A Talk With Bill Clinton

The President shows himself to be at once confident about what we should do to better life for the next generation and guarded about how much we can achieve toward that end
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A FEW months ago editors from this magazine interviewed President Bill Clinton in the White House for just under an hour. The physical setting for dealing with a President is usually grander than that for encountering most other politicians, and theoretically calmer. The typical congressional office is cramped enough that an interviewer can hear aides yelling in the next room, "Yeah, he'll get right back to you -- he'll be done with his three o'clock in a minute." The Oval Office, in contrast, is the only uncramped area in the otherwise jam-packed suite of offices in the West Wing of the White House, and one is meant upon stepping into it to be struck by its sense of space and serenity.

Bill ClintonAny competent politician knows how to act as if the visitor of the moment were the most fascinating human specimen imaginable. But all around a President are people looking at their wristwatches, a photographer snapping official mementos of the meeting, someone recording every word the President utters in interview situations, and a variety of other assistants whose interest in the visitor begins and ends with whether he or she will get out of there on time.

We encountered Bill Clinton at the end of a day (June 25) that was an extreme example of the meter-is-running nature of his life. Earlier Clinton had met with the Presidents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- an event that was no doubt front-page news in the Baltic States but was barely mentioned in the United States. Soon afterward he had a similar meeting with the President of Uzbekistan. The next morning he was scheduled to travel to France for the annual G-7 meeting of leaders of major industrial nations.

Then, around four o'clock that afternoon, news arrived of the terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed nineteen American soldiers. Through the late afternoon Clinton met to discuss the bombing with his national-security team. Shortly after six there was an announcement in the press room that the President himself -- not some representative or press secretary -- would make a statement. The room came alive as camera crews checked their equipment, technicians brought in a giant lectern (which resembled a huge coffin stood on end) and hung the presidential seal on the front of it, and correspondents did teaser broadcasts to say that news was about to be made. At 6:25 a small door near the lectern opened and the President entered -- along with the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense, the White House chief of staff, the national security adviser, and assorted other officials whose presence underscored the solemnity of the event. Clinton read a brief, stern statement admonishing the terrorists, which ended "America takes care of our own. Those who did it must not go unpunished." Without taking questions he walked out of the room.

At 6:40 he walked into the Oval Office, where he found . . . us. Much like the leaders of the Baltic nations and Uzbekistan, we were hoping in the time allotted to steer President Clinton's attention toward issues that mattered a lot to us -- in this case, his views on long-term economic challenges. As Clinton sat down to talk with us, an aide handed him a sheaf of briefing papers that covered the issues we seemed likely to focus on and the themes he should stress. Clinton glanced at it for a second and set it on a table. People used to mock Ronald Reagan's dictum that memos for the President should be boiled down to one page. His idea makes more sense when one sees how much time a President actually has to read and reflect.

Journalists interviewing politicians are often surprised to find that they sound smart. Politicians are made to seem buffoons when presented in television sound bites. Also, they spend much of their lives boning up on issues and explaining the positions they take--the very skills that are on display in most interviews. There are exceptions: Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Edward Kennedy have been known for coming across in conversation as affable rather than insightful -- to say nothing of Dan Quayle. But politicians as varied as Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Newt Gingrich, and Lyndon Johnson all got ahead partly by persuading people in small groups that they were figures of complexity and depth.

Bill Clinton has this skill. During the first ten or fifteen minutes of our interview he seemed logy and understandably preoccupied. But when we went back and read it on paper, even that part of his conversation was surprisingly coherent; and after he woke up, he had the sort of zip usually associated with his informal TV appearances. By the end of the interview, when we had turned off the tape recorders and were being given the evil eye by staffers and Secret Service agents, he was in his familiar buttonholing mode, standing a little closer than other people do, looming over us with his size and heft and almost but not quite putting his hands on our shoulders -- in general, being the complete communicator.

