Early Hurdles

Despite the movement into Washington of new people with fresh ideas and high optimism, the Clinton administration got off to a slow, unsteady start. However much Clinton wished to stress domestic affairs, crises in Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, and Russia forced him to focus on the volatile, multipolar world of the post-cold war era, and his actions seemed uncertain and irresolute to many.

At the same time Clinton backed down from his promise to prohibit discrimination against gays in the military and — for lack of revenue — reneged on his pledge to provide tax relief for the middle class. Defeated by Congress on his proposals to stimulate the economy, Clinton then won, by the narrowest of margins, a highly compromised federal budget plan to reduce the deficit. The president had more success in persuading Congress to enact family leave and "motor voter" registration, to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement, and to confirm his nominations of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer to the Supreme Court.

However, still dogged by accusations of infidelity and sexual harassment while governor of Arkansas; by questions involving his wife's past success in commodity trading; and by allegations of wrongdoing by the Whitewater Development Company — a failed real-estate venture in which the Clintons had invested — the president in 1994 faced new reverses. Clinton saw his elaborate plan to reform the nation's health-care system sink in Congress; his proposal for campaign finance reform stalled by the Senate; and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, become a controversial political issue. Despite enactment of an omnibus federal crime bill, as well as successful and bloodless military operations that checked an Iraqi threat of a renewed Gulf War and unseated an outlaw junta in Haiti, the 1994 off-year elections proved a sweeping repudiation of Clinton and the Democrats.

A Republican-Controlled Congress

The Republicans gained control of Congress for the first time since the 1952 elections. Trumpeting their "Contract with America," a comprehensive plan to reduce federal spending and regulation, and to balance the budget and eliminate the deficit while simultaneously cutting income and capital-gains taxes, the Republican Congress eagerly clashed with Clinton in 1995. But Clinton, an adept politician, outmaneuvered his GOP opponents. He succeeded in picturing the "Contract with America" as extremist measures that would unduly benefit the rich at the expense of the elderly and needy and his own more moderate proposals as being both compassionate and fiscally responsible. At the same time he adopted as his own various Republican issues that were designed to appeal to middle-class Americans worried about the decline in the nation's morals and values.

Clinton appeared more surefooted in responding to events abroad as his administration helped to arrange a peace treaty between the warring parties in Bosnia and to move negotiations forward in Israel and Northern Ireland. Fortunate, above all, in presiding over an improving economy — with a growing GDP, falling unemployment, and the lowest "misery index" since 1969 — Clinton ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination in 1996. He easily won reelection over the Republican nominee, former Senate majority leader Robert Dole, and the Reform party's Ross Perot. A majority of Americans, however, continued to have doubts about Clinton's character and to fear both Democratic tax-and-spend programs and Republican efforts to curtail such entitlements as Medicare and Social Security. Accordingly, the lowest turnout of voters since 1924 returned Clinton to the White House with just 49% of the popular vote.

Again facing a Republican-controlled House and Senate, Clinton came to an agreement with Congress on a bill that significantly modified the welfare system in place since the mid-1930s, and, on a budget that lowered taxes on both the wealthy and the middle classes, allocated less to the poor, and further reduced the federal deficit. Although bothered by old allegations of sexual and financial improprieties by Clinton, as well as new ones of violations of campaign contribution rules, many voters in a peaceful and prosperous United States opted to maintain the status quo.

Trial by the Senate

In 1998 the new set of sexual-misconduct charges threatened President Clinton. Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr spent the year investigating these allegations, questioned the president in front of a grand jury, and delivered a report to Congress recommending impeachment on the grounds of perjury and obstruction of justice. Congress initiated an impeachment investigation. Despite the results of the 1998 midterm elections, which demonstrated once again that the electorate did not want impeachment of the president, the Republican-controlled House voted (December 19) largely along party lines in favor of impeachment.

Clinton's trial by the Senate lasted five weeks, from Jan. 7 to Feb. 12, 1999. The impeachment managers appointed by the House presented the case against the president, charging him with perjury and obstruction of justice. Clinton's lawyers argued that the charges stemmed from his private life and that the offenses fell short of the "high crimes and misdemeanors" stipulated by the Constitution as grounds for impeachment. In the final vote the senators found the president not guilty of perjury by a majority of 55-45, and not guilty of obstruction of justice by a vote of 50-50; in both cases the results were far short of the two-thirds majority necessary for conviction. The Democrats all voted for acquittal. On the first count they were joined by 10 Republicans, and on the second by 5.

Foreign Policy

No sooner was the impeachment crisis over than the country faced a major foreign policy challenge. After repeated Serb attrocities against ethnic Albanians in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, President Clinton demanded that Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic gree to allow a NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo. When Milosevic refused, the United States and its allies launched (Mar. 24, 1999) air strikes against Yugoslavia in an effort to force his compliance. After more than two months of daily bombing raids, Yugoslavia agreed to accept NATO's terms on June 3, 1999.

In April China's prime minister Zhu Rongji visited the United States at a time when American-Chinese relations were troubled by U.S. objections to China's human rights policies, charges of espionage activities by Chinese agents in the United States, and China's condemnation of U.S. actions against Yugoslavia. Relations between the countries were further complicated when NATO bombs hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May. Harmony was restored at a meeting between President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin in September at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in New Zealand, and normal trade relations between China and the United States were established in 2000. Other items on the president's foreign policy agenda fared less well. In December 1999 the World Trade Organization rejected his proposals for a new set of rules governing international commerce, and peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority dragged on through the summer and fell apart amid renewed violence in the fall of 2000.

The End of the Clinton Administration

Clinton spent much of his final months in office negotiating to avoid possible criminal action against him by Robert W. Ray, who had succeeded Kenneth Starr as independent counsel, and in fashioning his legacy — his hoped-for place in history. In exchange for avoiding prosecution, the president admitted making false and misleading statements while testifying under oath and agreed to pay a fine and have his license to practice law in Arkansas suspended. And while his critics emphasized that the president left office having incurred enormous personal distrust, his supporters countered that Clinton ended his term with the highest job-approval rating of any modern president.

Both were right. While most Americans loathed the president's personal behavior, they supported to an even greater extent the Clinton policies that brought them peace, and especially prosperity. For during the Clinton years unemployment dropped from 7.5% to 4%, the Dow Jones Industrial Average of stocks rose from 3,200 to more than 11,000, and the federal budget went from a quarter-trillion-dollar deficit to a surplus nearly that large. And while the stock market exploded, the welfare state imploded, as Clinton made good on his promise to "end welfare as we know it," to repeal the federal guarantees of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. At the same time, he bungled, and lost, his most important initiative, universal health insurance (leaving more than 44 million Americans uninsured), never pushed strongly for large-scale investments in education and job training or devised an energy policy, and avoided risking his political capital on reforming social security and Medicare. Ironically, his main achievements — welfare reform, free-trade treaties, and a balanced budget — were each largely initiated and supported by the Republican party.

As Clinton himself rued, great presidents are associated with great crises — war and economic depression — and he faced nothing of that magnitude. Nevertheless, good presidents are ones who make the most of what they do face and who move public opinion in their direction. Clinton failed to do that. Rather than chart a bold new course, he followed the currents of popular opinion. Rather than set the terms and tone of public debate, he governed by polls. Rather leading by example, Clinton's behavior and frequent efforts to mislead embarrassed most Americans. And so, historians may ultimately judge, many Americans concluded that the Clinton presidency was one of both accomplishment and disappointment.