give him credit for.
But there is one other thing that the Clinton presidency was noted for: his womanizing. Sure, there are many of his supporters who dismiss such behavior as “only sex.” Nonetheless, the majority of Americans feel that marriage vows are sacrosanct – and Clinton knew it. Whether it was hubris, habit or only sex, it not only tainted his presidency but his abilities as well. A great deal of time during his second term was spent preparing for testimony and for impeachment – so much that it diminished all that Clinton could have accomplished. One of Clinton’s minions has said that he was absolutely certain that Clinton would have addressed Social Security in his second term but ran out of time due to the scandals. It was a self-inflicted injury.
So, should he be the most admired president in the past 25 years? It depends not only on your opinion of Clinton but also on your opinion of the Bushes and Obama. Your call.
Quote without comment
Der Spiegel, on November 20, 2013: “Possibly the most dangerous consequence of the most recent [European Central Bank] interest-rate decision [zero interest] is that it increases mutual mistrust within the euro zone. Citizens of the crisis-ridden countries are increasingly furious, because despite substantial austerity measures, they still see no light at the end of the tunnel. In the north, ordinary savers and retirees are noticing that they are now experiencing the first measurable losses as a result of the euro bailout policy.”