A Retrospective View of the Clinton Presidency: An essay by Huck Gutman published in The Statesman, Kolkata (Calcutta) , India

"Sterling Statesman" 
January 25, 2001

       As the eight years of Bill Clinton’s Presidency draw to a close, it is fitting that we turn to an assessment of what he has done as President, and what his occupancy of the White House has meant for the American nation, and the world.

       What first comes to mind is that Bill Clinton was President during the longest period of economic prosperity that the United States has seen in this century.  There is full employment in the United States: anyone who wants a job can find one.  That does not mean that there is no significant underemployment, in which people cannot find jobs commensurate with their skills; nor that a much higher percentage of Americans than is usually acknowledged support themselves through either temporary work, or through cobbling together various part-time jobs.  Still, even considering the problems, full employment is the envy of the world, and justly so.

       This prosperity allowed Clinton to move toward a balanced budget, and to achieve today’s government surplus.  When one considers the reckless spending, primarily for a bloated and unnecessary military establishment, into which his Republican predecessors – who claimed to be fiscal conservatives, but who spent money as if they had no concern about where it came from or who would have to pay the bills – had led the nation, this is no small accomplishment.

       Clinton takes credit for overseeing this unparalleled prosperity, but with unusual humility does not insist that he alone created it.  He is right to be cautious about claiming he created the prosperity.  In fact, there were three motors powering the past eight years of economic growth. The first was a speculative and rising stock market – especially in the new information technology – which through spiraling stock prices ‘created’ money and wealth, which in turn was spent or re-invested, fuelling yet more economic growth.  The second was – it pains me to say this – the consequence of the corporate downsizing of the 1980’s, which  recreated American corporations so that the bottom line was the only line: corporate profits, not the maintenance of jobs or the continuity of past successful practices, became the only criterion for managerial decisions.  When profits are one’s only concern, it is likely that profits will rise.  (What happens to workers, the environment, a community of mutual trust: these become irrelevant.) The third motor of American prosperity was globalization, of which more anon.

       The two greatest successes of President Clinton had to do with his style, not with programs or decisions,  That did not mean that those successes were any less real or without large historical impact for Americans.  Both of these successes had their roots in Clinton’s boyhood. He grew up for a time in a single-parent family, poor, without status.  Bill Clinton, it seems clear, never forgot his roots.  When he came to the Presidency, he refused to appoint primarily the sons of bankers  and corporate lawyers to his Cabinet, as had done all his predecessors: he appointed men and women of all races, of all backgrounds. The diversity of America, he insisted, would be reflected in his Cabinet.  And it was.  (Even conservative George Bush, comfortable only with Texans and his father’s friends, has been forced by Clinton’s example to bring superficially diverse people into his Cabinet.)

       More important, but along the same lines, Bill Clinton was genuinely comfortable with the kind of people whom the ruling class, white, country-club set would consider marginal.  Having grown up an outsider himself, he felt a community of interest with black and Asian Americans, poor Americans, working-class Americans, older Americans.  And Americans responded to his genuine liking for them in all their differences, in all their diversity.  That was one reason Americans did not abandon Bill Clinton when his sexual appetites led him into a compromising situation.  Bill Clinton liked and accepted them: the American people were glad to reciprocate.

       For the greatest triumph of the Clinton Presidency was that he was genuinely likeable.  This was not a surface characteristic.  Clinton liked – if it were not dangerously rhetorical, I would say he loved – the American people, not merely as an abstraction, but in the actuality of Americans.  He loved to ‘press the flesh,’ to campaign and shake as many hands, literally touch as many people, as he could.  He was more comfortable talking with a black factory worker or a poor white farmer than he was talking with investment bankers, though so broad was his reach and acceptance that he had no trouble talking with investment bankers, either.  (Besides, investment bankers gave larger campaign contributions: clearly, one of Clinton’s non-successes was in the area of campaign finance reform.  Despite a rotten and corrupt election system, dominated by money from special interests, Clinton never put campaign finance reform on his legislative agenda.  In fact, he was a champion fund-raiser for his candidacy and for the Democratic party.) 

       Bill Clinton has been, for eight years, a wonderful example of generosity of spirit, of tolerance, of how easy it is to embrace diversity.  As the epitome of much that is best about America, he ranks with Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy as one of  the great symbolic figures of the American twentieth-century presidency.

       There were many important steps forward during the Clinton Presidency. The first increase in the minimum wage in twenty years, family and medical leave legislation giving employees the right to take time off for family emergencies, increased civil protections for homosexuals, an increased concern and protectiveness of the environment.  Sincere attempts to negotiate peace – not enforce it – in the West Asia, and in Northern Ireland. 

