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The Clinton Era
January 26, 2000

Bill Clinton Tomorrow evening President Bill Clinton will deliver his final State of the Union address. No doubt he will do his best to give a rousing speech that impresses upon viewers the many ways in which Americans have benefited from his two terms in office. This speech, however, will inevitably pale in comparison with the spectacle of last year's event.

One year ago Americans were treated to a rare kind of political performance. Clinton -- a popularly elected (and widely popular) head of state -- addressed his nation before a legislative body that only a few hours before had heard the arguments of lawyers defending him in a constitutional trial of impeachment. Despite this distraction, the President pressed on with a speech devoted to his policies and his agenda for governing the country.

Who is this politician? And will he be remembered for more than scandal and impeachment?

Related feature:

Roundtable: "Does Clinton Matter?" (January 26, 2000)
What effect has Bill Clinton's presidency had on American politics? How long a shadow will Clinton cast over the 2000 presidential election? Atlantic Unbound has invited The Atlantic Monthly's Jack Beatty, David Brooks of The Weekly Standard, David Corn of The Nation, and the historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton University to take up the question of the Clinton legacy.

In 1992 several editors of The Atlantic Monthly traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, to meet with the state's governor, who had recently secured the Democratic Party's nomination for President. In "A Visit With Bill Clinton" (October, 1992), the editors reported on their conversation, drawing a portrait of a highly intelligent, talkative, and engaged candidate who strove (not always successfully) to balance the competing impulses of "the A student and the pol," the policy wonk and the slick communicator of soundbites. In many ways, the themes of that interview with candidate Clinton can be seen as themes of the Clinton presidency -- particularly the tension between Clinton's devotion to the details of policy and his faith (tested time and again) in his uncanny political instincts to see him through adversity.

The next time Atlantic editors interviewed Clinton was in the White House, as the President entered the final phase of his 1996 campaign for re-election. James Fallows, in "A Talk With Bill Clinton" (October, 1996), reported that the President seemed cautious, even fatalistic, about the prospects for achieving his stated goal of helping the country manage the vast economic and social transitions taking place at the end of the century. Five months earlier, in May, 1996, The Atlantic had published a critique of Clinton's first term, titled "The Protean President," by Thomas Byrne Edsall, which described Clinton's political malleability. "Bill Clinton was elected President of the United States," Edsall wrote, "on the promise that he would reform and restore order to Democratic liberalism. For his re-election campaign Clinton has established a new purpose: to reform and restore order to Republican conservatism." Arguing that Clinton's legacy might turn out to be something quite different than orginally expected, Edsall continued:

If Clinton has a central strength ... it is the capacity to adapt politically to adversity and the threat of defeat. He has responded to the Republican sweep of 1994 by radically altering the goals and character of his presidency. He has adopted the role of a tactician facing a larger, better-equipped, but not necessarily better-led army. His daily task is to determine how much ground to cede to his adversaries on the right while maintaining his image as the defender of certain core liberal values.... The danger facing Clinton is that his presidency will not provide a brake on conservatism, a fire wall against the challenge from the right, but rather -- even if, and perhaps especially if, he is re-elected -- it will first fuel and then legitimate a revolution that Clinton in no way endorses.
Any consideration of Bill Clinton's presidential legacy must look beyond politics and grapple with the effects of his administration's policies, while also taking into account social forces over which Clinton has had no control. At the outset of Clinton's first term, Steven Stark, in "The First Postmodern Presidency" (April, 1993), analyzed the cultural and political transformations -- from the rise of cable television to the end of the Cold War -- that had combined to diminish the role of the President in both domestic and foreign affairs. Robert A. Levine, in "The Economic Consequences of Mr. Clinton" (July, 1996), challenged the prevailing orthodoxy, embraced by Clinton and his economic advisors, that put balancing the federal budget ahead of all other concerns -- and warned that such a policy could contribute to a severe recession, perhaps even depression. Finally, what is arguably Clinton's farthest-reaching political decision -- signing into law the 1996 "welfare-reform" bill, making good on his promise to "end welfare as we know it" -- was analyzed and critiqued in The Atlantic's March, 1997, cover story, by Peter Edelman, a former Clinton Administration policymaker who had resigned in protest of the bill. While the results of that sweeping legislation are still being determined, there are many today who would say that the affair with Monica Lewinsky, and the subsequent lies, do not amount to "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done."

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    Illustration by Joo Chung, from the October, 1996, issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

    Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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