Presidency of Bill Clinton
|January 20, 1993 – January 20, 2001|
|Seal of the President|
Governor of Arkansas
President of the United States
The presidency of Bill Clinton began at noon EST on January 20, 1993, when Bill Clinton was inaugurated as the 42nd President of the United States, and ended on January 20, 2001. Clinton, a Democrat from Arkansas, took office following a decisive victory over Republican incumbent President George H. W. Bush and Independent businessman Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential election. Four years later, in the 1996 election, he defeated Perot and Republican Bob Dole to win re-election. He was succeeded by Republican George W. Bush, who won the 2000 presidential election.
The nation experienced an extended period of economic prosperity during the Clinton presidency. Months into his first term, he signed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, which raised taxes and set the stage for future budget surpluses. He won ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a trade pact negotiated by President George H. W. Bush among the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Clinton's most ambitious legislative initiative, a plan to provide universal health care, never received a vote in Congress as he was unable to win sufficient congressional support for the policy. After taking control of Congress in the 1994 elections, and Congressional Republicans led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich proposed several conservative policies. Clinton vetoed many of these policies, but signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act into law.
In foreign policy, Clinton launched a major bombing campaign in the Balkans, which led to the creation of a United Nations protectorate in Kosovo. He played a major role of the expansion of NATO into former Eastern Bloc countries but remained on good terms with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. During his second term, Clinton presided over the establishment of the Children's Health Insurance Program and the deregulation of the financial and telecommunications industry. Clinton's second term saw the first federal budget surpluses since the 1960s, but was partially overshadowed by his impeachment in 1998. His impeachment arose after he denied having an affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Though the House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton, he was acquitted of all charges by the Senate.
Clinton left office with high approval ratings, though his preferred successor, Vice President Al Gore, was narrowly defeated by Texas Governor George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election. Since the end of Clinton's presidency, historians and political scientists have tended to rank Clinton as an average to above average president.
President George H. W. Bush's popularity in the aftermath of the successful 1991 Gulf War convinced many prominent Democrats to sit out the 1992 presidential election. With party leaders like Mario Cuomo and Dick Gephardt out of the running, the 1992 Democratic primary field consisted of relatively unknown candidates. Among those who sought the Democratic nomination were former Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, former Governor Jerry Brown of California, and Bill Clinton, who had served as the Governor of Arkansas since 1983. Clinton emerged as the front-runner for the nomination after the first set of primaries in February 1992. A founding member of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Clinton overcome opposition from more liberal Democrats like Brown and clinched the Democratic nomination in April 1992.
Bush defeated a challenge from conservative commentator Pat Buchanan to win his party's nomination. Meanwhile, independent candidate Ross Perot, a billionaire businessman from Texas, emerged as a major factor in the race. Perot ran a populist campaign that focused on voters disillusioned with both parties, and he emphasized his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement and his desire to balance the federal budget. Polls taken in early June 1992 showed Bush leading the race, followed by Perot and then Clinton. From July to September, Perot temporarily dropped out of the race, causing severe damage to his candidacy. At the 1992 Democratic National Convention, Clinton chose Senator Al Gore of Tennessee as his running mate, and the successful convention helped unify Democrats behind Clinton. While the 1992 Republican National Convention placed a heavy emphasis on social issues, Clinton's campaign focused on the state of the economy, which was still emerging from the early 1990s recession.
On election day, Clinton won 43% of the popular vote and a wide majority in the Electoral College. Bush won 37.4% of the popular vote, while Perot took 18.9%, the strongest showing by a third party or independent presidential candidate since the 1912 election. Later studies showed that Perot drew his voters roughly equally from Clinton and Bush. Clinton's victory included a sweep of the Northeastern United States, and he also won several states in the Midwest, the West, and the South. In the concurrent congressional elections, Democrats retained control of both houses of Congress. Clinton used his inaugural address to deal with his uncertain mandate from the voters and lack of national experience. He drew heavily upon his lifelong study of the Protestant Bible, his education at Catholic Georgetown University, and the inaugural addresses of Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Woodrow Wilson.