       But there were also three gigantic failures: it is likely that, aside from the tolerance he represented, they will be his enduring legacy.  The first failure was that, during his first term in office, he proposed a national health care plan – and failed to deliver it.  The United State is the only developed nation which does not guarantee health care to all its citizens, the only developed nation which does not guarantee health care for all its citizens.   Thirty million Americans have no health care, another sixty million are underinsured: that means a full third of Americans are fully or partially outside the health care system.  Those with money get excellent health care. Those without money either get no health care, or substandard treatment.  Health is more like a Mercedes – you can have it if you can afford it – than it is a right in America. 

       Clinton saw this, and to his credit recognized universal health care as a major priority for the nation.  But he bumbled and fumbled, and when the noise and smoke cleared away, the opportunity had been lost.  For it is not just that Clinton failed to deliver: the very possibility of fighting the battle, of continuing to work to make health care a right and not a privilege, seemed to have evaporated.  It was a turning point in the nation’s history: a moment when a fifty-year struggle for a basic human right seemed to come to a final defeat.
       I have my own theory of why Clinton failed so miserably in the health-care battle, and it is not that Hilary Clinton did not handle her assignment well.  (Although she didn’t.)   In the first two years of his Presidency, Clinton had two major legislative issues.  One was universal health care.  The other was the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA), the opening wedge of what was to be an eight-year campaign for international free trade.  It was clear that if arms had to be twisted, favors granted, votes procured, Clinton cared more deeply about NAFTA than health care.   So he won a bitter and narrow battle over NAFTA – as he later would win battles over the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) – and lost the less important battle over health care.  Those were his priorities, and he got the victory he most coveted.

       But what Bill Clinton regarded as a triumph is, to many, his greatest failure.  He has made the world safe, not for democracy, but for global investment.  No longer can a government, or an association of trade unions, or groups of environmentalists, say to multinational corporations, “You cannot do this.  It is harmful to our society, to our people, to the land in and on which we live.”  Globalization means that capital has the ability to move wherever it wishes.  If one nation says, “Your factory is polluting our air,” and insists on pollution control, global capital merely moves the factory to a more compliant nation.  If workers demand reasonable pay for their work, a corporation finds it more ‘economical’ to close the factory and relocate to another country than to meet the workers’ legitimate demands.

       This ‘race to the bottom,’ in which international capital and multinational corporations move investments around the globe to find the markets where labor is cheapest, is one of the dominant forces in the world today.  Bill Clinton helped to create the conditions which make such a ‘race’ possible.  He pushed for legislation which would force developing nations to enter the world ‘community’ of mobile capital; he strong-armed leaders of other nations into accepting this new economic world order.  Today, no nation, not even the United States, determines its own destiny: the new rulers of the globe are the multinational corporations, and their policemen/managers, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

       Not only did Bill Clinton open up the entire world to the ravaging power of international bankers and multinational corporations, he also – his third great failure – removed the ‘safety net’ which protected poor American families from economic catastrophe.  Ever since the major depression of the 1930’s, the United States has had a system for providing a bare minimum of food, housing, and clothing to indigent families.  The system is called ‘welfare,’ and for seventy years it provided funds to indigent families.  But welfare bred problems, chiefly a slow embrace of poverty (so alien to the American desire to work hard and advance) by some of the poor, and so there were demands by conservatives (none of whom were themselves poor) that welfare be abolished. 

       Bill Clinton, who always listened to polls more than his own conscience, who always put electoral victories ahead of principle, noticed that in a surging economy there was little public sympathy for welfare.  And so he dismantled the welfare system.  There is still welfare – but now its duration is limited by law.  In a flush economy, two years of welfare may be sufficient for someone to find a job and climb out of total poverty.  But America’s economy will not always be flush; in fact, there are indicators that America could move into recession in the near future.  What will happen to the poor when there are no jobs?   The question is not academic, but real.

       It would have been better, on one of those evenings when Bill Clinton did not know what to do with himself, if he had read Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines instead of hanging out with Monica Lewinsky.  Because what Bill Clinton failed to realize is that famines are created, not natural; that without social control and social planning, economic problems turn into economic disasters.  And so, to garner some votes in the next Congressional election, he dismantled the system which had worked for seventy years to prevent economic downturns from turning into catastrophes for the poor.  The next time the American economy encounters hardship, the poor and unemployed will learn just how great President Clinton’s failure was.

       Even with his shortcomings, Bill Clinton did care both about Americans and about all the people who inhabit our global community.  The same cannot be said about George Bush, who cares only – not chiefly, but only – about the agenda of the rich and the multinationals.  Whatever Bill Clinton’s failures, and they were major, Americans and all citizens of the globe will miss him greatly in the next four years.