In 1992, Clinton won the Democratic presidential nomination after a primary campaign in which his character and private life were repeatedly questioned and, with running mate Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, went on to win the election, garnering 43% of the national vote in defeating Republican incumbent George H. W. Bush and independent H. Ross Perot. By his election, he became the first president born after World War II to serve in the office and the first to lead the country in the post–cold war era.
In his first year in office, Clinton won passage of a national service program and of tax increases and spending cuts to reduce the federal deficit. He also proposed major changes in the U.S. health-care system that ultimately would have provided health-insurance coverage to most Americans. Clinton was unable to overcome widespread opposition to changes in the health-care system, however, and in a major policy defeat, failed to win passage of his plan. After this failure, his proposed programs were never as sweeping. The president's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he married in 1975, played a more visibly active role in her husband's first term than most first ladies; she was particularly prominent in his attempt to revamp the health-care system.
In 1994, Clinton sent U.S. forces to Haiti as part of the negotiated restoration of Jean-Bertrand Aristide's presidency. He also withdrew U.S. forces from Somalia (1994), where while helping to avert famine they had suffered casualties in a futile effort to capture a Somali warlord. Clinton promoted peace negotiations in the Middle East, which bore fruit in important agreements, and in the former Yugoslavia, which led to a peace agreement in late 1995. He also restored U.S. diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995.
After the Democratic party lost control of both houses of Congress in Nov., 1994, in elections that were regarded as a strong rebuff to the president, Clinton appeared to have lost some of his political initiative. He was often criticized for vacillating on issues; at the same time, he was embroiled in conflict with sometimes radically conservative Republicans in Congress, whose goals in education, Medicare, and other areas often were at odds with his own. In 1995 and 1996, congressional Republicans and Clinton clashed over budget and deficit-reduction priorities, leading to two partial federal government shutdowns. Perceived as the victor in those conflicts, Clinton regained some of his standing with the public. Allegations of improper activities by the Clintons relating to Whitewater persisted but were not proved, despite congressional and independent counsel investigations.
By 1996, Clinton had succeeded in characterizing the Republican agenda as extremist while himself adopting many aspects of it. Forced to compromise on such items as welfare reform in order to assure passage of any change, Republicans passed bills that often seemed as much part of the president's program as their own. The welfare bill that he signed at the end of his term revolutionized the system, requiring that recipients work, while providing them with various subsidies to aid in the transition. Clinton won renomination by his party unopposed in 1996. Benefiting from a basically healthy economy, he handily won reelection in Nov., 1996, garnering 49% of the vote against Republican candidate Bob Dole and Reform party candidate Ross Perot, and became the first Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt to win two terms at the polls.
In 1997, Clinton and the Republicans agreed on a deal that combined tax cuts and reductions in spending to produce the first balanced federal budget in three decades. The president now seemed to have mastered the art of employing incremental, rather than large-scale, governmental action to effect change, leaving the Republicans, with their announced mandate for fundamental change, to appear visionary and extreme. Having taken the center, and with stock markets continuing to boom and unemployment low, Clinton enjoyed high popularity, presiding over an enormous national surge in prosperity and innovation.
At the beginning of 1998, however, ongoing investigations into his past actions engulfed him in the Lewinsky scandal, and for the rest of the year American politics were convulsed by the struggle between the president and his Republican accusers, which led to his impeachment on Dec. 19. He thus became the first elected president to be impeached (Andrew Johnson, the only other chief executive to be impeached, fell heir to the office when Pres. Lincoln was assassinated). It was apparent, however, that much of the public, while fascinated by the scandal, held the impeachment drive to be partisan and irrelevant to national affairs. In Jan., 1999, two impeachment counts were tried in the Senate, which on Feb. 12 acquitted Clinton. In the year following, U.S. domestic politics returned to something like normality, although the looming campaign for the 2000 presidential election began to overshadow Clinton's presidency. During both his terms Clinton took an active interest in environmental preservation, and by 2000 he had set aside more than three million acres (1.25 million hectares) of land in wilderness or national monuments, protecting more acreage in the lower 48 states than any other president.
