Clinton Wins the U.S. Presidency Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Bill Clinton promised change and met with intense congressional resistance when he became the first Democrat to capture the White House in a decade.

Summary of Event

On January 20, 1993, Bill Clinton was sworn in as the forty-second president of the United States. In a three-cornered race, he had won a substantial electoral victory on November 3, 1992, over the incumbent Republican president, George H. W. Bush, and independent candidate H. Ross Perot, a Texas billionaire. Clinton’s victory can be traced to events in the late 1960’s that reshaped both major U.S. political parties. Since the Great Depression, the Democratic Party had been the country’s dominant political force, forming a coalition of southern white politicians and northern urban and labor leaders. The Democrats could rely on votes from large cities, minorities, unionized workers, southerners, Catholics, and Jews. The Republicans were led by northeastern and midwestern Protestants. They could usually count on support from the business community and middle- and upper-class suburban voters. Presidency, U.S.;Bill Clinton[Clinton] Presidential elections, U.S.;1992 Elections;U.S. [kw]Clinton Wins the U.S. Presidency (Nov. 3, 1992) [kw]U.S. Presidency, Clinton Wins the (Nov. 3, 1992) [kw]Presidency, Clinton Wins the U.S. (Nov. 3, 1992) Presidency, U.S.;Bill Clinton[Clinton] Presidential elections, U.S.;1992 Elections;U.S. [g]North America;Nov. 3, 1992: Clinton Wins the U.S. Presidency[08440] [g]United States;Nov. 3, 1992: Clinton Wins the U.S. Presidency[08440] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 3, 1992: Clinton Wins the U.S. Presidency[08440] Clinton, Bill [p]Clinton, Bill;presidential elections Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;presidential elections Perot, H. Ross Gingrich, Newt

Two powerful political struggles of the 1960’s brought about a reconstruction of both national party coalitions. Opposition to the war in Vietnam induced many liberal Democrats to attack and ultimately weaken or destroy the big-city Democratic machines and labor leaders. Liberal activists for a variety of other causes began to support special-interest groups rather than the party itself. The Civil Rights movement weakened Democratic strength in the South. Although liberals controlled many congressional districts, the party’s strength in presidential campaigns was diminished. For thirty years, the pattern of Republican presidents and Democratic Congresses was established; before Clinton’s election to the presidency, only Jimmy Carter Carter, Jimmy had been able to overcome the trend.

During the first days of his administration, Clinton seemed to be well positioned to produce new programs and initiatives. Not only had the election ended twelve years of Republican control of the executive branch, but the Democrats also were in control of both houses of Congress. Many observers believed that the coalition assembled by President Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald —right-wing Republicans together with Republican and Democratic centrists—finally had come unraveled as a result of the somewhat weakened U.S. economy. Clinton’s campaign promises had included restoration of economic health, deficit reduction, health care reform, campaign spending reform, and support for the North American Free Trade Agreement North American Free Trade Agreement (1993) (NAFTA). Taken as a whole, the elements of Clinton’s program seemed to be well calculated to expand or restore the power of the Democratic Party in national politics.

However, the president found within a few months that there were severe limits on what he could accomplish. Solid Republican opposition to his proposals, coupled with the defection of many Democrats whose interests were adversely affected by Clinton’s program, prevented him from achieving much in the early days of his administration. His efforts to find compromises acceptable to Congress often made him appear to vacillate, further weakening his political influence. Moreover, he had invested a great deal of political capital to persuade the armed forces to accept the presence of homosexuals in the military. Clinton found the going tough on this issue and was forced to accept a compromise that satisfied neither side in the dispute.

By the end of his first two years in office, Clinton had achieved only two major legislative victories: passage of his budget and approval of NAFTA. The president’s budget was a success, resulting in a real reduction in the projected budget deficit and a real reduction in the number of federal employees. The unemployment rate dropped substantially, as many new jobs were created. In the case of NAFTA, Clinton found it necessary to appeal to Republicans for additional legislative support. The treaty passed, but its results were not immediately clear, and controversy continued over its impact on U.S. workers (although in the long run NAFTA proved beneficial to the U.S. economy).

President Clinton failed to persuade Congress to pass an elaborate health care reform plan, which had been his highest and most publicly visible priority. So many interests had been consulted in the formation of the plan and so many compromises had been made that the proposal lost clarity and focus; public support waned, and the president and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Clinton, Hillary Rodham who had assumed a large role in orchestrating the plan, had to accept defeat.

Both before and after the election, Clinton’s greatest political challenge had come from opponents who made a variety of charges. The president and the First Lady were accused of conflicts of interest and financial improprieties in connection with the Whitewater real estate development in Arkansas years before Clinton’s presidency. After the senior staff of the White House Travel Office were dismissed and replaced with people known to the Clintons, Mrs. Clinton was charged with cronyism in what became known as “Travelgate.” In 1993, President Clinton was charged with propositioning and sexually harassing a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones. Jones, with the financial support of conservative groups opposed to the president, filed a suit against him in spite of his denials. In the meantime, Mrs. Clinton—having been attacked for her groundbreaking role in the health care reform effort and for impropriety in the Travelgate and Whitewater matters—was forced to redefine her role as First Lady in a more traditional way, and her participation in the affairs of government became less visible.

