The Presidencies of William J. Clinton and George W. Bush

The Waning Years of George W. Bush:  The Persian Gulf War, otherwise known as Operation Desert Storm, quickly overran Iraqi forces in Kuwait; yet the U.S. did not occupy Iraq at the time as Bush wished to retain the good will of the Russian government and the coalition of U.N. forces which had fought in the conflict... Strict sanctions were imposed on Iraq including a pledge not to develop nuclear weapons.  Bush said afterward, “By God, we have kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”  Although the Cold War was now history, the United States now saw itself with a new presence in the Middle East.  Originally, Bush’s approval ratings made him appear unbeatable for a second term following the euphoria of Desert Storm.

A second term was not to be: The American economy faltered and the jobless rate soared.  Additionally, Bush had instituted tax hikes which he insisted had been forced upon him by Congress, even though he had solemnly pledged at his nomination in 1986, “Read my lips, no new taxes.”  A substantial number of conservative voters voted for a third party candidate, Ross Perot, who received more votes than any third party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.  His nineteen percent of the popular vote was enough to deny George H.W. Bush a second term.  He thus became the third President in thirty years to be voted out of office. He was defeated by William Jefferson Clinton, governor of Arkansas. Although Clinton won a majority in the Electoral College, he received only 43.7 percent of the percent of the popular vote, less than any post World War II President except Richard Nixon.

Clinton brought considerable personal baggage with him to the White House.  During the election, he was accused of travelling to England to avoid being drafted for service into Vietnam, and photos emerged of him participating in anti-war rallies while out of the country. At times, he seemed to parse words rather than answer charges directly: when asked if he had smoked marijuana, his famous reply was “I didn’t inhale.”  Even so, fatigue with Bush’s policies and Clinton’s charisma won him the election.  His Vice President was Albert W. Gore of Tennessee. Together they comprised the first Presidential administration comprised of baby boomers, and also the first all southern administration.

A Divided Nation: Clinton entered the White House at a time when the two major political parties were more divisive and antagonistic to each other than any time in the past one hundred years. Much of the partisanship was the result of intense disagreement over issues such as abortion, gay rights, immigration, etc.  The division first appeared at the 1992 Republican convention when former Reagan speechwriter Patrick Buchanan, who lost the nomination of George H.W. Bush, told his audience: “this election is about what we stand for as Americans.”  There was “a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America.  It is a culture war.”  This disagreement on principle divided the political parties and the country along bitter lines with Republicans comprised primarily of conservative traditionalists who argued religious reasons for their positions and Democrats taking a more secular and liberal line.  The end result was a pluralistic society with neither side willing to compromise, a word each considered tantamount to surrender.

Among the issues dividing the country:

·         Loss of Family Values: Conservatives pointed to a forty percent divorce rate among White Americans and a sixty percent rate of out-of-wedlock pregnancies among Black Americans. They blamed this upon liberal divorce laws in many states, welfare payments to unwed mothers, and “liberal” judges who allowed abortions and prohibited religious instruction in public schools.

·         Abortion: The issue of abortion had presumably been settled by the Supreme Court’s Decision in Roe vs. Wade in 1973 which held that a woman had an absolute right to terminate an unwanted or unsafe pregnancy within the first trimester of that pregnancy. The religious right refused to accept this as settled law, and became more and more confrontational over the issue. A group known as Operation Rescue comprised of fundamentalist Protestants protested outside abortion clinics, and often harassed persons working or visiting them. Several conservative state legislatures passed laws limiting public funding for abortions, required parents to be notified before a minor could receive an abortion and mandated waiting periods or in some cases that a woman view an ultrasound of her unborn child before an abortion could be performed.  In several instances, extremists bombed abortion clinics and murdered doctors who performed abortions claiming their actions were legal as a defense of the life of the unborn child. Those who opposed strictures on abortion, primarily former feminists who called themselves “pro-choice” (those opposed to abortion called themselves “prolife”) argued that the right to privacy gave a woman absolute control over her body and life.

An increasingly conservative Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey 1992) affirmed a woman’s right to control her reproductive function as defined in the Roe case, but upheld a state law which mandated a twenty four hour waiting period before an abortion could be performed. Earlier, in Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services (1989) the Court upheld the authority of states to limit or withhold state funding for abortion clinics.  As of 2015, the issue has yet to be firmly decided with the two sides firmly entrenched in their positions.

·         Gay Rights: Homosexuality had long been condemned as a moral wrong by the conservative religious right, and many states had laws making any type of homosexual activity, or in some cases even the designation of homosexual criminal. Although many American men and women were gay, they remained severely closeted to protect themselves and their families from the stigma which exposure would bring about. Police frequently raided gay bars in large cities and publicized the names of persons they found there.

The first rudiments of change occurred in 1969 when Police raided a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York, known as the Stonewall Inn. Patrons of the bar rioted for several days, burned the bar and fought police. Although the violence was condemned, the Stonewall incident began a movement for equal rights for gay Americans. In 1975 the National Gay Task force was formed to lobby Congress and sue for legal protection.

By the late twentieth century, a substantial number of gay Americans left the closet. A number of American cities passed ordinances prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. (The term itself was a substantial change; previously the reference was to “sexual preference.” For many years, the religious right insisted that sexual orientation was a choice, even though overwhelming medical and psychological evidence indicated otherwise.)