|The Clinton Cabinet|
|Vice President||Al Gore||1993–2001|
|Secretary of State||Warren Christopher||1993–1997|
|Secretary of Treasury||Lloyd Bentsen||1993–1994|
|Secretary of Defense||Les Aspin||1993–1994|
|Attorney General||Janet Reno||1993–2001|
|Secretary of the Interior||Bruce Babbitt||1993–2001|
|Secretary of Agriculture||Mike Espy||1993–1994|
|Secretary of Commerce||Ron Brown||1993–1996|
|Secretary of Labor||Robert Reich||1993–1997|
|Secretary of Health and|
|Secretary of Education||Richard Riley||1993–2001|
|Secretary of Housing and|
|Secretary of Transportation||Federico Peña||1993–1997|
|Secretary of Energy||Hazel O'Leary||1993–1997|
|Secretary of Veterans Affairs||Jesse Brown||1993–1997|
|Hershel W. Gober, act.||2000–2001|
|Chief of Staff||Mack McLarty||1993–1994|
|Administrator of the|
Environmental Protection Agency
|Director of the Office of|
Management and Budget
|Director of the Office of|
National Drug Control Policy
|United States Trade Representative||Mickey Kantor||1993–1997|
Mack McLarty, a long-time friend of Clinton who had led a successful business career and had served as the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party, became Clinton's first chief of staff. Clinton convinced Lloyd Bentsen, a longtime Senator from Texas and the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee, to serve as his first Secretary of the Treasury. At the start of Clinton's first term, Bentsen, OMB Director Leon Panetta, Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and policy coordinator Robert Rubin were Clinton's top economic advisers. Clinton's first term foreign policy team was led by National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and Secretary of State Warren Christopher, both of whom had served in the Carter administration. Vice President Gore and First Lady Hillary Clinton emerged as two of the most influential figures of the Clinton administration, and Clinton solicited their opinions on a wide range of issues.
Clinton decided to appoint the first female Attorney General, settling on little-known corporate lawyer Zoë Baird. In what became known as the Nannygate matter, the Senate Judiciary Committee revealed that Baird had hired a Peruvian couple, both illegal immigrants, to work in her home. Baird withdrew her nomination and Clinton next chose Kimba Wood, who was quickly forced to withdraw due to somewhat similar problems. Janet Reno, a Florida state's attorney, was nominated for Attorney General a few weeks later, and she won confirmation in March 1993. After experiencing difficulty with these nominations, as well as that of Lani Guinier, Clinton brought in David Gergen, who had previously served in Republican administrations, to serve as Counselor to the President. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin resigned in the aftermath of the Battle of Mogadishu, and was succeeded by William Perry. Bentsen and McLarty also left office in 1994, and they were replaced by Rubin and Panetta, respectively.
After Clinton's re-election, Panetta stepped down and was replaced by former deputy chief of staff Erskine Bowles. Madeleine Albright became the first female Secretary of State, Sandy Berger succeeded Lake as National Security Adviser, and former Republican Senator William Cohen became the Secretary of Defense. According to reporter John Harris, Berger's close rapport with Clinton made him the leading foreign policy figure of Clinton's second term, as well as the most influential National Security Advisor since Henry Kissinger. John Podesta assumed the position of Chief of Staff in 1998, while Lawrence Summers replaced Rubin as Treasury Secretary in 1999.
Clinton appointed two justices to the Supreme Court. The first vacancy arose in March 1993, when Associate Justice Byron White informed Clinton of his impending retirement. Clinton considered various nominating political leaders like Mario Cuomo and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, whom he believed could become leaders on the court in a similar fashion to Earl Warren. After weeks of consideration, Clinton began to favor appointing an experienced jurist, and he conducted interviews with Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, both of whom served as federal appellate judges. Clinton announced Ginsburg's nomination in June 1993 and she was confirmed by the Senate two months later, making her the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court after Sandra Day O'Connor. Harry Blackmun retired in 1994, and Clinton successfully nominated Breyer to succeed Blackmun. The appointments did not greatly affect the ideological balance of the Rehnquist Court, as conservatives continued to hold a narrow majority on the Supreme Court.
Clinton also appointed 66 judges to the United States Courts of Appeals and 305 judges to the United States district courts. Among Clinton's appellate appointees were future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, as well as Merrick Garland, who was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2016.
Clinton inherited major budget deficits left over from the Reagan and Bush administrations; fiscal year 1992 had seen a $290 billion deficit. In order to cut the deficit, Bentsen, Panetta, and Rubin urged Clinton to pursue both tax increases and spending cuts. They argued that by taming the deficit, Clinton would encourage Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to lower interest rates, which, along with increased confidence among investors, would lead to an economic boom. Some of Clinton's advisers also believed that a focus on cutting the deficit would be politically beneficial, since it would potentially help Democrats shed their supposed "tax and spend" reputation. Though Secretary of Labor Robert Reich argued that stagnant earnings represented a bigger economic issue than the deficits, Clinton decided to pursue deficit reduction as the major economic priority of his first year in office. In doing so, he reluctantly abandoned a middle class tax cut that he had championed during the campaign.
Clinton presented his budget plan to Congress in February 1993, proposing a mix of tax increases and spending reductions that would cut the deficit in half by 1997. Republican leaders strongly opposed any tax increase, and they pressured congressional Republicans to unite in opposition to Clinton's budget, and not a single Republican would vote in favor of Clinton's proposed bill. Senate Democrats eliminated the implementation of a new energy tax in favor of an increase in the gasoline tax, but Clinton successfully resisted efforts to defeat his proposed expansion of the earned income tax credit. By narrow margins, the Senate and the House of Representatives both passed versions of Clinton's budget bill, and a conference committee settled the differences between the House and Senate. The House passed the final bill in a 218–216 vote. After intensely lobbying Bob Kerrey and other Democratic senators, Clinton won passage of his bill in the Senate in 50–50 tie vote; Vice President Gore broke the tie. Clinton signed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 (OBRA–93) into law on August 10, 1993. The bill provided for $255 billion in spending cuts over a five-year period, with much of those cuts affecting Medicare and the military. It also provided for $241 billion in new revenue over five years; most of that revenue came from an increased gasoline tax or from higher taxes on those who made over $100,000 per year.
After Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 elections, incoming Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich promised a conservative "revolution" that would implement tax cuts, welfare reform, and major domestic spending cuts. Gingrich failed to deliver major conservative reforms in the first hundred days of the 104th Congress, but many observers continued to wonder if the Speaker would seize stewardship over domestic policy from the office of the president. Meanwhile, with conservatism on the rise and New Deal liberalism in retreat, Clinton hoped to forge a new consensus that did not totally reject government interventionism. In reaction to his party's electoral defeat, Clinton hired consultant Dick Morris, who advocated that Clinton pursue a policy of triangulation between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. By co-opting some of Republican ideas, Morris argued that Clinton could boost his own popularity while blocking the possibility of the drastic reforms advocated by some conservatives.
The Republican Congress presented Clinton with a budget plan that cut Medicare spending and instituted major tax cuts for the wealthy, giving him a November 14, 1995 deadline to approve the bill. After the deadline, the government would be forced to temporarily shut down due to a lack of funding. In reaction, Clinton presented his own plan that did not include spending cuts to Medicare, but would balance the budget by 2005. As Clinton refused to sign the Republican bill, major portions of the government suspended operations until Congress enacted a stopgap measure. The government shut down again on December 16 after Clinton vetoed a Republican budget proposal that would have extended tax cuts to the wealthy, cut spending on social programs, and shifted control of Medicaid to the states. After a 21-day government shutdown, Republicans, in danger of being seen as extremists by many in the public, accepted Clinton's budget.
Combined with a strong economy, the 1993 deficit reduction plan produced smaller budget deficits each year. With the improving state of the federal budget, Clinton and congressional Republicans reached a budget agreement in 1997 that provided for relatively small changes to the budget. In 1998, the federal government experienced the first budget surplus since the 1960s. Reflecting the importance of the budget surplus, the New York Times described the end of budget deficits as "the fiscal equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall." Though Republican leaders called for large tax cuts in light of the budgetary surplus, Clinton successfully resisted any major budgetary changes in the last three years of his term. In 1997, Clinton agreed to a deal with Republicans that lowered the tax rate on capital gains to 18 percent, implemented a $500 child tax credit, increased funding for children's health care, and raised the federal cigarette tax from 24 cents per pack to 39 cents per pack. Republicans did, however, block some of Clinton's favored policies, including an increase of the federal minimum wage and legislation designed to provide prescription drugs to seniors.
When Clinton took office, approximately twenty percent of American adults lacked health insurance, despite the fact that the United States spent more on health care than other developed countries. Many liberals advocated the establishment of a single-payer healthcare system similar to that of Canada, while a group of congressional Republicans developed a plan consisting of government subsidies and the implementation of a mandate that would require individuals to purchase health insurance. The administration formed a task force, led by First Lady Hillary Clinton, that was charged with creating a plan that would provide for universal health care. Though Hillary Clinton had led a similar effort on education reform in Arkansas, the appointment of the president's wife to such a major position sparked controversy. Rejecting calls for a single-payer system, Clinton proposed a health care plan based on the extension of employer-based health insurance. Individuals not insured by employers would be insured by the government. The plan would also expand the government's regulatory role in a concept known as "managed competition," with the government setting a minimum level of benefits that each plan could provide. Additionally, the plan would prevent insurers from charging different rates to customers based on age and pre-existing conditions.
After winning the passage of OBRA–93 and the ratification of NAFTA in 1993, Clinton made health care his major area of legislative focus in 1994. Though many corporations supported Clinton's health care proposal in hopes of reducing their own costs, several other groups strongly objected to the plan. Liberals criticized Clinton for not proposing more far-reaching reforms, while conservatives attacked the expansion of government. Interest groups ran ad campaigns alleging that the Clinton health care bill would lead to health care rationing, reduced choices, and increased costs. The Health Insurance Association of America's "Harry and Louise" ad campaign proved especially important in influencing the public against the Clinton health care bill. Meanwhile, Congressmen Newt Gingrich and columnist Bill Kristol convinced congressional Republicans to resist any form of compromise. Clinton's decision not to engage congressional Democrats and moderate Republicans early in 1993, and his own refusal to compromise on various aspects of the bill, further damaged any hope of passing a major health care bill. With Republicans unified against his plan, and with his own party divided, Clinton decided to abandon health care reform in September 1994.
Within a month of taking office, Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. The act, which had been vetoed twice by Bush, guaranteed workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave for certain medical and family reasons, including pregnancy.
