So, What Did You Do?

America’s 42nd president, Bill Clinton, was reportedly hospitalized with chest pains this afternoon in New York. Hopefully he’ll be fine, but naturally any threat to his health puts one in mind of the man’s legacy as a two-term president.
What struck me is this: when he was president, there was endless debate about Bill Clinton. Was he a liberal at heart who tacked to the center for pragmatic reasons, or was he essentially a moderate? Was he wasting his prodigious political talents, or was campaigning all he really knew to do well anyway? Did he revive liberalism from its decline, or validate the Reagan Revolution?
But nine years after he left office, as his presidency begins to recede into history and his party has passed to new leadership, this much is clear: it doesn’t matter anymore what Clinton’s intentions were, or what his talents were, or what he believed in. It doesn’t matter anymore who was up or who was down in his Administration, or who leaked what to which newspaper, or how he went about making decisions. It doesn’t matter who the public blamed or what the polls said. It doesn’t matter what Clinton said, either – we remember a few stock phrases (other than the embarrassing ones about his various scandals, probably his most enduring line was his campaign’s standing reminder to then-candidate Clinton that “It’s the economy, stupid”).
What matters from the Clinton Administration is what the president and his Administration did, and what it failed to do. Thus, for example, Clinton’s fiscal and economic legacy was not Hillarycare or the BTU tax, which went nowhere, nor was it the Contract with America, but rather an essentially centrist set of compromises with the GOP that yielded income tax hikes, capital gains tax cuts, welfare reform, fits of spending restraint but few spending cuts, major free trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT, and a series of both regulatory and deregulatory bills on the workplace, private securities litigation, and the financial markets. The book isn’t closed yet on the ripples from that era, but the decisions made, the bills passed, the judges appointed, the wars fought and unfought, etc., are done, and as historians debate President Clinton’s legacy, that is what they will examine. The same will be true of George W. Bush.
And the same will be true of Barack Obama. Obama is known for his eloquence, but little he says is remembered the next day, and still less will live on after him. Obama spends much of his days pointing fingers of blame – at the Bush Administration, at Congressional Republicans – but blame is not a legacy. Obama’s true intentions are subject to as much debate as Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s, or for that matter FDR’s or Lincoln’s, but only his record will really matter.
Which ought to give him pause. Obama entered office with an unprecedented base of support in Congress – even FDR didn’t have a filibuster-proof majority in his first year in office – and yet it is hard to think of a modern two-term president who accomplished less, either legislatively or in international affairs, than Obama in his first year. Even Clinton, for all the frustrations of his first year in office, got his tax hike package passed.
Unlike Clinton or Bush, Obama’s political obituary is far from written. But we should not lose sight of the fact that when it is, all the rhetoric and the news cycles will pale in comparison to that awful question: what did you do with the time that was given to you?

12 thoughts on “So, What Did You Do?”

  1. When all is said and done, Clinton will be seen as a slightly above average president. He will (rightly) get credit for the good times that were enjoyed during his tenure. He will (rightly) be faulted for not taking more advantage of the holiday from history that was his and accomplishing more.
    The Lewinsky scandal will be an interesting but unimportant footnote in his legacy.

  2. I believe the best one can say about Clinton is that he didn’t kill the economic surge that started in the Reagan years.
    Which sounds like a backhanded compliment, but isn’t. It’s sort of on a par with Bill James evaluation of baseball manager Sparky Anderson; all he managed to do was take two terrific teams and win championships.
    I still can’t stand the guy; Clinton, that is. I remember some of his extemporaneous comments at Davos shortly after 9/11. He showed remarkable perception of the task that America faced — and all I could think was: you understand what is at atake so well, but you would risk everything for a half a percentage rise in the polls if you were still in charge.

