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U.S.: Clinton's Legacy Evinces Economic Prosperity And Lost Opportunities

  • Robert McMahon

Bill Clinton presided over an extraordinary economic boom that is powering the United States into the 21st century. Political scientists credit him with changing the alignment of the Democratic Party on issues such as the economy and welfare reform. But the circumstances surrounding his impeachment two years ago threaten to tarnish his legacy. RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon assesses Clinton's domestic legacy in the second part of a two-part series on his presidency.

New York, 18 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992 with a mandate for fixing the U.S. economy.

As he leaves office this weekend (20 January) amid high public approval ratings, he appears to have fulfilled that mandate. Although the economy has slowed in the past few months, the U.S. still enjoys relatively low unemployment, low inflation and a record budget surplus eight years after Clinton had inherited a record budget deficit.

Credit for the remarkable performance of the U.S. economy is usually given to the chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, for skillfully using his powers to ensure growth and control inflation. There is also the entrepreneurial energy of the U.S. private sector.

But political scientists like David Epstein of Columbia University in New York say Clinton also deserves a large part of the credit:

"I think a lot of the credit does have to go with Clinton. The American populace was entrepreneurial before this. It wasn't like we suddenly discovered how to make new inventions, but you need the right economic climate to bring that forward, and I think that's where he gets the credit."

But initial assessments of Clinton's presidency emerging from U.S. think tanks, the media and former staffers also focus on lost opportunities. Despite the economic strength the United States has enjoyed, Clinton was unable to solve the problem of the financial drain on two major U.S. social programs -- Social Security, which distributes pension payments to senior citizens, and Medicare, which pays for some of their health care treatment.

Clinton also failed in his effort to reform the overall health care system, a task he assigned to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. It is estimated that a slightly larger proportion of Americans are without health insurance now than when Clinton took office.

But Clinton's ability to improve health care and strengthen social security -- two issues prominent in the recent presidential race -- was handicapped by his growing rift with the opposition Republican Party. The Republicans dominated the U.S. House of Representatives during most of Clinton's presidency.

The House of Representatives must approve of spending programs proposed by the president.

The divisiveness reached a historic low with the Monica Lewinsky sex and perjury scandal that played out during most of 1998 and culminated with a vote to impeach the president at the end of that year. The impeachment followed an inquiry by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who said Clinton lied when he denied under oath he had an affair with Lewinsky, a White House intern at the time.

The prosecutor also accused Clinton of obstructing justice. He said Clinton tried to keep the affair secret and conceal it from attorneys representing a woman who had filed a sexual harassment suit against Clinton based on an alleged incident that took place before his presidency.

Clinton denied the allegations for months but finally did acknowledge having an "inappropriate" relationship with Lewinsky.

"Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate."

Clinton, however, insisted he was innocent of perjury and obstruction of justice.

But in December 1998 the Republican-dominated House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton on the charges. The ensuing Senate trial resulted in Clinton's acquittal early in 1999. He remains only the second U.S. president, along with Andrew Johnson almost 130 years ago, to be impeached.

The experience put an embarrassing spotlight on Clinton's personal behavior and was seen as tainting the office of the president. Although Clinton now appears more popular than ever among Americans, as reflected in polls and public appearances, his legacy is expected to be stained.

Political scientist Epstein sees the episode as driven by partisan politics by Republicans, but acknowledges the impact on Clinton's lasting memory.

"It's the one thing that really tarnishes his legacy. Without that, we would probably be speaking unreservedly about the accomplishments of the Clinton presidency and now there's a big asterisk. I think overall that's going to be seen as quite the low moment in American politics."

The impact of Clinton's impeachment trial continued to be felt in the recent U.S. presidential elections. Clinton's Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, chose to distance himself from Clinton during the campaign, repeatedly saying he was "his own man." The Republican candidate, George W. Bush, promised to restore honor to the White House.

The extremely close race, in effect decided last month by the U.S. Supreme Court, was seen as reflecting the divisions between the two major parties and the lingering unease with Clinton's behavior.

But Clinton will be remembered in other areas for his skillful use of the office of president during a time when his party was a minority in Congress. His ability to claim the initiative on issues traditionally championed by Republicans, say political experts, brought the Democratic Party more toward the center of the political spectrum.

This shift was highlighted by Clinton's decision to compromise and accept a Republican bill on welfare reform several months before the 1996 presidential election. The law demanded work from recipients of welfare considered to be able and ended the guarantee of cash payments to the poor. It has sharply reduced the number of people receiving welfare payments, although the restructuring of welfare has not yet been tested by an economic recession. Clinton won re-election in 1996 by a landslide.