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The Clinton presidency culminated in the Bush years

Presidents Clinton and Bush at the Bush Library.
Presidents Clinton and Bush at the Bush Library.
Photo by Alex Wong

Bill Clinton is extremely popular in the United States. In 2012, his Gallup approval rating reached 66% matching his highest since he took office in 1993. Meanwhile, a November 2013 Gallup survey showed 55% believed Clinton was an outstanding or above average president. By way of comparison, his approval rating in 2001 cratered at 39%. Why do Americans hold Clinton in high regard? It may all center on nostalgia. The last dozen years have been tough while the Clinton Era is compared to the Roaring Twenties. Although Clinton enjoyed some major successes, his overall presidency laid the groundwork for the Bush-Obama years. Essentially, Bill Clinton's presidency led directly to 911, the Iraq War, and the Panic of 2008.

President Clinton had a very rough first year in office. The Waco raid, Blackhawk Down, gays in the military and major battles over minor issues bogged the president down. Obamacare's predecessor, Hillarycare, proved unpopular and died. By 1994, his approval rating dipped into the 40s and the GOP conquered congress. Many believed he would be a one term wonder. However, the self-proclaimed "Comeback Kid" rose from his political deathbed. He co-opted Republican policies while abandoning the Democratic left. The left wing helped bury Clinton in 1994, so he buried them to save himself. Eventually, the Republican congress and Bill Clinton passed welfare reform and balanced the budget. Clinton could also claim lesser accomplishments such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Brady Law, extension of the earned income tax credit, the State Children's Insurance Program, and the North American Free Trade Agreement. The president also helped end the genocidal civil war in Yugoslavia.

Despite the solid list of accomplishments, the Clinton presidency experienced an unprecedented wave of scandals. Seven White House travel agency employees were fired to be replaced by cronies. The Whitewater controversy led to the appointment of an independent counsel. The scandal centered on a crooked land deal, financial impropriety, and an illegal loan. Rumors swirled around the president's womanizing, use of Arkansas state troopers to procure women, and allegations of rape. In June 1996, the White House improperly accessed FBI files of its political opponents. The 1996 Presidential Election saw several irregularities in fundraising including allegations the Chinese government helped bankroll the Clinton campaign. Several Clinton Administration officials also became embroiled in scandals.

The scandals eventually caught up with the president. In 1998, the congress impeached Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice in matters relating to the Lewinsky Affair. President Clinton engaged in an "improper relationship" with a White House intern and tried to cover it up. The tawdry nature of the affair made Americans cringe. Clinton's approval rating began to drop from the mid-60s to low 50s. The Democratic Party almost abandoned him in favor of Vice President Al Gore. However, the American people did not want to upset the apple cart. The economy, built on a tech bubble, seemed indestructible. They did not want anything to interfere with the party. As a result, Clinton's approval began to rise again, the Democrats rallied behind him, and he escaped removal from office. At the beginning of 1999, his approval rating stood near 60%.

The Lewinsky Affair distracted the president and the nation from events in the real world. On October 31, 1998, President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act into law. Essentially, Clinton transformed American policy regarding Iraq from containment to regime change. The act authorized funding to opposition groups and military action. The president also accused Hussein of attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In his 1998 State of the Union address, Clinton claimed “Saddam Hussein has spent the better part of this decade, and much of his nation's wealth, not on providing for the Iraqi people, but on developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them.” The Iraqi president did violate the Gulf War cease fire when he cancelled U.N inspections. Eventually, Hussein relented to avoid a full scale invasion. Meanwhile, Clinton initiated Operation Desert Fox to “degrade” Iraq’s capacity to manufacture or acquire WMD.

Operation Desert Fox lasted three days in December, 1998. Clinton declared victory after over 600 sorties plastered Iraq. The administration claimed to have severely damaged Hussein’s ability to create WMD. However, many critics, including Hussein, accused the White House of attempting to divert attention from the Lewinsky scandal with the attacks. In 2005, weapons inspector Scott Ritter backed earlier claims that the Clinton Administration blocked inspections in order to justify Desert Fox. In the end, Clinton established the policy and justification for the Iraq War. Hussein violated the Gulf War cease fire, had WMD, and American policy dictated regime change.

While Clinton struggled with Lewinsky and Iraq, he virtually ignored Osama bin Laden. Sudan claimed to have offered to arrest and extradite bin Laden, but were rebuffed by Clinton. The 911 Commission examined the claims and could not confirm them. However, the administration knew as early as 1995 that El Qaeda was developing a plan to fly planes into buildings. It took several years, but Clinton finally began to take El Qaeda seriously. He authorized the CIA to capture bin Laden for trial after the African embassy bombings. Additionally, the president authorized lethal force if necessary. In August 1998, the U.S. launched 66 cruise missiles at the terrorist’s training camps in Afghanistan. The terror mastermind escaped the assault. Allegedly, on another occasion, Clinton refused to authorize a strike on bin Laden over fears of civilian casualties. Perhaps if Clinton acted earlier on the bin Laden threat, 911 would never have occurred. The public appeared to blame Clinton for the attacks and a mild recession. As a result, Clinton’s approval rating dipped to 39% in 2001.

The Clinton Administration had no way to truly know the impact of their Iraq and El Qaeda policies. Although they knew that regime change could lead to a war, and President Clinton supported the Iraq War, it is doubtful they believed it would occur. Likewise, they knew about the El Qaeda plot to use jetliners as missiles, but they probably believed the Islamic terrorists could not achieve the coordination necessary to pull it off nor that anyone would be evil enough to murder so easily. However, as a result of their shortsightedness, El Qaeda managed to kill approximately 3,000 people. The 911 attacks led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the War on Terror, NSA domestic spying, and helped rupture the country.

While the impact of Iraqi regime change and ignorance of bin Laden might not have been fully evident, the administration should have realized their desire to create an ownership society would collapse the economy. The tech bubble burst toward the end of Clinton’s administration leading to a mild recession. Nearly eight years later, the housing bubble burst leading a major financial panic. The Clinton Administration hoped home ownership would provide the poor with a stake in society and a piece of the American dream. As a result, they threatened banks and lenders with civil rights actions if they did not offer mortgages to borrowers that could not afford them. In fact, administration efforts began around the time a young lawyer named Barack Obama engineered a landmark civil rights action against Citibank for racial discrimination. This began the housing bubble, which dramatically expanded in the early Bush years. Some in congress opposed the subprime mortgage lending and tried to stop the loans. However, these efforts were blocked by key Senate Democrats while the Bush Administration concentrated on El Quezada and Iraq. Essentially, the banks became predators under the auspices of the federal government. In the end, people had to pay these loans and ended up in foreclosure. The cumulative effect collapsed the economy. The Panic of 2008 would have occurred under Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, John McCain, Mitt Romney, or anyone that sat in the White House.

Three major policy decisions from the Clinton Administration changed the course of history. The Iraq Liberation Act legitimized the Iraq War while the WMD argument validated the Bush Administration in 2003. The lack of focus on Osama bin Laden led directly to 911. The subprime mortgage crisis began in the 1990s and culminated in 2008. All of the major problems of the early aughts could have been avoided in the nineties.