Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

"It's the Environment, Stupid!": Clinton and the Environment

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

"It's the Environment, Stupid!": Clinton and the Environment

Article excerpt

Bill Clinton ran for the presidency in 1992 with the motto "it's the economy, stupid!" His campaign centered around this catchy and perceived truism. Although this focus helped Clinton capture the White House, it has constrained him while he's been in it. Clinton's environmental agenda could not be founded on a traditionally liberal strategy. By making the economy the litmus test of his presidency, he has been forced to tackle environmental problems in a new and more economically friendly way. Consequently, Clinton advocates an environmental-economic symbiosis--a relationship in which success in both areas is inextricably linked. It will be shown that this strategy is an inevitable result of Clinton's political context.

The Clinton Inheritance and Approach to the Environment

As in all presidential administrations, Clinton did not inherit a tabula rasa regarding environmental policy. A number of variables either constrained or facilitated Clinton's environmental agenda.(1) First, although he garnered only 43 percent of the popular vote in 1992, people's environmental expectations of Clinton were very high. Surviving twelve years of Republican presidential dominance, environmentalists and the public-at-large had much more confidence in the Democrats concerning the environment clan in the GOP. Sixty-four percent of the electorate had more confidence in the president and the congressional Democrats compared to 18 percent in the congressional Republicans to handle environmental issues.(2)

Clinton's running mate, Senator Al Gore, gave environmentalists further reason to be hopeful. Gore had been a political leader in environmental issues and the two made it a central theme in their campaign. Responding to Bush's extensive use of environmental symbolism over substance, Clinton pronounced "dine days of photo-op environmentalism are over."(3)

Second, although public opinion still favored environmental issues, such support had declined in significance on the national scale of priorities Making the economy the central focus on his campaign, environmental issues became clearly subordinate to stimulating economic growth and boosting consumer confidence. In June 1992, more than 80 percent of the voters said they were concerned with so called "pocket-book" issues.(4) Thus, the issue salience of the environment as it pertained to the 1992 election was comparatively low.(5)

Finally, and perhaps the most important factor, the administration inherited an array of specific and unresolved environmental issues. These included controversies over old-growth forests in the Pacific northwest, the Everglades in Florida, mining and grazing reform in the West, funding and infrastructure problems in the national parks, and the Endangered Species Act. Thus, Clinton was expected to perform in this milieu. High expectations, a public and presidential emphasis on the economy, and a host of unresolved environmental issues were bequeathed to the Clinton administration.

According to Stephen Skowronek, the first thing a leader must do "is to situate himself in a public discourse, and construct a narrative relating what has been done previously to what he proposes to do in the moment at hand."(6) In other words, the president must establish political and leadership parameters with "initial assertions about who he is and where he sees himself fitting into the nation's history."(7) The Clinton approach to the environment should be examined from this perspective; that is, it should be seen as a way in which he situates himself within the public discourse and how he writes his own environmental narrative. This method also allows one to weigh words and actions. Although presidential action shall be the most significant indicator concerning environmental policy, words, whether they be interviews, speeches, or written positions, are also important.

The Clinton approach to the environment proved multifaceted. …

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