The excitement that accompanied Bill Clinton’s election as America’s 42nd President was so great that nearly a million people turned out for Inaugural Day. To a nation grown weary of recession, he spoke of change and declared: “There is nothing wrong with America that can’t be cured by what is right with America.”
The administration also had some early setbacks: withdrawn cabinet nominations; a controversial move to reverse the ban on gays and lesbians in the military; and a failed rescue mission in Somalia. Nevertheless, Bill Clinton’s first year as President proved, as he had argued during the campaign, that government could once again be a force for improving people’s lives.
Goals 2000 Education Standards enacted.
In Washington, battle lines were drawn around the role of government. The administration believed that America and its government should help shape these developments to benefit everyone, while a Republican minority argued that government itself was the problem. The administration believed that America should be a leading force for peace and prosperity in the world, while Congressional Republicans called for America to retreat from the world.
The administration prevailed. In Europe, the President proposed a new vision for security in the post–Cold War world. Efforts to support democracy in Russia, bring peace to Northern Ireland and the Middle East, and liberate the people of Haiti emphasized America’s role as a catalyst for positive change.
In Congress, the administration successfully signed into law landmark bills on education and crime—but a bill to provide health insurance for all Americans was defeated by negative advertising and charges of “big government.”
In the election of 1994, Republicans capitalized on the failure of that health plan and gained control of Congress. While divided government would remain a fact of life for the remainder of the decade, President Clinton worked hard to establish bipartisan cooperation and to move the country forward.
“We must return to the principle that if we give ordinary people equal opportunity, quality education and a fair shot at the American dream, they will do extraordinary things.” —President Clinton, January 25, 1994
The Republican sweep of Congress led some to call Clinton’s administration a “failed presidency.” Yet one year later, he held a significant lead over his Republican rival for President. How the “comeback kid” became the “comeback President” is the story of 1995.
“All Americans have not just the right, but a solid responsibility, to rise as far as their god-given talents and determination can take them; and to give something back to their communities and their country in return.” —President Clinton, January 24, 1995
By 1996, the nation was regaining its self-confidence. Clinton’s economic strategy had helped create eight million new jobs, and a wide majority of Americans believed their nation was headed in the right direction. In his State of the Union address, the President declared: “The era of big government is over—yet we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.”
Unlike 1995, 1996 was marked by legislative achievement. The President partnered with the Congress to end the outdated welfare system; and with Democrats, to raise the minimum wage, allow people to take health insurance from job to job, and protect children from tobacco. With Vice President Gore, he gained bipartisan support to create the V-Chip and a television ratings system, helping parents protect their children from exposure to violence. While critics derided such measures, America’s families welcomed them. At the same time, American cooperation with other nations intensified. The administration worked with Russia to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, strengthened military alliances in Japan and South Korea, and saw the first American peacekeepers welcomed in Bosnia.
All this set the stage for a remarkable presidential election year. Republicans nominated Kansas senator Bob Dole, a hero of World War II, who identified himself as a bridge to the past. The President argued that America needed to build a bridge to the 21st century. On November 5, 1996, Bill Clinton became the first Democrat in half a century to be elected to a second term.
“Each of us must hold high the torch of citizenship in our own lives. None of us can finish the race alone. We can only achieve our destiny together—one hand, one generation, one American connecting to another.” —President Clinton, January 23, 1996
America entered 1997 more peaceful and more prosperous than it had been in a generation. The contentious debate between those who saw government as the problem and those who believed government could be part of the solution had given way to more bipartisan cooperation, culminating in an agreement to balance the federal budget, for the first time in a generation.
“America is far more than a place. It is an idea, the most powerful idea in the history of nations...We are now the bearers of that idea, leading a great people into a new world.” —President Clinton, February 4, 1997
Nineteen ninety-eight was the most eventful year in American politics in a generation. After six years of the Clinton economic strategy, a budget surplus was projected for the first time since 1969. A debate began: what should be done with it? President Clinton gave a four-word answer: save Social Security first.