The substance of Clinton's comments was not quite as reassuring and upbeat as his manner, or as politicians are ultimately required to seem. He talked in detailed and enthusiastic terms about steps he thought would help the country weather its upcoming economic transition -- brought about by the global economy, the rise of computers, the ever-growing gap between rewards for highly skilled and for unskilled workers. But beneath his action plan seemed to be a fatalistic awareness that this transition would be wrenching, like the one a century ago that accompanied the rise of unions and mass production. Like Newt Gingrich or Jack Kemp, Clinton is brimming with specific policy ideas. But Gingrich and Kemp suggest, in tone more than in words, that once their reforms -- tax cuts, empowerment zones -- are in place, everything will be great. Clinton's implied argument, more appealing to a historian's or a journalist's sensibilities, is that things never work out perfectly, but modest changes can make a difference in the long run.

On only two issues did Clinton give answers that were either artfully evasive or simply conventional. The evasion concerned, of course, Social Security. The question was not whether the program costs too much or gives too many of its benefits to people who don't need them. Rather, it was whether the payroll tax that funds Social Security has become another source of economic unfairness in America, taking as it does the biggest tax bite, proportionally, from the people with the lowest incomes.

Clinton dealt with this in a way that avoided the flat-earthism of saying that nothing is wrong with Social Security without being suicidally specific about exactly what should be done. He said, "What I think about Social Security is that we've always done whatever it took to preserve the program in a way that was healthy for the economy. We've always done it in a bipartisan fashion." The vehicle for doing so, he made clear, was a bipartisan commission that would give both parties cover for doing what had to be done -- just what happened in 1983, when the previous set of Social Security changes was passed.

Clinton's conventional answer concerned budget deficits. Since the day he took office, they have blighted his life. Having run in 1992 on a two-part economic platform -- cutting spending in general and raising some taxes to reduce the deficit, while increasing spending for education, job training, public works, and other "investment" accounts -- Clinton discovered during his first year in office that fighting the deficit was driving out nearly every other goal. (The logic ran like this: bigger deficits might cause inflation; fear of inflation would cause the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates; fear of high interest rates would cause the bond and stock markets to crash; fear of these crashes made the Clinton Administration drop most of its investment agenda.) After Republicans took control of Congress last year, they tried to push through budget plans and constitutional amendments requiring that the budget deficit shrink to zero within seven years. These efforts failed -- but the trend of budget deficits nonetheless changed dramatically during Clinton's term. Relatively speaking, U.S. deficits in the late 1980s were the largest among all industrial nations. Now they are the smallest. Some economists therefore argue -- as Thomas I. Palley and Robert A. Levine did in the July Atlantic -- that a continued effort to eliminate the deficit has become more dangerous than the deficit itself, and that America could again make Herbert Hoover's error of holding down spending when spending could produce growth.

"I basically don't agree with those economists, frankly," Clinton said when asked about this theory. "You could argue that the problem is solved. We have an operating surplus -- our budget would have been in balance the past two years, with a surplus, were it not for the interest on the debt run up in the twelve years before I took office." But, he added half sincerely, "there is no point in crying over spilled milk." It is still important to keep the deficit down, so that interest rates will remain low and the private economy can create as many jobs as possible. This, he said, will do more good for more working Americans than would government spending or even tax cuts, which could raise the deficit.

The subjects that made the President animated involved the long-term economic trends with which the victor in this election -- and the victors in the next few presidential elections -- will have to cope. One of these is the continuing polarization of both American society and the American economy. When running in 1992 Clinton constantly pointed out that the rich were getting richer, the poor were getting poorer, and the middle class was melting away. Since America didn't have "a person to spare," he said, it was crucial to redirect economic and educational forces so that more people would have a fair chance to compete. Yet during his time in office the polarization has continued. We asked whether anything could stop it -- in particular, the education and job-training programs he seemed to present almost as a panacea for any undesirable consequences of world economic trends.

