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The Past Three Decades: Years of Crisis - Years of Triumph

The Clinton Presidency Previous Next
Digital History ID 3375



In 1992, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton defeated George Bush and Texas businessman Ross Perot to become the first Democratic president in 12 years. The campaign was a bitter, three-way contest marked by intense assaults on the candidates’ records and character.

President George Bush, whose popularity had soared to 90 percent after the Persian Gulf War, only received 38 percent of the vote--largely as a result of a stagnating economy. Clinton obtained 43 percent of the vote, while Perot received 19 percent.

The youngest person elected to the presidency since John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton had served nearly 12 years as governor of Arkansas before entering the White House. A self-described "New Democrat," Clinton promised a new approach to government between the unfettered free market championed by the Republicans and the welfare state economics that the Democratic Party had represented in the past.

As president, Clinton committed his administration to ending 12 years of "legislative gridlock" and "social neglect." During his first two years in office, he had a string of legislative successes. To reduce the federal budget deficit, he persuaded Congress to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans and on gasoline and to cut government spending. To create jobs, he persuaded the Senate to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), eliminating tariff barriers between Canada, Mexico, and the United States. He also completed negotiations on the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), reducing global trading barriers. To aid working parents, he signed parental leave legislation, allowing parents to take unpaid leave during family emergencies. To combat violent crime, he convinced Congress to enact a waiting period for handgun purchases and to impose a ban on the sale of assault weapons.

But two of his proposals alienated many voters. In the face of vocal opposition, President Clinton backed away from a promise to let gays serve in the military and instead instituted a compromise policy of "don't-ask, don't-tell." This policy satisfied no one. Meanwhile, the centerpiece of his legislative agenda--a program of universal health care coverage--had to be withdrawn. His plan to guarantee lifelong healthcare to Americans through local networks of insurers, hospitals, and doctors was criticized for its complexity and for excessive government involvement in the healthcare system.

Clinton also suffered from allegations of financial and sexual misconduct before he became president. One controversy stemmed from investments he and his wife had made in the Whitewater Development Corporation, an Arkansas real estate development firm. Another concerned charges of sexual harassment made by a former Arkansas government employee. Clinton eventually settled the sexual misconduct lawsuit for $850,000 and was ordered by a judge to pay an additional $90,000 for lying under oath.

In the mid-term elections of 1994, Republicans won control of both houses of Congress. Campaigning on a ten-point "Contract With America," Congressional Republicans called for welfare reform; term limits for political office holders; a moratorium on environmental, health, and safety regulations; and a Constitutional Amendment requiring a balanced budget.

Public support for President Clinton rebounded, however, after the Congressional Republicans temporarily shut down the federal government in an effort to force budget cuts and tax reductions. Public support further deepened after anti-government extremists blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people--including 19 children--and injuring 624.

When he ran for office, Bill Clinton promised to cut the federal deficit in half, create millions of new jobs, and "end welfare as we know it." During his presidency, he achieved many of his goals. Over Republican opposition in Congress, the Clinton administration raised the minimum wages and the Earned Income Tax Credit (which provides financial assistance to the working poor). His administration also started "AmeriCorp," a national service program; gave workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leaves to deal with family emergencies; and blocked efforts to restrict abortions. Working with Congressional Republicans, the administration reduced the size of the government workforce, expanded international trade, and eliminated the federal budget deficit. Clinton and the Congressional Republicans also ended the 60-year-old welfare system. The welfare reform measures limited the time that people could spend on welfare rolls and required welfare recipients to work or receive training.

The low-point in Clinton's presidency began when he was accused of encouraging a 24-year-old White House intern to lie to lawyers in a sexual harassment lawsuit about whether she had an affair with the president. For seven months, the president denied that he had an inappropriate relationship with the intern, but ultimately, acknowledged the relationship and admitted that he had misled the American people about it.

In December 1998, the House Judiciary Committee, voting along straight party lines, approved four articles of impeachment. The articles asserted that Clinton had committed perjury, obstructed justice, and abused his power. Later that month, the House of Representatives approved two articles of impeachment, making Clinton only the second American president to face an impeachment trial in the Senate. On the article charging the President with committing perjury before a grand jury, Senators voted 45 guilty and 55 not guilty. On the charge of obstruction of justice, 50 Senators voted guilty and 50 not guilty. A two-thirds vote was required for conviction and removal from office.

While a majority of the American people told pollsters that they did not approve of President Clinton's behavior, they continued to support his policies, in part, because of his success in handling the economy.

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