Abroad, millions of Africans turned out to hear President Clinton speak in the first tour by an American president of sub-Saharan Africa. In Communist China, he spoke about freedom. In Northern Ireland, an American-brokered peace accord ended decades of violence. And in Geneva, the President articulated a vision for a new international trading system.
When U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed, America struck back at the terrorist network of Osama bin Laden. In Iraq, American and British forces used airpower to thwart Saddam Hussein’s capacity to build weapons of mass destruction. And when the Middle East peace process was threatened, the President invited Israelis and Palestinians to the Wye River Plantation, restoring the path toward peace. It was also a year when the President acknowledged making a serious mistake in his personal life, misleading both his family and the country. Adversaries, who opposed his policy agenda, used his personal failing to try to destroy his presidency, culminating in the second impeachment in American history. Yet like every other politically motivated investigation of the President, it led nowhere. The Senate eventually voted to acquit the President.
The lasting impression of 1998 was of America as a leading force for peace and prosperity in the world.
By 1999, the United States had achieved the longest peacetime expansion in its history, and seemed to be the nation best positioned to benefit from globalization. Believing that America’s success in the 21st century would depend on the success of other countries, the Clinton Administration led a global effort to expand prosperity to the places left behind, both at home and abroad. President Clinton proposed to nearly quadruple debt relief for heavily indebted poor countries, if they agreed to spend the savings on reducing poverty and educating their people. He also led a global initiative to pay for vaccines that could help eliminate deadly diseases like AIDS.
The President expanded opportunity at home as well, with a New Markets initiative, bringing jobs and investment to poor rural areas, inner cities, and American Indian reservations. With the help of Vice President Gore, 95 percent of American schools were wired to the Internet by the end of the administration. In the spring, Serbia’s President, Slobodan Milosevic, launched a brutal campaign against Muslims in the Serbian province of Kosovo. President Clinton, determined to avoid another bloody war in the Balkans, urged NATO to intervene. After 78 days of air strikes, Milosevic withdrew his forces. A year later, the Serbian people would overthrow Milosevic in a democratic revolution.
At year’s end, Bill Clinton became the first U.S. president to receive the prestigious Charlemagne Prize, for America’s role in creating a Europe that was democratic, undivided, and at peace for the first time in history.
“No one anywhere in the world can doubt the enduring resolve and boundless capacity of the American people to work toward that “more perfect union” of our founders’ dreams.” —President Clinton, January 19, 1999
The Clinton Presidency began with the question of whether government could be a force for positive change in people’s lives. By 2000, there could be no doubt. Focusing his administration’s efforts on empowering Americans and preparing them for a new century, Bill Clinton brought the nation into a period of unparalleled prosperity.
Having inherited a record deficit from his predecessor, the President left a record surplus for his successor. The administration did not rest, however, and continued to look ahead, addressing long-term challenges. It doubled support for after-school programs; enacted the largest increase in Head Start ever; expanded funding for breast and cervical cancer treatment; and led passage of a landmark Lands Legacy Initiative. Overseas, the administration increased trade with Africa and our Caribbean neighbors, helped open Chinese markets to U.S. products, and brought China into the World Trade Organization. “Plan Colombia” helped Latin America’s oldest democracy fight drug trafficking. President Clinton took trips to India and Vietnam, inaugurating a new era of cooperation with both nations.
There were some disappointments as well. Lasting peace did not come to the Middle East. The President could not overcome Congressional opposition to provide prescription drug coverage to America’s older citizens. But our nation entered the 21st century at peace—more prosperous and more respected in the world than it had ever been. The “different kind of Democrat” had given his best efforts to build a different kind of America.
“We remain a new nation. And as long as our dreams outweigh our memories, America will be forever young. That is our destiny.” —President Clinton, January 27, 2000