In August 1996, Clinton signed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. The bipartisan bill granted people the right to keep their insurance plan if they changed jobs, and also contained several other health care reforms. In October 1996, Senator Ted Kennedy introduced a bill to provide health care coverage for children of the working poor, to be financed via a 75 cents a pack cigarette tax increase. Working with Clinton and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, Kennedy won passage of the Children's Health Insurance Program in 1997.
Shortly after the end of the government shutdown, Clinton announced his plan to pursue major changes to the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, which provided financial assistance to low-income families with children. Clinton believed that the program inadvertently trapped many poor families and individuals in a cycle of poverty, and he favored shifting funding from AFDC to job training and child care programs. Republicans shared Clinton's goal of making major changes to the welfare system, but they were unwilling to fund the job training programs and wanted to prevent legal immigrants from receiving welfare benefits. Clinton twice vetoed Republican plans that terminated AFDC, but he ultimately decided that he favored the Republican reform plan over no reform at all. In July 1996, Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which terminated AFDC. In its place, the bill created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which imposed new work requirements for and lifetime limits on aid recipients, and shifted responsibility for the administration of the programs to the states. Due in part to the improving economy and the expansion of the earned income tax credit, the number of Americans receiving cash public assistance declined from 12.2 million in 1996 to 5.3 million in 2001.
|GDP||Debt as a %|
Clinton presided over a "Goldilocks economy," a period of low inflation and low unemployment. During the 1990s, the Dow Jones Industrial Average quadrupled, and the share of families with investments in stocks rose from 32 percent in 1989 to 51 percent in 2001. Income inequality also grew, as the richest households earned a higher proportion of the total income. Nonetheless, median household income, adjusted for inflation to 2000 dollars, grew from $38,262 in 1995 to $42,151 in 2000. By 2000, the unemployment rate had declined to four percent, while the poverty rate had declined to 11.3 percent.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University, opined that:
By the end of the Clinton presidency, the numbers were uniformly impressive. Besides the record-high surpluses and the record-low poverty rates, the economy could boast the longest economic expansion in history; the lowest unemployment since the early 1970s; and the lowest poverty rates for single mothers, black Americans, and the aged.
Clinton proposed a $30 billion economic stimulus package in his first year in office, but his proposal was blocked by Senate Republicans, and he would be unable to win the passage of any similar proposal for the remainder of his presidency. Clinton held office at a time when monetarism had supplanted Keynesianism as the dominant theory of economic growth among many in Washington. Under the theory of monetarism, Clinton's fiscal policies would have relatively little impact on the economy. Instead, monetarists contended that the economy was guided by the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, a group of appointed officials who set monetary policy. Throughout Clinton's presidency, Alan Greenspan served as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and he emerged as an especially prominent public figure as the economy improved in mid-to-late 1990s. Though much of the credit for the strong economy was assigned to Greenspan, the Clinton administration also basked in the approval of Americans who enjoyed the benefits of a strong economy, and good economic conditions helped Clinton remain popular despite controversies over his personal life.
Clinton presided over a period of deregulation in the telecommunications and financial industries. In 1999, Clinton signed into law the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act (GLBA). The act repealed a provision of the Glass–Steagall Act that had required banks to either classify themselves as either commercial bank, which were subject to federal oversight and protections like deposit insurance, or as investment banks, which faced less regulations but did not benefit from federal protections. The financial services industry and its allies had attempted to repeal this provision of the GLBA since the 1980s, and they were finally successful due to cooperation from Secretary of the Treasury Rubin and other members of the Clinton administration, who believed that the U.S. financial industry needed looser regulation in order for it to remain competitive. The bill passed both houses of Congress with only minimal resistance. Opposition to the plan came primarily from liberals like Senator Paul Wellstone, who feared that looser banking regulations would lead to financial crises.
Shortly before leaving office, Clinton signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which deregulated trading of derivatives. The bill also included the "Enron loophole," which lessened regulation of energy trading by companies such as Enron. Clinton also signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which represented the first major overhaul of the Communications Act of 1934.
Clinton supported the right of homosexual individuals to serve in the military, and, along with Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, he developed a plan that would allow openly gay individuals to serve in the military. Clinton's proposal received strong pushback from military leaders, especially Marine Commandant Carl Epting Mundy Jr. In response, General Colin Powell suggested a compromise solution in which the military would not ask recruits about their sexual orientation, but would retain the right to discharge those who were gay. Clinton resisted the compromise policy, which became known as "don't ask, don't tell," but congressional leaders of both parties made it clear that they would reverse any executive order allowing gay individuals to openly serve in the military. Clinton ultimately accepted the don't ask, don't tell policy, and over the ensuing ten years approximately 10,000 people were discharged from the military after they revealed their homosexuality. In September 1996, Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal recognition to same-sex marriages.
On taking office, Clinton revoked a gag order that had prevented abortion counseling in federally funded clinics. He also signed an executive order allowing the use of fetal tissue in medical research. These early policies moves signaled Clinton's break with the socially conservative policies of his predecessors. Clinton also signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which made it a federal crime to obstruct abortion clinics and places of worship.
