Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

A Life in Brief

William Jefferson Clinton, the young President from Hope, Arkansas, succeeded where no other Democrat had since Franklin Roosevelt: he was reelected to a second term. Clinton also defied his critics by surviving an array of personal scandals, turning the greatest fiscal deficit in American history into a surplus, effectively using American force to stop the murderous "ethnic cleansing" wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, and presiding over the greatest level of economic prosperity since the early 1960s. He also endured unrelenting personal attacks from the right-wing of the Republican Party, the loss of Congress to the Republicans for the first time in forty years, and a humiliating but unsuccessful impeachment trial by the U.S. Senate. He fashioned himself as a "New Democrat" and has frequently been referred to as the "Comeback Kid." Few Presidents have both raised more questions about the standing of the presidency and simultaneously presided over a longer period of sustained prosperity.

Road to the White House

Bill Clinton, whose father died a few months before he was born, wanted to be President from a very early age. Born in 1946, he attended public schools in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after moving there from Hope. As a boy he was obsessed with politics, winning student elections at high school and later at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Work on a committee staff of Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas and attendance at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar strengthened his resolve for a political career. After graduating from Yale Law School, Clinton briefly taught law at the University of Arkansas. He ran for the United States House of Representatives and lost, in 1974, and then was elected state attorney general. In 1978, at the age of thirty-two, he became the youngest governor in the nation and in Arkansas history. After losing his bid for reelection, Clinton came back to win four terms, positioning himself for a shot at the Democratic nomination for President in 1992.

Clinton defeated President George H. W. Bush and upstart independent Ross Perot in 1992 after besting a large field of fellow Democrats for the nomination. As President-elect, Clinton vowed to focus on economic issues like a "laser beam," working especially to overcome the sluggish growth of the American economy. He also sought to remake the Democratic Party by focusing on issues supported by the middle class, such as government spending to stimulate the economy, tough crime laws, jobs for welfare recipients, and tax reform that shifted the burden to the rich. At the same time, Clinton stood firm on certain traditional liberal goals such as converting military expenditures to domestic purposes, gun control, legalized abortion, environmental protection, equal employment and educational opportunity, national health insurance, and gay rights.

Controversy, Scandal, and Success

Clinton stumbled badly in his first term when Congress vigorously rejected his complex health care reform initiative, spearheaded by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. By 1994, Republicans had launched an aggressive attack on Clinton that delivered Republican majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1955. Clinton fought back by capitalizing on Republican blunders and the nearly fanatical attacks unleashed on him by his conservative opponents. When Clinton refused to sign a highly controversial budget passed by the Republican-controlled Congress, he looked strong and resolute. Congress then generated a shut down of the federal government to pressure Clinton to back down, but Clinton remained firm, and the opposition caved in. Most Americans blamed Congress for the gridlock rather than the President, and Clinton was decisively reelected in 1996.

Clinton suffered two major setbacks during his administration. The first was his failure to obtain health care reform. The second, and much more damaging to his place in history, was his impeachment by the House of Representatives on charges of having lied under oath and having obstructed justice in the attempted cover-up of his affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. The impeachment issue grew out of an independent counsel's "Whitewater" investigation of Clinton's financial dealings in Arkansas, peaking just prior to the midterm elections in 1998. The American people evidently cared less about the President's marital affairs or his long-ago financial dealings than about his success in reducing deficits and obtaining economic prosperity, and they found the reactions of the Republican Congress to be excessive. The Republicans lost seats in the House, and the Senate thereafter failed to convict Clinton on the impeachment charges. Nor was the independent counsel able to link either the President or the First Lady to criminal activities in the Whitewater investigation.

In foreign affairs, Clinton succeeded in brokering peace negotiations in Northern Ireland between warring Catholics and Protestants, and—after a failed first attempt at ousting a military dictatorship in Haiti—in ending the murderous rule of Haitian leadership. His call for NATO bombings in Bosnia and Kosovo—following his earlier reticence at intervening in the Balkans—forced the government of Serbia to end its murderous attacks on Muslims in Bosnia, as well as on ethnic Albanians within the borders of its Kosovo region. Nevertheless, Clinton failed to mobilize support to end the genocide in Rwanda, and the peace talks he facilitated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization soon devolved into a renewed and more lethal round of strife.

Political Partnership

Clinton's partner in his political career and marriage, Hillary Rodham Clinton, emerged as a key player in his administration. With a long record of professional achievement in Arkansas and beyond, Hillary's popularity had plummeted after she failed to achieve health care reform in Clinton's first term. However, she emerged from the Monica Lewinsky affair with very high popularity ratings in his second term.

Future history books may well begin by noting that Bill Clinton was the second President to have been impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. However, they will also likely note his ability to survive and his impact on the politics, policies, and programs of the United States during the 1990s, including his presiding over a period of rapid economic growth. Clinton also had a significant influence on the direction of the Democratic Party, although it is yet unclear how lasting that legacy will be.