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The BBC's Stephen Sackur
"He is one of the most successful president's in American history"
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The BBC's Philippa Thomas
"He has presided over the longest economic boom in the nation's history"
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Monday, 15 January, 2001, 12:24 GMT
How history will judge Bill Clinton
Bill and Hillary Clinton
Bill Clinton is a politician of prodigious talents
By BBC Washington Correspondent Nick Bryant

The largest budget surplus in history, the lowest unemployment rate in more than 40 years, the fastest growth in real wages for more than two decades, and the biggest drop in welfare rolls seen during any administration.

If "It's the economy stupid" was the mantra of his campaign to win the presidency, it has also fast become the stock answer from the White House about what President Clinton's legacy should be.

That he has presided over the longest economic expansion in US history is undeniable. The US entered its 107th consecutive month of growth last February.

Mr Clinton can also point to the fact that while he inherited the biggest federal budget deficit in history, it now shows the largest surplus ever - a huge $230bn.

Whose boom?

The question is, who is responsible for the boom? The Republicans point to the creativity and productivity of American companies, especially in the hi-tech sector, which has fuelled much of the prosperity.

Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve
Many credit Alan Greenspan with the American economic boom
They also laud Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, America's central bank, whose judicious management of interest rates has helped create to conditions in which commerce has thrived.

It is not without reason that Wall Street financiers commonly refer to the "Greenspan Boom". Many financial analysts there argue that Mr Clinton's greatest contribution to the economy has been to leave its management to the chairman of the Fed.

But just as presidents are blamed when the economy goes into decline, they should share some of the credit when they go well.

Certainly, Mr Clinton's support for legislation reducing the federal budget deficit was important because it helped bid up the price of US Treasury bonds and lower interest rates.

When the Republicans seized control of Congress in 1994, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his followers forced the president to accept balanced budgets, which were even more beneficial.


The same poll of historians that placed him fifth in the list of chief executives in terms of his stewardship of the economy suggested he was America's most immoral president

Mr Clinton had wanted to finance his social programmes by busting the budget. Even so, a recent poll of American historians ranked him in the middle range of the country's 42 presidents, but fifth in terms of his economic management.

The emphasis on trade agreements - over 300 of which were negotiated during his eight years in office - certainly helped to expand markets abroad for American manufacturers.

Mr Clinton helped negotiate the Nafta free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, and helped facilitate China's entry into the World Trade Organisation.

The union movement would argue, though, that the main thing going abroad was American jobs. Mr Clinton would contest that he has ushered a new era in global trade.

Globalisation

Foreign policy has undoubtedly become an arm of economic policy - more so than under any previous president.

Nato bombing in Yugoslavia
The American-led Nato air campaign against Yugoslavia was one of the foreign policy successes
Mr Clinton was quick to grasp the implications of globalisation - the close interaction of competing world economies.

In 1995 he bypassed Congress to help bail out the Mexican economy, knowing the impact on American jobs and to US banks if it collapsed.

But economic problems persist and big ones at that. The trade deficit has grown, the 'wealth gap' between rich and poor is still wide, farm prices are low and consumers have run up staggering debts.

Unfinished business

In legislative terms, the benchmark against which Democratic presidents are judged, Mr Clinton does not have much to show for his eight years in office.

The ambitious health plan, the brainchild of Hillary Clinton in the first year of the administration, was defeated.


America's social safety net has shrunk

Some 15.5% of the population still lacks basic health insurance - more than 10 million of them children.

The poor, as ever, are the worst hit. Nearly one-third of all poor people, as defined by the US Census Bureau, are uninsured.

It is, perhaps, the most glaring piece of unfinished business of the Mr Clinton years.

The outgoing president might point to welfare reform, a legislative package agreed with the Republicans, as his crowning congressional achievement.

He would argue that the welfare measures - including strict work requirements and time limits on how long recipients could claim the dole - have helped boost employment and remove the stigma of unemployment.

But they have also left far fewer protections in place for people who leave their jobs. America's social safety net has shrunk.

Gridlock and foreign policy

In fairness to Mr Clinton, the Republican's take-over of Congress in 1994 prevented him from pursuing a legislative agenda of his own.

But it was the failures of his first two years in office that allowed the Republicans to seize control of the House of Representatives for the first time since the early 1950s.


Like all presidents who face gridlock in Congress, Mr Clinton had a freer hand in foreign affairs

Ironically, the excesses of House Speaker Newt Gingrich - and his dogged pursuit of his famous "Contract with America" allowed Mr Clinton to become the first Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to win a second term in office.