In November 1993, Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which required a background check for gun purchasers. In 1994, Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which included a provision known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act provided funding for 100,000 local law enforcement officials, and established a federal three-strikes law that enhanced criminal penalties for repeat offenders. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban barred the sale of several kinds of Semi-automatic rifles, but the provision did not apply to the 1.5 million semi-automatic rifles already in the possession of private owners, nor did it affect other types of guns.
Though liberal Democrats gave environmentalism a higher priority than the economy-focused Clinton did, the Clinton administration responded to public demand for environmental protection. Clinton created 17 national monuments by executive order, prohibiting commercial activities such as logging, mining, and drilling for oil or gas. Clinton also imposed a permanent freeze on drilling in maritime sanctuaries. Other presidential and departmental orders protected various wetlands and coastal resources and extended the existing moratorium on new oil leases off the coast line through 2013. After the Republican victory in the 1994 elections, Clinton vetoed a series of budget bills that contained amendments designed to scale back environmental restrictions. Clinton boasted that his administration "adopted the strongest air-quality protections ever, improved the safety of our drinking water and food, cleaned up about three times as many toxic waste sites as the two previous administrations combined, [and] helped to promote a new generation of fuel-efficient vehicles and vehicles that run on alternative fuels".
Vice President Gore was keenly concerned with global climate change, and Clinton created the President's Council on Sustainable Development. In November 1998, Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement in which developed countries committed to reducing carbon emissions. However, the Senate refused to ratify it since the agreement did not apply to the rapidly growing emissions of developing countries such as China, India and Indonesia.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, enacted by Clinton on October 21, 1998, served as the first significant amendment to the Copyright Act since 1976. The DMCA provided a framework for sound recording copyright owners and recording artists to seek public performance royalties under statute, which proved to be a landmark achievement for the recording industry. The law included a provision reiterating the "fair use" of copyrighted materials, and another provision that exempted internet service providers from responsibility for inadvertently transmitting copyrighted works. That same month, Clinton also signed the Copyright Term Extension Act, which retroactively extended copyright protection an extra twenty years.
Responding to declining home-ownership rates for low-income families, Clinton sought to reform the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) to encourage banks to make loans to inhabitants of low-income areas. The administration implemented new rules that would prevent banks from expanding if they failed to meet benchmarks for loans to low-income areas. Between 1993 and 1998, CRA lending increased at a faster rate than other loans, and home values in many CRA areas rose. Banks implemented new strategies designed to cater to lower-income borrowers, including the adjustable-rate mortgage. This effort was part of a broader initiative, the National Homeownership Strategy, which helped increase the share of Americans who owned their own homes from 64 percent to 67.4 percent during Clinton's presidency. Many of the sub-prime mortgages that allowed Americans to purchase homes would later play a role in sparking the Financial crisis of 2007–2008.
Clinton took office less than two years after the Dissolution of the Soviet Union, which marked the end of the Cold War. With the end of that long-standing geopolitical conflict, trade became an increasingly prominent issue in international politics, as countries sought reduced tariffs and other trade agreements. Clinton believed that globalization would promote economic prosperity and democratization throughout the world, and he pursued several major trade agreements. President Bush had signed the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico in the final year of his term, but the agreement had not yet been ratified when Clinton took office. Opposition to NAFTA crossed party lines, as organized labor allies like Democratic Congressman Dick Gephardt and conservative isolationists like Pat Buchanan both opposed ratification. With the fate of NAFTA still uncertain in the House of Representatives, Vice President Gore met Ross Perot in a televised debate on CNN. Gore's strong performance in the debate, as well as the Clinton administration's effective lobbying campaign, helped NAFTA win ratification in November 1993.
Aside from NAFTA, the Clinton administration negotiated approximately 300 trade agreements with other countries. By granting China temporary most favoured nation status in 1993, his administration minimized tariff levels in Chinese imports. In 2000, Clinton signed a bill granting permanent normal trade relations to China, and American imports from China massively increased in the subsequent years.
Unrest in Somalia had escalated into a full-scale civil war in 1991, and President Bush had dispatched 25,000 U.S. soldiers to the country to join a United Nations peacekeeping mission. By the late 1993, Somalia remained in a state of civil war, and 4,000 U.S. soldiers still served in the UN peacekeeping mission. In October 1993, U.S. special forces launched a raid on Mogadishu with the intention of capturing warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who had led attacks against U.N. forces. The raid ended in failure and in the deaths of eighteen Americans. The incident proved embarrassing for the Clinton administration, as many Americans questioned the presence of U.S. soldiers in Somalia. After Somali leaders signed a peace agreement in early 1994, Clinton removed U.S. forces from the country.