The late 1990s saw a number of foreign-policy successes and setbacks for President Clinton. He continued to work for permanent peace in the Middle East, and his administration helped foster accords between the Palestinians and Israel in 1997 and 1999, but further negotiations in 2000 proved unsuccessful. Iraq's Saddam Hussein increased his resistance to UN weapons inspections in the late 1990s, leading to U.S. and British air attacks in late 1998; attacks continued at a lower level throughout much of 1999 while the issue of weapons inspections remained unresolved. In Apr.–June, 1999, a breakdown in an attempt to achieve a negotiated settlement in Kosovo sparked a 78-day U.S.-led NATO air war that forced the former Yugoslavia to cede control of the province, but not before Yugoslav forces had made refugees of millions and killed several thousand.
The second term of Clinton's presidency saw a pronounced effort to use international trade agreeements to foster political changes in countries throughout the world, including Russia, China (with whom he established normal trade relations in 2000), Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia. While global trade flourished, Clinton's hopes that trade would lead to democratization and improved human rights policies in a number of countries by and large failed to be realized. In 1997 the Clinton administration had won ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (signed 1993), but it refused to join in a major international treaty banning land mines. The Republican-dominated Senate narrowly rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in late 1999 in a major policy setback; in late 2000, Clinton made the United States a party to the 1998 Rome Treaty on the establishment of an International Criminal Court for war crimes.
Clinton benefited during his entire presidency from a strong economy, leading the country during an unprecedented period of economic expansion and, with some partisan critics giving credit to skill and some to luck, making a steady national prosperity the hallmark of his administrations. He left office having revived and strengthened the national Democratic party, which he guided toward more centrist positions, emphasizing fiscal responsibility, championing the middle class, and reversing many of the public's negative stereotypes regarding the party's liberal stance. Although Vice President Al Gore failed to win the 2000 presidential election, he won a plurality of the popular vote, and the party scored some gains in Congress, especially the Senate. The president's pardoning, however, of more than 100 people on his last day in office sparked one final controversy. Several persons he pardoned were well connnected and even notorious but not apparently deserving, and even Clinton supporters and appointees were openly critical. Charges that pardons were obtained through bribery, however, appeared to be unfounded.
No one major accomplishment or program marked Clinton's terms in office; his many real achievements were mainly incremental, and were often overshadowed by setbacks. However, through his extraordinary ability to relate to ordinary Americans, his intelligence and wit, and his skill in manipulating the media, he maintained an unusual level of popularity and a high approval rating throughout most of two terms in office. Nonetheless, the Lewinsky scandal, in particular, permanently marred his presidency. This was so although the sexual affair at its core was neither unique for Clinton, who had had other extramarital liaisons, nor for the office, some of the earlier holders of which had engaged in similar, although much less publicized, behavior.
As he left office, Clinton faced mountains of legal bills and continued threats of legal action. The youngest former president since Theodore Roosevelt, he established his presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., and, moving to New York where his wife was now a senator, opened an office and foundation in Harlem. He remains an influential and generally popular figure, and became prominent in a number of causes, including international AIDS treatment. He joined with George H. W. Bush to raise funds for the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004) and Hurricane Katrina (2005), and in 2005 was appointed to a two-year term as UN special envoy for tsunami recovery, with responsibility for sustaining the international efforts for its victims. In 2009 he was named UN special envoy to Haiti, focusing on supporting the island's economic and social developement, and following the 2010 earthquake there joined with George H. Bush to raise funds for relief. With mystery writer James Patterson, he wrote a best-selling thriller, The President Is Missing (2018).
See his autobiography, My Life (2004). See also J. Brummett, Highwire (1994); E. Drew, On the Edge (1994) and Showdown (1996); D. Maraniss, First in His Class (1995); R. A. Posner, An Affair of State (1999); J. Klein, The Natural (2002); J. F. Harris, The Survivor (2005); N. Hamilton, Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency (2007); T. Branch, The Clinton Tapes (2009); K. Gormley, The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr (2010); M. Takiff, A Complicated Man (2010); W. H. Chafe, Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal (2012); J. Conason, Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton (2016).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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