Bill Clinton was the first Democrat to get re-elected in 50 years. He oversaw the country during a revolutionary time of progress and economic growth. However, he also tarnished his reputation with many harmful policies and instances of misconduct, including the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In fact, in 2018, he stirred up fresh controversy for publicly saying he doesn’t owe Lewinsky an apology, after being asked about his role in the #MeToo movement and whether he should have handled the situation differently. In light of all this, Clinton remains one of the most popular US presidents of all time – so, how justified is his popularity?
Here are three arguments for either side.
He ushered in a new era of American prosperity
Firing up the economy
Clinton enacted intelligent fiscal policy, transforming a national deficit of $290 billion in 1992 to a national surplus of $236.4 billion by 2000. He increased taxes on the upper-middle class and large corporations. Ending subsidies for some companies and generally reforming the tax code, Clinton raised huge amounts of money for the government. Smart spending cuts ensured that the government would save instead of racking up debt, which created the largest national surplus in America’s history.
Keeping the US out of wars
Clinton’s time in office saw the US involved in no major conflicts for a significant period – other than to lead NATO in halting war in Bosnia. While the country intervened in other small ways overseas, this never led to full-on war the likes of which is successors saw. Clinton was a president that preferred negotiation to intervention. In fact, he got incredibly close to brokering a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. Clinton also managed to negotiate with North Korea – his Agreed Framework of 1994 kept nuclear weapons out of their hands for eight years.
Putting Americans to work
Clinton created more jobs than any president in US history. In 1992, the year before he took office, unemployment was at 7.5%. His policies reduced it to 4% by the time he left the White House. Over his eight years as president, 23.2 million jobs were created, at an average of 242,000 per month. Wages increased, the rate of homeownership reached a historic high of 67.7%, and the poverty rate fell to 11.8%. Also, between 1993 and 1999, the real median family income went up by around $6,000.
Clinton’s policies ruined countless lives
Killed welfare as we knew it
Bill Clinton hugely undercut the American welfare system. He reduced the amount of American families that received welfare from 4 million to 1.6 million, and his policies contributed to benefits falling by 32.5%. Clinton believed that a strong economy would lift Americans out of the need for welfare, but he was deeply mistaken. At the peak of the 2008 financial crisis, 8 million people were left with only food stamps as income. Today, there are over 11 million children and teenagers living in deep poverty, partly because of his administration.
Developed America’s taste for outsourcing
Bill Clinton introduced what would become a trend of transferring jobs outside of the US. His export agreement with China and NAFTA enabled American companies to profit from cheap labor abroad. Around 700,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared. Corporations became more likely to cut wages and benefits. Additionally, the cheap sale of farm products to Mexico put millions of Mexicans out of work and boosted their coming to America illegally.
Champion of the prison-industrial complex
Bill Clinton laid the foundation for today’s prison-industrial complex and bolstered the war on drugs. Excessively tough on crime, his policies had an especially adverse effect on black communities. He introduced crime bills such as the “three strikes” law, which made three felony convictions result in a life sentence. Penalizing petty and non-violent crime with mandatory minimum sentences became the norm, as several states took inspiration from Clinton’s crime strategy. Over his tenure, the prison population doubled from 600,000 to 1.2 million people – an incredibly high human cost for an insufficient result.
The Bottom Line: A new chapter of success started under Bill Clinton’s governance, as countless Americans were able to acquire jobs and buy homes. But while the middle class surged, the poor either went hungry or got locked up. When weighing his successes against his flaws (both political and personal), which factors do you value most in judging his legacy?