The experience in Somalia exacerbated internal debates around the role of U.S. military power in the Post–Cold War era. In a victory for those who favored non-intervention, the Clinton administration placed new limits on the deployment of U.S. troops, especially as part of U.N. peacekeeping missions. In April 1994, the Hutu of Rwanda engaged in a genocide against the minority Tutsi, killing 800,000 people in a three-month span. The UN sent a small force to provide aid, but the U.S., with no strategic or economic interest in the country, did not intervene. Clinton would later describe the non-intervention in Rwanda as the worst mistake of his administration.
A military junta in Haiti had ousted the country's democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1991. Clinton was inclined to restore Aristide, in part due to stem the flow of Haitians fleeing to the U.S., but many Americans opposed a military intervention in a country that posed not threat to the United States. Despite congressional and public opposition, Clinton announced in September 1994 that the United States would remove the junta if it did not voluntarily relinquish power. At the same time, he sent a peace mission consisting of Powell, former President Jimmy Carter, and Senator Sam Nunn to convince the military government to step aside. As U.S. soldiers prepared to launch a strike against Haiti, the military government agreed to restore Aristide.
During the closing stages of the Cold War, Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milošević took power as the leader of the Socialist Republic of Serbia. His nationalist policies alienated leaders of the other constituent countries of Yugoslavia, a multi-ethnic state that had been established in 1918. Slovenia, Croatia, and the Republic of Macedonia each declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, but Serbian forces forcefully opposed Croatia's independence, beginning the Yugoslav Wars. In 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina also declared independence. As in Croatia, a significant minority of Serbs opposed to independence lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Bosnian War began between proponents and opponents of independence. Ethnic cleansing campaigns conducted by Bosnian Serbs provoked world condemnation, and the issue of whether to intervene in the Balkan Wars posed one of the greatest foreign policy questions as Clinton took office. Activists such Elie Wiesel pressured Clinton to help put an end to the ethnic cleansing, and Clinton himself wanted to do something to end the violence. General Colin Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, convinced Clinton to abstain from a military intervention, arguing that the United States should not become involved in a region in which it lacked clear strategic interests.
In May 1994, after Serb forces invaded safe zones established by the United Nations Protection Force, Clinton authorized air strikes against Serb positions. The air strikes did not end Serb advances, and in July 1995 over 8,000 Bosniaks were killed in the Srebrenica massacre. Clinton and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake formulated a plan to end the genocide in Bosnia, with the key part of the plan being a major NATO air campaign against the Bosnian Serbs. After Clinton won the support of European leaders for the campaign, NATO launched Operation Deliberate Force. In reaction to bombing campaign and the advance of Bosniak forces, Milošević agreed to begin peace talks. Clinton sponsored the talks in Dayton Ohio, putting Richard Holbrooke in charge. The subsequent Dayton Agreement ended the Bosnian War and divided Bosnia into two autonomous regions.
In 1998, the Kosovo War broke out in Kosovo, an autonomous province of Serbia. A group of ethnic Albanians known as the Kosovo Liberation Army sought independence, launching attacks against Serb forces. In putting down the attacks, Serb forces engaged in an ethnic cleaning campaign against the Albanian population. Though NATO leaders were reluctant to become involved, and Russia threatened to veto any U.N. resolution allowing for military action, many of Clinton's advisers called for another intervention in the Balkans. Hoping to again force Milošević into peace talks, Clinton ordered a bombing campaign against Serb forces in March 1999. As Milošević refused to capitulate, NATO escalated the bombing campaign, resulting in the devastation of the Serbian capital of Belgrade. As domestic opposition to his leadership grew, Milošević agreed to withdraw troops and allow NATO-led peacekeeping force to be stationed in Kosovo. Kosovo's status would be disputed in subsequent years, while Milošević was overthrown in October 2000.
One of Clinton's major priorities was the expansion of NATO into former Eastern Bloc countries in Eastern Europe, as Clinton believed that NATO would provide a stabilizing influence on these countries. NATO had been created as a bloc in opposition to the Soviet Union, and many Russian leaders felt threatened by the expansion of the military alliance. Clinton's NATO expansion also faced domestic resistance from those who feared alienating Russia. Clinton cultivated a close relationship with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and in 1997, Clinton won Yeltsin's reluctant assent to the expansion of NATO, clearing the way for the accession of Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Yeltsin pressed for a commitment not to expand NATO into the Baltic states, but Clinton was not willing to bind his successors to such a promise. The French pushed for the addition of Romania and Slovenia to NATO, but Clinton opposed this move, as he believed that too quick of an expansion into Eastern Europe would dilute the strength of NATO.
Clinton tried to help Yeltsin avoid an economic depression, reform the Russian economy, and prevent a resurgence of Communism. Clinton quietly helped Yeltsin win reelection in 1996, and played a major role in Russia's entrance into the Group of Eight (G8), a conference of the countries with the largest economies.