President Clinton also faced strong factional opposition among Democrats. He had campaigned for office as a centrist “new Democrat,” but in order to prevail with Congress and the bureaucracy, he found it necessary to adopt a much more liberal stance as president than he had presented as a candidate. His new positions on rights for homosexuals, abortion rights, and minority representation were not generally popular with the public. They also made the president appear to be waffling on a variety of campaign promises. The administration’s abandonment of a promised middle-class tax cut and welfare reform were particularly damaging.

Clinton’s apparent inability to prevail in the legislative process or to become popular enough to silence the critics of his personal behavior made him appear weak and vacillating. In the midterm elections of 1994, the Democrats suffered a stunning reversal, losing control of both houses of Congress for the first time in more than forty years. After that election, President Clinton moved back toward the political center. This second major turnabout did little at first to reestablish his reputation for principled and steadfast political leadership. By late 1995 and early 1996, however, the president had rebounded. He vetoed Republican measures—part of the 1995-1996 budget bill—that would have shifted the administration of welfare and Medicare programs from the national to the state governments, and the Republicans did not have enough votes in Congress to override the veto.

President Bill Clinton takes the oath of office.

(Library of Congress)

In welfare Welfare reform policy itself, Clinton had Republican support for ending the controversial and counterproductive Aid to Families with Dependent Children Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC was eliminated at the federal level, with funds going in block grants to the states for distribution to recipients who faced a new five-year limit on the time they could receive welfare. Although many Democrats stood in opposition, Clinton had substantial Republican support to make these changes. In the long run, the new policy was widely credited with having reduced the problem of intergenerational poverty. Clinton’s success in the public relations battle over the budget and in the successful passage of welfare reform did much to restore his political standing.

Although the crucial decisions of the second half of Clinton’s 1992 term were legislative rather than administrative, the president also had some very visible foreign policy and administrative successes. He successfully withdrew the troops sent to Somalia by President Bush in 1992, and U.S. military intervention in Haiti proved successful, bringing about peaceful elections and a peaceful presidential transition for the first time in that country’s history. Clinton’s administration also established a coalition to intervene militarily to end the savage war between Bosnia and Serbia in the former Yugoslavia.

The political situation after 1994, with a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, had been practically unknown in the United States since before the Great Depression. Unusually sharp administrative and policy differences existed between the Clinton administration and the Republican majorities in Congress. The Republicans in the House of Representatives, under the leadership of Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, were as a group both highly ideological and highly disciplined. The fierce struggle between President Clinton and the congressional Republicans established the critical and defining nature of the 1996 election to the future of U.S. politics.

Reelected in 1996, Clinton served a second term marked by few successes and a tendency to focus on less important policy matters. By the last two years of his second term, Clinton was embroiled in a scandal involving White House intern Monica Lewinsky Lewinsky, Monica , which resulted in his impeachment for alleged perjury before a grand jury. He successfully weathered the impeachment trial, but his final two years in office were dogged by controversy.

Significance

Although Clinton struggled early in his presidency with the appearance of inconsistent political ideals, delays in cabinet appointments, inexperienced staff, and debacles such as Travelgate and the Whitewater affair, in the long run he made progress in lowering a mushrooming federal budget deficit, in bringing health care reform to the Congress as a serious issue, and in working with a midterm Republican Congress toward welfare and other social reforms.

During Clinton’s presidency the U.S. economy did very well, and the American public gave Clinton substantial credit for that as well as for the balanced budgets that the economic prosperity engendered through major increases in federal tax revenue. However, even this legacy was tarnished as the NASDAQ collapsed in March, 2000, owing to what later was described as the technical sector bubble. The economy slowed in that year, giving some ammunition to the Republican presidential contender, George W. Bush, Bush, George W. [p]Bush, George W.;presidential elections who defeated Democrat Al Gore, Gore, Al [p]Gore, Al;presidential elections Clinton’s vice president, in the controversial November, 2000, presidential election. When Bill Clinton left office, both houses of Congress and the White House were in Republican hands—a situation that did not reflect a strong public endorsement of his years as president. Presidency, U.S.;Bill Clinton[Clinton] Presidential elections, U.S.;1992 Elections;U.S.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Campbell, Colin, and Bert A. Rockman, eds. The Clinton Presidency: First Appraisals. Chatham, N.J.: Chatham House, 1995. Collection of excellent essays on the Clinton presidency by political scientists. Harold Stanley’s “The Parties, the President, and the 1994 Midterm Elections” is particularly insightful.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clinton, Bill. My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Exhaustive memoir offers Clinton’s own perspective on the events of his campaigns and his presidency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohen, Richard E. Changing Course in Washington: Clinton and the New Congress. New York: Macmillan, 1994. Documents Clinton’s shift toward the conservative side of the Democratic Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Denton, Robert E., Jr., and Rachel L. Holloway, eds. The Clinton Presidency: Images, Issues, and Communications Strategies. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996. Collection of essays focuses on communications aspects of Clinton’s presidency. Offers expert analysis of the images, issues, and rhetoric used by Clinton during and after the 1992 presidential campaign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Drew, Elizabeth. On the Edge: The Clinton Presidency. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. Recounts the internal policy struggles of the Clinton administration during its first two years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greenberg, Stanley B. Middle Class Dreams: The Politics and Power of the New American Majority. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. Provides thoughtful analysis of the central trends in U.S. public opinion. Suggests that the electorate is becoming more conservative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hohenberg, John. The Bill Clinton Story: Winning the Presidency. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1994. Presents scholarly analysis of Clinton’s 1992 campaign strategy.

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Clinton Is Impeached

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