Clinton's answers were both activist and, again, fatalistic. When asked whether an emphasis on education would lead to a more equal society, he said, "The truth is, no one knows the answer to that." In one modest way, he said, the trend toward inequality had been corrected: the income of the poorest 20 percent of Americans had recently begun to rise, rather than actually falling, as it had for the previous fifteen years. (This, he said, was owing mainly to the budget plan he proposed in 1993, which roughly doubled the Earned Income Tax Credit -- a kind of income-tax rebate for low-income workers.) "The inequality is still pronounced and increasing," he said, "because [incomes] in the upper twenty percent, and indeed the upper five percent and the upper one percent, are growing even faster than those in the middle and at the bottom. But at least [incomes at the bottom] are starting to grow again. So that suggests that if you have the right sort of economic strategy -- pro-growth, pro-jobs strategy -- you can at least give real growth to people in the middle and below." As for inequality in the longer run, he said, "Now, on the education thing, the reason I tell you I don't know is because I don't think we've done enough to know that. For example, a lot of these benefits from education come in the form not only of individual opportunities but also of increasing productivity, and that takes place over a long period of time. But I do believe we could get some rapid gains for the bottom half of the wage [distribution], maybe for the bottom sixty percent, if we could accelerate things like the passage of the GI Bill for America's workers, which I have been proposing for a long time, so that every worker would in effect have an account with the federal government. Instead of having to figure out which of seventy programs you might be qualified for, you just get a voucher if you're unemployed or underemployed that you can take to a training facility.

"Also, I assume we'll have to wait beyond the election, but if we can make the thirteenth and fourteenth years of education in effect as universal as high school education is today, I think that would make a profound difference. And if we started by getting people who are in the work force now to come back and do this, with the tax-credit proposal, I think the likelihood that those people's incomes would go up is very, very high. These community colleges are almost infinitely expandable, you know, and they are by definition related to the emerging economies in the areas they serve."

Clinton also talked at length about the importance of "democratizing technology" -- essentially, making sure that computers and similar advances are made available to the broadest possible group of Americans, rather than becoming another means of enriching the rich. Showing his usual love of examples drawn from recent travels, he described a computer project he had seen in Union City, New Jersey. The students at this school come mainly from immigrant families with per capita incomes well below the state average. The school system put computer equipment donated by Bell Atlantic in parents' homes and trained them to use the software, largely for communication. "You had first-generation immigrant parents with their children learning to E-mail the principal and the teachers and find out how the kids were doing," Clinton said. "Two years later this school has an attendance rate that is better than the state average and test scores above the state average in one of the wealthiest states in America. That has to have an impact on the earnings prospects for those young people. If that will work for children, the same thing will work for adults."

It is very difficult to imagine Bob Dole talking in comparable detail about the factors that determine economic growth and inequality. The economic policy Dole embraced just before he selected Jack Kemp as his running mate -- a 15 percent tax cut across the board -- grows straight from the supply-side belief that politicians should not discuss economic details at all but should concentrate on cutting taxes. Clinton's economic perspective differs sharply from that of classic Republican supply-siders like Phil Gramm and Steve Forbes, or of techno-optimists like Newt Gingrich and John Naisbitt. Clinton's has a tragic element: economic change could create victims and leave people behind, rather than lifting every boat on a rising tide. Yet Clinton's prescriptions, as he discussed them with us, had a surprisingly Benjamin Franklinesque emphasis on individual self-help. Making health coverage and pensions transportable from job to job will help people who already have an investment in today's system, but will do little for the growing army of part-time workers and those too badly educated to seem employable at all. Nevertheless, vouchers for training programs will help workers with gumption, and the emphasis on community colleges may be more important for U.S. productivity than the traditional stress on big-time research institutions: community colleges are where the vaunted retraining of the work force can take place.

Unlike, say, Pat Buchanan, Clinton did not sound as if the United States had a choice about being changed by the global economy. "We don't want to get into a position where we are trying to guarantee the preservation of the past," he said. "That's what President Chirac's trying to deal with in France." In France, Clinton pointed out, overall growth has surged for the past three years, but the unemployment rate has stuck at 12 percent, "because in effect they have tried to guarantee a social safety net that doesn't fit with the vibrancy and the dynamism of the world. There has always been some churning in this economy. There's always been some vibrancy in it, and some winners and losers. We shouldn't be trying to freeze the past, but we should be trying to ease people's path to another future."