Terrorism emerged as an increasingly important national security issue during Clinton's administration. In the closing years of the Soviet–Afghan War, Osama bin Laden had organized al-Qaeda, a militant Sunni organization. Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders despised Western values, and were particularly incensed by the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaeda grew during the 1990s and engaged in terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere. The group claimed responsibility for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, and the bombing of a U.S. ship at port in Yemen. In retaliation, Clinton ordered the bombing of al-Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan. The Central Intelligence Agency and the military tracked bin Laden's movements in an attempt to capture or kill him, but Bin Laden evaded capture or death within the mountainous and hostile country of Afghanistan.
Clinton sought to mediate the Arab–Israeli conflict, encouraging the leaders of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization to reach the 1993 Oslo Accords. A subsequent agreement created the Palestinian National Authority, which was given control over the Gaza strip, a territory that Israel had taken control of in the 1967 Six-Day War. During his second terms, Clinton sought to revive the dormant peace process, specifically by convincing Israel to turn over control of the West Bank, another territory captured in the Six-Day War. Clinton hosted the 2000 Camp David Summit between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, but the two sides were unable to reach an agreement. In September 2000, the Palestinians launched an uprising known as the Second Intifada, which would continue after the end of Clinton's presidency.
Clinton maintained the economic sanctions and the no-fly zones imposed on Iraq in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. In retaliation for Iraq's attempted assassination of former President Bush, Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on the headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service. After Hussein repeatedly obstructed the UN commission charged with monitoring Iraq's WMD program, the U.S. and Britain engaged in a bombing campaign against Iraqi weapon facilities. These raids would continue intermittently until the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In January 1995, Clinton's economic advisers informed him that the Mexican government would default on its loans unless the U.S. offered a $25 billion loan package. Though Clinton and Speaker of the House Gingrich both believed that preventing the Mexican economy was important to U.S. interests, Congress refused to authorize an aid package. The Clinton administration also helped limit the effects of the 1997 Asian financial crisis by keeping U.S. markets open.
Despite opposition from conservatives and veterans of the Vietnam War, Clinton normalized relations with Vietnam in 1995. That same year, he became the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam. Clinton was also the first president to visit Botswana, Slovenia, and South Africa.
In 1997, Tony Blair of the Labour Party won election as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Clinton and Blair shared a centrist approach to politics, and they jointly promoted their "Third Way" (between traditional left-wing and right-wing policies) on the international stage.
Prior to taking office, Bill and Hillary Clinton had invested in the Whitewater Development Corporation, a real estate development company owned by Jim McDougal and Susan McDougal that quickly went bankrupt. The McDougals were later charged with fraud due to their activities connected to a savings and loan association. The July 1993 death of Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster raised new allegations about the Clintons' connections to the savings and loan associations, marking the start of what became known as the Whitewater controversy. To defuse allegations stemming from Foster's death, Clinton authorized Attorney General Reno to appoint a special prosecutor under the terms of the Ethics in Government Act. Later, a special three-judge panel convened and appointed Ken Starr, a former U.S. solicitor general, as an independent counsel charged with investigating the Whitewater controversy. Starr's investigation expanded beyond Whitewater, in part because of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Clinton by Paula Jones, a former Arkansas employee.
In 1998, Starr's office learned that a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, had engaged in an affair with Clinton. In a deposition related to the Jones lawsuit, Clinton swore under oath that he had not engaged in sexual relations with Lewinsky. Clinton was able to squash rumors of the affair until July 1998, when Starr reached an immunity deal with Lewinsky and obtained her confession of the affair. Clinton publicly apologized for having an affair with Lewinsky in September 1998. Though Clinton argued that he had not lied under oath in his answers to the questions asked at the Jones deposition, the House Judiciary Committee began impeachment proceedings against Clinton. The controversy over Lewinsky enveloped Congress and the presidency, derailing the administration's hopes for reforming Medicare and Social Security. Individuals from both parties were outraged by Clinton's affair with an intern, but many Democrats were mollified by Clinton's repeated public apologies and viewed the reaction from the media and Republicans as disproportionate to the gravity of the affair.
In a party-line vote, the House passed two articles of impeachment against Clinton. In January 1999, the Senate began the second presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history, after that of Andrew Johnson. Removal of the president would require a two-thirds vote of the Senate. Though Republicans held a majority in the Senate, both articles of impeachment failed to even win a majority of the vote. The impeachment proceedings may have boosted Clinton's popularity, as many viewed the Republican impeachment attempts as politically motivated. In 1999, Congress chose not to renew the independent counsel law that had allowed Starr's appointment, meaning that future investigations of a similar nature would be conducted under the oversight of the Justice Department rather than through a judicial panel. Clinton would later publicly acknowledge that he "knowingly gave evasive and misleading answers" in the Jones deposition.
A series of controversies, including the debate over gays in the military, contentious confirmation battles, and "Travelgate," sunk Clinton's approval ratings to just 37 percent in mid-1993. Further setbacks related to health care and foreign policy left Clinton in a weak position in the lead-up to the 1994 elections. Led by Newt Gingrich, House Republicans created the Contract with America, which promised an overhaul of the federal welfare system and passage of a balanced budget amendment, term limits, and deregulation. Republican won control of both chambers of Congress, picking up 54 seats in the House of Representatives and 9 Senate seats. As the victory gave Republicans unified control of Congress for the first time since 1955, some commentators referred to the 1994 elections as the "Republican Revolution."