  3. While personally reprehensible, kept out of the way and did not do too much harm on the domestic front. NAFTA andWelfare Reform, both conservative republicanpolicies are his 2 biggest legislative accomplishments. In foreign affairs and defense issues well I think we all know where the massive cuts in intelligence and defenses got us. Along with running out of Somalia, ignoring Al Quaeda attacks on our embassies and elsewhere. In 1993, he was handed an opportunity to order the world, to create a Pax Americana for the next 75-100 years-in a way that was his biggest failure

  4. Was a terrible President. As dch noted, his two biggest legislative accomplishments were conservative Republican policies (which even those in denial know are disasters in practice) and he abandoned Somalia like he was St. Ronnie of Cut and Run fleeing from Lebanon.
    However, I don’t agree with dch’s revisionism on his reaction to Al Quaeda attacks on our embassies. For those of us sentient in the 90s, we remember he did act on those attacks and was called out for “wagging the dog” to get the 100% manufactured (by the so called “liberal media”) Lewinsky scandals off the front page of newspapers.
    His biggest accomplishment is, along with the DLC, killing the Democratic party through his abandonment of middle class principles in exchange for corporate campaign donations, and punching the (always correct) hippies in the face.
    You’d think he’d be conservatives wet dream, but they can’t get over the “D” behind his name on the ballot.

  5. I know I am going to regret engaging Berto but I have to ask. What do you mean by “(always correct) hippies”?
    As someone who actually lived thru the hippie era (and I do remember it and I was there), the vast majority of “hippie” were na├»ve, lazy, dirty, dopers who were always looking for a handout and taking from everyone. They were intolerant of people who did not agree with them. Generally, they we worthless. But hey, most of music was pretty good!

  6. Lee,
    You may know them from their other name: liberals.
    I remember them saying the fall of Viet Nam to communism would NOT be the first domino dropping in a race for all of Asia to be communist.
    They said deregulation of the financial markets would lead to economic catastrophe.
    They said it certainly would take more than $15 billion and 6 months to accomplish winning the Iraq War.
    In fact, many said Iraq wasn’t about WMDs. They said ir=t was about oil. Turns out the first plank of the Bush administration movement after the fighting was in Iraq no-bid contracting with western oil companies to service Iraq’s largest oil fields.
    They said the US was going into Iraq for the long haul. The building of a giant US embassy was the only US building project in Iraq to be on schedule and within budget. Not building health clinics, water treatment facilities, and electrical power plants. All that despite being told we were going there to help the poor Iraqis.
    Also, environmentalism, civil rights, allowing people to do what they wish with their own bodies, etc.
    All the while conservatives and their enablers in the “liberal media” laughed at them and called them tree-huggers and the names you regurgitated above.
    Compare the record of hippies to those of conservatives. When it comes to being correct, it’s a rout on the side of the hippies. If it was a Little League game it would have been called off years ago due to the slaughter rule.

  7. Berto,
    Are you for real? No, you gotta be just some guy just kidding around. You actually believe the stuff you wrote?

  8. Lee at February 12, 2010 5:01 PM
    Crank at February 12, 2010 5:12 PM
    Take that, Gerard Alexander!

  9. Well, Clinton dealt with a witch hunt conducted by a priggish special prosecutor. The voters realized that the hypocrits in the GOP over-reached in obstructing the poeple’s business and took it out on them in the 98 elections.
    Notwithstanding all the Tea Party boondoggles and over-wrought wing nut rhetoric from talk radio, the President’s achievements will be what matters.

  10. I, for one, think that we should stop seeing “accomplishing little” as a bad thing. Most of the time, when the federal executive or legislative branch “accomplishes nothing”, I want to bust out the champagne.
    Beware the candidate who promises to finally “get something done”. Most of the time, it involves raiding your wallet.
    Instead of getting things “done”, most of the time I would be much happier if Congress would get something “undone”; that is, undo some of the laws and regulations that restrain liberty.
    Unfortunately, that doesn’t sound like a winning campaign slogan: “I promise to go to Congress to get things UNDONE! Are ya with me, America?!”
    —Tom Nally, New Orleans

  11. I gotta go with Tom. The less our legislatures do (both state and federal) seem to me to lead to better things.
    When the NY state legislature was shutdown for awhile last year, I was quite happy-even though we still paid them! Personally, I would increase their salary if they would do less.
    As Paul Newman (in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) said “If he paid me what he is spending to stop me from robbing him, I’d stop robbin’ him!”

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