Bill Clinton and the Progressive Legacy

Bill Clinton announced his run for the presidency 20 years ago this week. John D. Podesta totals up the progressive accomplishments of the 1990s, their costly reversal in the next decade, and the Obama administration’s efforts to get back on track.

William Jefferson
William Jefferson "Bill" Clinton, with his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea at his side, takes the oath of office as the 42nd president of the United States from Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist on the west steps of the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, January 20, 1993. (AP/Ed Reinke)

I first met Bill Clinton on the campaign trail more than 40 years ago. When he later ran for president, I supported his candidacy not out of nostalgia or even friendship but because I knew he had a strong grasp of the challenges America faced at the time, and the impact those challenges had on working-class families we both grew up in. President Clinton is one of the best educated and most erudite people I’ve ever met, but when it came to policy decisions, it was the moms and dads sitting around the kitchen table trying to pay their bills that mattered most to him. I think that’s why the only time in the last 35 years that wages for middle-class and poor Americans rose consistently was when Bill Clinton was president—and that fact alone makes me proud of my service in the Clinton administration.

President Clinton also had a true reformer’s instinct. He understood that it was the principles behind his progressive vision that were sacred, not particular policies or programs, and that the first priority of our federal government must be that every citizen share in the great gifts America could bestow. As President Clinton told the nation a few weeks after his inauguration, “I believe we will find our new direction in the basic old values that brought us here over the last two centuries: a commitment to opportunity, to individual responsibility, to community, to work, to family, and to faith.”

What the Clinton-Gore administration accomplished over eight years, putting those principles into action, was truly remarkable, particularly when it came to the economy. For example, Clinton recognized from the start that years of huge federal deficits had sapped the country’s confidence and forced up interest rates for everybody. But he wasn’t willing to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class, who were already weighted down by a sluggish economy and declining government services. Clinton believed that the burden of deficit reduction should largely be borne by the people who had benefited the most from the Reagan tax reductions 12 years earlier: the very top of the wealthiest earners. By the way, the tax increase enacted turned out to be an excellent investment for them, because business investments, profits, and return on private investment soared in the Clinton-era economy.

Though Clinton knew there had to be some budget cutbacks, he wasn’t going to ignore the needs of working families either. Many times on the stump, he said, “No one with children who works full time should live in poverty.” He recognized that in a globalized world, where America is competing with rising nations, we must invest in Americans through education, and that for people to innovate and adapt to change, they need to feel economically secure. So we found the money to double the earned income tax credit. We strengthened the Community Reinvestment Act. We raised the minimum wage. We put funds into infrastructure projects that strengthened the overall economy and created good jobs. We moved millions of people from welfare to work. We kept education funding high, and raised it higher, so every child would have a chance to succeed. And we created the AmeriCorps, to give young people a way to serve their communities and earn money for college.

The Clinton administration found room to invest in other programs that strengthened families and helped make life better for all Americans, too—and expended immense political capital to make them possible. President Clinton advocated and secured the passage of the Brady Bill, which kept more than half a million felons, fugitives, and domestic abusers from buying guns. We put 100,000 new police officers on the street, contributing to the sharpest drop in crime the United States had ever known. We reformed the college loan system to make it easier, simpler, and less expensive, and significantly expanded work-study and Pell Grant programs. We adopted the most stringent air pollution standards in the nation’s history and extended safe drinking water protections to 40 million additional Americans. And we preserved more of America’s dwindling open spaces than any other president since Theodore Roosevelt—an accomplishment I helped shape and of which I am particularly proud. Under President Clinton, the National Park System expanded by more than 4.6 million acres, including 13 new national parks and 17 new national monuments, and 60 million of acres of roadless national forest were protected from exploitation and development.

In short, we invested in America and its people to put the country on a path to prosperity—and it worked. When Clinton was sworn in, the unemployment rate was more than 7 percent and hadn’t been less than 5 percent for 20 years. Eighteen months into the Clinton administration, the unemployment rate dropped below the 6 percent mark, and by the time Clinton left office, the unemployment rate had been less than 5 percent for 44 consecutive months. For African Americans and Hispanics, groups for whom the economy never worked well, the unemployment rate fell to levels not seen in decades. The administration also emphasized investment in science and technology. Our eight years in office saw the full flowering of America’s information economy—a transformation that touched every aspect of our lives and continues to flourish.

George W. Bush’s administration, unfortunately, followed a very different path. President Bush oversaw the clearest and most sustained application of conservative ideology in action. While Bush’s supply-side crusade did work for those at the very top of the income spectrum, it did so at the expense of everyone else. Income inequality soared, median incomes declined, and millions lifted up under Clinton fell back into poverty. Today the country is struggling to recover from the onslaught: More than 15 percent of Americans are now live below the poverty line, the highest level since 1993, and a median income working-age family is making almost $4,000 less on average then they made in 1999. Harvard University economist Lawrence Katz has aptly called the 10 years following Bush’s first oath of office “the Lost Decade.”

Though I’m deeply saddened by the toll conservative ideology has taken on our economy, I still take heart in what the Clinton administration was able to accomplish, and what those accomplishments mean for our future. Under Clinton we turned the economy around using progressive economic policies that focused on long-term fiscal discipline, working to close the widening gap between rich and poor, and spurring innovation and investment to grow the economy overall. And the United States created 23 million jobs, not coincidentally but as a direct result. The challenges America faces now in the Great Recession left by the Bush administration are profound, but I am confident that the same progressive principles that President Obama is championing today can put our economy and our country back on the right track once again.

Clinton’s campaign theme in 1992 was “putting people first.” Looking back, I’m proud to say we did just that. We cleared the path for success for the broad middle class and those striving to climb it, and we moved this country on a progressive course in the process. That’s a record of achievement I’m proud to be a part of, and a lasting legacy of what progressivism, at its best, can accomplish.

John Podesta is President and CEO of the Center for American Progress and served as President Bill Clinton’s last White House chief of staff.

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