Clinton's handling of the budget and the Bosnian War improved his approval ratings, and his own polling showed him consistently leading Republican challengers throughout 1996. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole defeated Pat Buchanan and publisher Steve Forbes in the 1996 Republican primaries, and Dole was formally nominated at the August 1996 Republican National Convention. At the convention, Dole selected conservative former Congressman Jack Kemp and announced that he favored a 15% across-the-board income tax cut. Perot ran for president again, this time as a member of the Reform Party.
Clinton continued to position himself as a centrist, stating in early 1996 that "the era of Big Government is over." Meanwhile, Dole, one of the oldest major party presidential nominees in history, proved to be ineffective campaigner. Dole was unable to find a winning topic to campaign on, and Clinton won by a wide margin in the popular vote and the Electoral College. Clinton swept the Northeast and won much of the Midwest, while Dole performed best in the Mountain states and the South. Despite Clinton's victory, Republican retained control of the House and the Senate in the 1996 congressional elections. With Republicans in control of Congress, Clinton refrained from proposing major domestic initiatives in his second term.
In the midst of the impeachment hearings, Clinton's approval ratings rose above 65 percent. Polls showed that many in the public did not condone Clinton's relations with Lewinsky, but they did not believe that it was grounds for removal from office. Defying predictions of congressional losses, the Democrats picked up five seats in the House of Representatives; neither party gained seats in the Senate. The election represented the first time since 1934 that the party holding the presidency picked up seats in a mid-term election. Gingrich resigned from office after the elections, and he was succeeded as Speaker of the House by Dennis Hastert.
Vice President Al Gore dispatched a challenge from Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey early in the 2000 Democratic primaries. Gore chose Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a prominent intra-party critic of Clinton and the affair with Lewinsky, as his running mate. Texas Governor George W. Bush, the son of former President Bush, won the Republican nomination after defeating Senator John McCain of Arizona in the 2000 Republican primaries. For his running mate, Bush selected Dick Cheney, who had served as Secretary of Defense under George H. W. Bush. Pat Buchanan ran as the Reform Party nominee, and he called for a reduction in immigration. Ralph Nader ran as the Green Party candidate, winning support from many liberals who were disappointed by the centrist tendencies of Clinton and Gore.
Bush called for major tax cuts, a partial privatization of Social Security, and school vouchers. He also criticized Clinton for "nation building" in Haiti and other countries, and attacked Clinton's sexual indiscretions. Clinton and Gore had been close political partners for much of Clinton's presidency, but Gore kept his distance from Clinton during the presidential campaign. In the election, Gore won a narrow plurality of the popular vote, taking 48.4 percent to Bush's 47.9 percent and Nader's 2.7 percent. Gore won much of the Northeast, the Midwest, and the Pacific Coast, while Bush dominated the South and the Interior West. However, the winner of the election was unclear on election night, as neither candidate had definitively secured a majority of the electoral vote.
The outcome of the election hinged on Florida, which had endured an extremely close presidential election. Over the ensuing five weeks, both campaigns waged an intense legal battle over election law as Florida conducted a recount. The Supreme Court of Florida unanimously upheld the recount, but the Bush team appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. On December 12, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ordered an end to the recount, leaving Bush as the winner of Florida and the winner of the election. Bush became the fourth individual in U.S. history, and the first since 1888, to win the election despite losing the popular vote. Republicans also retained control of the House and the Senate, giving the party unified control of Congress and the presidency for the first time since the 1954 election.
Polls of historians and political scientists have generally ranked Clinton as an average or above-average president. A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Clinton as the 13th best president. A 2017 C-Span poll of historians ranked Clinton as the 15th best president.
Addressing Clinton's legacy, Russell L. Riley writes:
The Clinton presidency is still with the nation in ways that make it difficult to draw sound judgments about its lasting historical legacy. However, scholars are beginning to focus on some aspects of his administration in which Clinton's historical importance might be significant. For example, Clinton managed to remake the image and operations of the Democratic Party in ways that effectively undermined the so-called Reagan Revolution. His "New Democrat" Party co-opted the Reagan appeal to law and order, individualism, and welfare reform, and made the party more attractive to white middle-class Americans. At the same time, the reborn party retained traditional Democratic commitments to providing for the disadvantaged, regulating the excesses of the private market place, supporting minorities and women, and using government to stimulate economic growth. Moreover, Clinton capitalized on growing dissatisfaction with far right-wing extremism within the Republican Party. Nevertheless, Clinton's claims to a lasting, positive legacy for the Democratic Party have been severely undermined by two realities: the shift in control of Congress to the Republican Party on his watch and the loss by his would-be successor, Vice President Al Gore, in the 2000 presidential election. Thus, Clinton's partisan legacy remains complex and uncertain.