Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Clinton Legacy: A First Draft

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Clinton Legacy: A First Draft

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A Survey of Recent Articles

Use of the L-word was banned in the -- White House last year, lest any observer get the impression that the 42nd president of the United States was obsessed with his legacy. But as President Bill Clinton moved reluctantly toward the exit after two terms in office, journalists, scholars, and others began to appraise his eight-year performance. Clinton himself, not surprisingly, tried to give them a hand.

"I will leave the White House even more idealistic than when I entered it in terms of my belief about the capacity of our system and our people to change and to actually solve, or at least reduce, problems," he says in an "exit interview" in Talk (Dec. 2000--Jan. 2001). "We have turned around so many things."

Clinton's Exhibit A is, of course, the booming economy. He promised in 1992 to "focus like a laser beam" on the economy, and few deny his administration some credit for the ensuing prosperity. American Prospect (Aug. 28, 2000) coeditor Robert Kuttner notes that Clinton must share credit with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, "and with fortunate timing. Thanks to information technology and the disinflation of the 1990s, these were likely to be good years." Even National Review (Nov. 20, 2000) senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru concedes that "Clinton's economic record ... is pretty good."

Clinton also promised in 1992 "to end welfare as we know it," and four years later, despite the opposition of liberals and most of his staff, he signed the welfare reform bill passed by the Republican Congress, ending the cash entitlement for poor mothers. Peter Edelman, a Department of Health and Human Services official and Clinton friend, quit over this and still believes it was wrong. But welfare specialist David Ellwood, of Harvard University, tells Washington correspondent Joe Klein in the New Yorker (Oct. 16 & 23, 2000) that "the results are much better than I expected." Not only have the welfare rolls been almost cut in half, but Clinton "did exactly what he said he was going to do: he made work pay. He did it incrementally, but the results have been dramatic." More than half of the poorest women are now in the work force.

Clinton's persistent efforts since 1994 "to force a reluctant Republican Congress to spend more money" on various social programs, "especially those that raised the income of the working poor," helped millions and constituted "the most admirable aspect" of his whole record in office, Klein believes. Head Start's budget grew from $2.8 billion in 1993 to $5.3 billion in 2000; child care supports went from $4.5 billion to $9.3 billion; the earned income tax credit increased from $12.4 billion to $30.4 billion. In his 1997 balanced-budget agreement with the Republicans, Clinton won more than $30 billion in new tax credits for higher education, effectively making the first two years of college a middle-class entitlement. This affected more people than the original GI Bill of Rights (which applied only to returning World War II veterans), Klein points out.

In foreign affairs, Clinton's modest record is the best one could have hoped for in a world without the defining issues of the Cold War, argues Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, writing in Foreign Affairs (Mar.-Apr. 2000). Despite Clinton's idealistic rhetoric, his strategy has been "hegemony on the cheap, because that is the only strategy the American people are likely to support. …

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