Taking stock as Clinton's time runs out

Legacy: Bill Clinton's record is a mixture of good intentions and bad judgment, with the economy providing an antidote for poisonous personal behavior.

January 14, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - As the eight-year presidency of William Jefferson Clinton nears its end, it is a commentary on his legacy that he has been obliged to pursue it down to the final days.

The greatest achievement of his tenure, the nation's economic well-being, is abundantly obvious. His focus on deficit reduction and a balanced budget have projected federal surpluses unimagined before his era. The national debate has been transformed to one of how best to allocate the bounty.

But his paternity of the new prosperity is challenged by Republican leaders in Congress, and its future is clouded by the loss of the presidency to a new leader who hints darkly of an impending recession.

A cloud of Clinton's own making also hangs over any assessment of his performance in the White House: his personal misconduct that led to his impeachment, tempered but not erased from the history books by his acquittal on essentially party lines in the Senate.

In efforts that might lead contemporary assessors and historians to look more favorably on his presidency, Clinton has spent his last year - even his last days - in office in a whirlwind of activity, travel and good works, issuing executive orders and playing 11th-hour peacemaker in the Middle East.

But rather than any single initiative, he is likely to be praised by history for the often brilliant and deft political talent that enabled him to keep the ship of state on a prosperous and peaceful course in the face of a largely hostile Congress, which was in opposition hands for most of his national stewardship.

Casting himself as a "new Democrat," he repeatedly seized the middle ground in American politics in a fashion that successfully warded off the kind of Republican attempts to demonize him as a traditional liberal that had been so effective against Democrats since the late 1960s.

In so doing, he put his party on a more moderate course that better equipped it to combat the conservative temper in the country that had taken root in the Ronald Reagan years.

Clinton learned from one early failure in his first term - his effort, managed by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, to achieve a sweeping overhaul of the nation's health-care system. It was successfully repulsed by the GOP leadership and insurance-industry allies, and thereafter he sought his health reform goals in more modest steps that would not so conspicuously invite the liberal label.

The most prominent foe of his first term, Republican House firebrand Newt Gingrich, managed in Clinton's second year in office to engineer a GOP takeover of the House for the first time in 40 years. Gingrich's conservative "Contract with America" threatened to seize direction of the country from the young Democratic president.

Clinton, obviously chastened, declared to the gloating pleasure of his opponents that "the era of big government is over." But Gingrich and his congressional allies soon arrogantly overplayed their hand and Clinton skillfully brought them to heel in late 1995.

Holding firm against their demands for austere budget cutbacks, he permitted two government shutdowns for which they took the brunt of criticism over loss of public services. In doing so, he regained the upper hand politically, turning around his own slipping political fortunes and easily winning a second term in 1996.

That victory, however, was not without a political price, not only for himself but also for his vice president and prospective heir apparent, Al Gore. Their excesses in fund raising, while fueling the turnaround through aggressive television advertising, led to investigations that cast shadows of ethical misconduct over both men in the second Clinton-Gore term.

More damaging was the disclosure of Clinton's sexual misconduct with a White House intern, at first vehemently denied, that dominated the latter part of his second term. The scandal further poisoned his relationship with the Republican Congress and eventually complicated and compromised Gore's effort to succeed him as president.

For all that, Clinton leaves the presidency with a legion of defenders who give him some of the highest job approval ratings for a departing chief executive, more than 60 percent in some polls. At the same time, however, public disapproval of his personal behavior as he goes out the door is comparably high - attributable to his sexual dalliances and his sometimes losing wrestling match with the truth.

First term

Clinton's first term, from the very start, was a mixture of good intentions and bad judgment - a mix that endured through most of the Clinton era. His first executive order set new, high ethical standards for senior administration officials that in time were breached not only by several of them, also by Clinton himself.

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