"Ease" -- not "ensure" or "promise" or "preserve." It is a longer-term, more modest, and probably more realistic prospect than he offered four years ago.

The other main theme in the discussion was the interaction among energy use, global environmental effects, and long-term economic growth. During the 1992 campaign Clinton never managed to portray himself as the environmentalist in the race. In the Democratic primaries Paul Tsongas recommended an energy-conserving gasoline tax, which Clinton opposed. In the general election Clinton had to fend off George Bush's attacks on his environmental record in Arkansas, and he always looked less ecologically aware than his running mate, Al Gore. But after last year's Republican Congress took what proved to be an unpopular stance against environmental regulation, environmental protection became an important distinguishing theme for the Democrats. In environmental matters as in economics, the President argued, the country should start dealing now with international problems that will become acute if they are ignored -- for example, the impact that bringing more than a billion Chinese into the automobile age will have on air quality and energy supply.

As a starting point, he said, "in the next four years we ought to do more in research generally" -- a significant view, in light of Congress's attempt to shrink the federal research budget. "We ought to do more in biomedical research, both through public spending and through continued efforts to reform the FDA and accelerate the right kind of movement of biomedical products to the market. I think we ought to do more in energy and environmental research -- much more. I believe that if we don't do this, if we don't find some technological fixes that make the energy we have go further and also do less damage in terms of greenhouse gases, we're going to pay a significant price. We're way underinvesting in research and technology, I believe."

Clinton said that he did not think the United States or the world faces an impending energy shortage, mainly because in this country and elsewhere there are still "vast resources of natural gas, which the market so far has kept at such low prices that a lot of it hasn't been recovered." But in the long run, he said, it will be important both to develop energy supplies and to improve conservation techniques, so as to "guarantee that Americans will have the energy they need and the world will be able to breathe its air."

Clinton said that he will try to make the case for "a dramatic increase" in research spending by "elevating the argument that I've been making that economics is a part of our national security." The classic example of this strategy is Dwight Eisenhower's promotion of federal aid to schools and a new national road system in the guise of national defense. "Whether I can be as successful in doing that as President Eisenhower was in saying, 'Look, we've got to have an interstate highway system, because it takes the army too long to go from one coast to the other,' remains to be seen," Clinton said. "But I believe that we can. I'm certainly going to try."

If he is re-elected, Clinton's attempts to make this argument may demand a further refinement in his skills and strategic view. He was at his most animated near the end of our discussion, in talking of similarities and differences between this turn of the century and the one a hundred years ago. Labor turmoil, boom-and-bust economies, ethnic changes wrought by immigration, and other shocks of that era eventually gave rise to the Progressive movement. One could make a very compelling case, Clinton said, that the aftershocks from the previous turn of the century reached beyond the New Deal and the Second World War, so that the economic reforms of the Progressive era were consolidated in a panoply of labor-relations laws and the growth of an education and research establishment, symbolized by the GI Bill and the post-Sputnik research boom.

"This era is analogous to that era in the following ways," he said. "We're changing our industrial paradigm -- we're going from the industrial age to an information-technology age, from the Cold War to a global society. That paradigm change has brought enormous changes in the way people work and live. It is attended by a large increase in immigration and an increasing diversity in America, with all the tensions that that brings. There are vast fortunes being made -- people are having opportunities they never dreamed of. But a lot of people have been dislocated."

The difference between the eras, he said, is that America's middle class is now larger and is protected by an extensive social safety net. And "it is not as clear to people that there is a single law that the government in Washington can pass that will make everything all right. But if we do the right things, and we stay at it with a consistency and a discipline over a period of years, I think we have a chance to go through this transformation with less disruption than we had then, and more quickly -- more quickly, not quickly."

At the end of the hour it was clear that the President thought he had answers to some of the country's basic economic questions. But even if his answers are the right ones, will he be able to explain them to the public? Can he persuade Congress, voters, taxpayers, to go along? When asked how he could rhetorically prepare the country to "stay at it" and "do the right things" to manage these transformations, the President said little beyond that he would do his best but didn't have a clue. We may see him continue to learn on the job.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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