Like all presidents who face gridlock in Congress, Mr Clinton had a freer hand in foreign affairs.

His main priority was always a peace deal in the Middle East, where he looks to have fallen short of the goal.

But reaching agreement over the future of Jerusalem, the key to any comprehensive settlement, was always going to be difficult.

Bill Clinton and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams
Clinton was feted whenever he stepped foot on Irish soil - and for good reason
But his efforts in Northern Ireland, where he helped bring Sinn Fein into the peace process and appointed former Maine Senator George Mitchell to chair the talks, which produced the Good Friday Agreement, were more successful.

He has been feted by the supporters of power sharing whenever he has stepped foot on Irish shores - and for good reason.

Wins and losses abroad

The Mr Clinton administration claims to have led diplomatic efforts to end the civil war and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, which culminated in the Dayton Peace Agreement.

But its intervention in the Balkans was hesitant and belated. It came in 1995, only when the United Nations peacekeeping operation was in trouble.

In truth, the vivid memory of Somalia in October 1993, where 18 US soldiers were killed in a mission intended to capture a local warlord, had a disabling effect on US foreign policy and certainly on Mr Clinton's willingness to commit troops aboard.

During the Rwandan genocide, the United States refused to intervene militarily.


Mr Clinton has visited more foreign countries than any other president, and displayed a more sophisticated understanding of international affairs than most of his predecessors

In other trouble spots, like Sierra Leone and East Timor, it has encouraged countries like Nigeria and Australia to lead the peacekeeping effort, rather than commit troops of its own.

The American-led Nato air campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999 was much more successful, ending the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and leading to the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic, eighteen months later, an added bonus.

Other international bogeymen, such as the Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, have remained beyond the reach of America - frustratingly so.

Mr Clinton has visited more foreign countries than any other president, and displayed a more sophisticated understanding of international affairs than most of his predecessors.

But his interventionist instincts have been restrained by political concerns at home. The American public would not countenance the introduction of US troops abroad. Too often his foreign policy was shaped by polls.

The natural campaigner

Mr Clinton is a man of prodigious political skills, a natural campaigner with the ability to sharply define issues in his favour.


There is no doubting that he popularised the presidency - making it more accessible, demystifying the office

But all too often he gave in to public opinion rather than try shape it. At one stage, he listened to the results of a private poll over where to spend his annual vacation.

There is no doubting that he popularised the presidency - making it more accessible, demystifying the office.

Campaigning in 1992, he told the music channel MTV that he wore boxers rather than briefs, forging the kind of instant intimacy with his audience that became a hallmark of his presidency.

Impeachment

But instant intimacy carried risks, his tawdry affair with Monica Lewinsky leading eventually to attempts to impeach him. Through his recklessness and deceit, Mr Clinton lost the moral authority of his office, and paralysed his presidency.

Just when the budget was producing surpluses, which might have financed much-needed social programmes, the administration was preoccupied with saving Mr Clinton's hide.


Through his recklessness and deceit, Mr Clinton lost the moral authority of his office, and paralysed his presidency

Day-to-day survival was the priority and long-term political planning and policy development went by the board.

Did his actions rise to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanours", the constitutional standard for impeachment?

The Republicans in the House believed they did, but failed to persuade a majority of senators.

Bill and Monica on a Russian stamp
A Russian stamp commemorating the Lewinsky scandal
Democrats claimed that the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, was engaged in a zealous witch-hunt.

Republicans said he was simply pursuing a president who had broken the law, and should not be above it.

There is little doubt that he lied under oath to prosecutors. Can it really be true that a man with his grasp of detail failed to recall being alone in the same room as his young, White House intern?

Unfulfilled promise

Whatever the truth, undoubtedly the whole saga added more poison to Washington's political well, increasing the public's cynicism in politics.

The office of the presidency may well have been diminished. Certainly at times he looked frail and, at times, pathetic.

The same poll of historians that placed him fifth in the list of chief executives in terms of his stewardship of the economy suggested he was America's most immoral president.

In his final days in office, he was trying to reach that elusive peace deal in the Middle East, deploying his legendary powers of persuasion and intellectual focus.

Things looked hopeful when he first came to office, a famous handshake on the South Lawn of the White House between Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat heralding a new dawn in Israeli and Palestinian relations.

But in some ways the struggle for a comprehensive settlement is emblematic of his eight years in office - a presidency that has fallen short of its promise.

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