Torn Between Two Presidents

In the 2008 primary campaign, there was a moment when Democrats began to debate Bill Clinton's legacy. At one point, Barack Obama seemed to minimize the significance of the Clinton presidency when he said, "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not." Hillary Clinton and her supporters reacted with horror, accusing Obama of thinking more highly of a conservative icon than a successful Democratic president (though that of course wasn't his point).

In the end, that internal discussion—just how good a president was Bill Clinton?—never proceeded too far. But with Hillary Clinton still the prohibitive favorite to be the 2016 Democratic nominee, we could well have the full debate we never quite got in 2008, and in the context of the Obama presidency now entering its final phase. Hillary Clinton, it is said, has to distance herself from her former boss to convince voters that her presidency would be more than a continuation of the last eight years. And she will inevitably try, explicitly or implicitly, to argue that her presidency would be in part a restoration of her husband's (at least the good parts). Which may lead Democrats and liberals to ask: Who did more for them and their agenda, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama?

On the most superficial level, Clinton's presidency looks more successful than Obama's. He oversaw an economic boom that created 22 million jobs during his time in the White House, turned budget deficits into surpluses, and left office with approval ratings in the 60s, around 20 points higher than Obama's are now. But nearly a decade and a half after it ended, how much of a success should liberals consider the Clinton presidency?

There's no perfect answer; eight years of policymaking and appointments provide ample fodder for almost any argument you want to make. But for all the time liberals have spent criticizing Obama for compromises and missed opportunities, a fair accounting seems to put Clinton far behind Obama when it comes to accomplishing liberal goals.

In many significant areas, Obama has already succeeded where Clinton failed. Clinton's health care reform never even got to a vote in Congress; Obama passed his. Clinton tried to allow gays to serve in the military, and the result of the ensuing firestorm was the abominable "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, not to mention the Defense of Marriage Act, which Clinton signed. Obama undid DADT and stopped defending DOMA, which was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court. Was that because times had changed, and the space was open for Obama to make the moves Clinton wished he could have? Of course. But the fact remains that the Clinton presidency was regressive on gay rights in many ways, while the Obama presidency saw unprecedented progress.

For every significant liberal achievement of the Clinton presidency, you can find a move to the right. He raised taxes on the wealthy and created the Children's Health Insurance Program—but also enacted punitive welfare reform and amped up the War on Drugs. He signed the Family and Medical Leave Act—and pushed hard for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). If you look at any list of achievements compiled by Clinton advocates (see here, for example), most of the items come down to "the economy was really good." Indeed it was, and the improvement in Americans' welfare because of the 1990s boom was enormous. But Clinton didn't create it. And many of Clinton's liberal accomplishments that seemed momentous at the time, like the Brady Law and Motor Voter, didn't turn out to have the sweeping effects people hoped for. It isn't easy to come up with too many lasting, consequential liberal reforms that Clinton enacted.

I point all this out not to argue that the Clinton presidency was some kind of disaster for liberalism. But from the liberal's perspective, reminding ourselves of that era makes Barack Obama look better than he often gets credit for, even if there's still plenty for which one can criticize him. Health care reform, gay rights, the 2009 stimulus, financial reform, his increasingly aggressive actions on climate change—all are areas where Obama surpassed Clinton when it came to putting liberal priorities and principles into action. And though some on the left lament Obama's supposed unwillingness to make a strong rhetorical case for liberalism, it was Bill Clinton who triumphantly declared, "The era of big government is over."

Hillary Clinton is going to have to make her own case for what her presidency would accomplish. Inevitably, she'll associate herself with what people liked about the two presidencies she was involved in while trying to gloss over whatever doesn't look so great from the vantage point of this moment in history. But it may be that because the full complexity of the Obama presidency is fresher in our minds, we see it (appropriately) as a combination of triumphs and disappointments, while the Clinton presidency these days is talked about usually when someone brings up what went right.

My guess is that Clinton will be reminding voters frequently of the good times that were rolling when her husband was president. The reality, though, is that if she does reach the Oval Office there's only so much she'll be able to do to create a restoration of that presidency. But just by virtue of succeeding Barack Obama, she'll spend much of her time acting on the conditions and policies our current president created. That's something liberals ought to be pretty pleased about.

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