Listening to Bill Clinton—by turns, charming, shrewd, and wise—speak at the opening of his presidential library in Little Rock last week, brought home anew the gap between his gifts of brain, heart, and speech, and what he made of them as president. In this he compares unfavorably to George W. Bush, who has made more of less (and worse) than any president in modern times.
Clinton was a business cycle president who happened to be in office during a time of innovation-driven prosperity. Clinton's legislative accomplishments are modest—at least to judge by his master criterion: improving the lives of ordinary Americans. Speaking in a heavy rain in front of a library that, he joked, one British critic compared to a double-wide trailer, Clinton singled out two of them, the Family and Medical Leave Act and welfare reform.
They are indeed emblematic legacies. Thanks to Bill Clinton, you can take a leave from your job to deal with a medical emergency in your family—but you won't get paid; the law only requires employers to give you the time off. Welfare reform has yielded some positive results since its enactment in 1996, though most of the jobs filled by welfare recipients pay low wages, offer few benefits, and are likely to disappear in economic downturns, and the effects on children who had to bring themselves up in the absence of their working mothers has yet to be measured. But it misrepresents the historical context for Clinton, as he did in his speech, to bask in the humanitarian glow of a policy choice motivated more by his reelection campaign against Bob Dole than by his compassion for single mothers caught up in welfare dependency. This is a point made eloquently by Peter Edelman, who resigned in protest over Clinton's embrace of a "hard" Republican version of reform, in an Atlantic Monthly cover story entitled, "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done." With welfare reform, Clinton did not "put people first," as he claimed Thursday; he put Bill Clinton first. Elected in 1992 with barely 43% of the vote, he governed as if the goal to which he was willing to sacrifice all other goals was his political viability. He spent his promise largely on himself.