The Two Clinton Presidencies
As Bill Clinton looked ahead to his reelection campaign in March of 1996, many Americans might have been excused if they thought he was about to violate the Twenty-Second Amendment. For in many ways Clinton had already served two terms as President—one before the elections of 1994 and one after. In his first term Clinton modeled himself as a Kennedyesque agent of change, ready to "force the spring" and build new frontiers. In his second term he emerged as the great guarantor of stability, prepared to protect the public from the revolutionary changes proposed by a Republican majority in Congress. Paradoxically in President Clinton's first term, in which he assumed the burden of legislative leadership, his public standing reached its low point, whereas in his second term, in which he operated largely without an agenda, he rebounded significantly. In a very real way Clinton won in 1996 by losing in 1994.
Even two-term presidencies contain elements of continuity, and Clinton's was in this respect no exception. An important factor of constancy that worked to Clinton's benefit was the state of the economy, which continued the recovery that began in 1992. By March 1996 the Clinton administration had compiled a record of twelve consecutive quarters of slow but generally steady economic growth. Unemployment had come down considerably since 1992, inflation remained in check, and the bull market continued its run. By the time of the President's 1996 State of the Union Address, Clinton could boast that the economy had produced in three years the eight million new jobs he had promised in four.
But the recovery was weaker than previous ones, and there were widespread fears as late as the winter of 1995 of a return to recession. The four percent GNP growth rates of late 1992 had been replaced