The issue sharply divided the country, often along sectional lines. Again, the Supreme Court stepped in. an amendment to the Colorado constitution which prevented local governments from passing ordinances which protected gay people was struck down. The Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress in 1998 which allowed states to refuse to recognize gay marriages or civil unions performed in other states was likewise declared unconstitutional in 2013 in Windsor vs. United States.  Earlier, in Lawrence vs. Texas, 2003) the Court held that states had no right to prohibit private homosexual activity between consenting adults. 

Although the Religious Right refuses to give up the fight, the battle has been lost and won. As of 2011, eleven states passed laws legalizing marriages between persons of the same sex. A number of federal court decisions have made same sex marriages legal in thirty seven states.

·         Immigration:  In 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the Hart-Celler Act which eliminated the quota system established in 1924. Although immigration was still limited, a higher total limit was allowed, and notably, immediate family members of those already legally in the U.S. could immigrate outside the quota system.  This system allowed a significant number of people from Latin America to migrate legally to the U.S., so much so that the number of Latinos was greater than the number of African Americans. A large number of Asians from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos also entered the country at the end of the Vietnam War as well as others from India, Pakistan, China, the Philippines and South Korea. The result was the creation of a multi-cultural nation which no longer had a Caucasian majority.


Many new immigrants who came to the U.S. did so illegally, creating a population of three to five million illegal immigrants.  As a result, Congress passed the Immigration Control and Reform Act in 1986 which increased border patrols and provided incentives for employers to not hire illegal aliens; yet the mass migration continued. A number of border states passed laws prohibiting illegal aliens from attending public schools and denying them rights to non-emergency medical care.  These laws were struck down by the Supreme Court. Although reminiscent of earlier immigration debates, this change resulted in the concept of multiculturalism, defined by James A. Henretta as “comprised of diverse set of ethnic and racial groups living and working together.”


Again, conservative groups opposed multiculturalism arguing that programs to mainstream minorities often resulted in “reverse discrimination” against Whites. Additional efforts have been made to enforce “English only” rules in state supported schools regardless of the ethnic composition of the student body.  This is the divided nation over which William J. Clinton was elected to govern.


In his initial years as President, Clinton attempted to steer a middle course between the extreme positions taken by the two parties, which he called the “third way.” His record in that regard was mixed.  He failed to secure legislation providing universal health care for Americans but was successful in reducing the federal deficit and balancing the budget, the result of which was reduced interest rates and an economic resurgence. Conservatives were not done, however, and in the 1994 mid-term elections Republicans won a majority in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1954.


Impeachment: Clinton had long been dogged with accusations of moral failures, including a number of extramarital affairs and a proclivity to parse words to evade direct answers.  On one occasion while under oath, he avoided a direct answer by stating that a correct response depended on how one interpreted the word “is.” This was ammunition for the conservatives who hated him and were determined to hobble his presidency, if not get rid of him outright.  A special prosecutor was appointed in 1998 to investigate Clinton’s involvement as well as that of his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a failed Savings and Loan venture in Arkansas named as Whitewater.  One of the principles in the savings and loan refused to testify against Clinton and was jailed for contempt.  (In a highly controversial move, Clinton pardoned her in the last hours of his term of office in a series of so called “midnight pardons.”) The special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, uncovered evidence that Clinton had lied under oath about an extramarital affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky and brought charges against him for perjury and obstruction of justice, to which he later pled guilty. He paid a substantial fine and was disbarred from practicing law in Arkansas. Seeing their opportunity to be rid of him once and for all, House Republicans voted two Articles of Impeachment, making Clinton the second President (after Andrew Johnson) to be impeached.  As in Johnson’s case, the Senate failed to convict him, and he served the balance of his second term in office, but his effectiveness was severely damaged. His reputation for moral laxity never left him.


The George W. Bush Presidency:  The election of 2000 was one of the closest in American history, so much so that disputed votes in the popular election in Florida (which held 25 electoral votes) prevented a determination of the actual winner. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a manual recount of Florida ballots and thus gave the election to Republican George W. Bush over his opponent, Albert W. Gore, Clinton’s Vice President. (Bush vs. Gore, 2000) Gore had won the popular vote, 50.9 million to 50.4 million, but ultimately lost in the electoral college 271-267. A deciding factor was the third party candidacy of Ralph Nader for the Green Party which took votes from Gore and prevented his winning the election. Bush’s election marked the second time in U.S. History that the son of a former president became president himself.


The separation between the two parties became even more antagonistic during the early days of the Bush presidency as Republicans used their advantage to “declare all out war” on Democrats and liberals.  In true Republican fashion, Bush and the Republican majority in Congress pushed through a massive tax cut, even though economists warned that this would lead the country back into a budget deficit. The tax cuts came at a time when the first baby boomers were qualified to receive Medicare and Social Security benefits which ballooned the federal debt to over $8 trillion.


The tenor and direction of Bush’s Presidency was forever changed on the morning of September 11, 2001 when the Islamic terrorist group, Al Qaeda, high jacked four U.S. commercial jets crashed two into the World Trade Center in New York City and a third into the Pentagon in Washington D.C. A fourth plane, ostensibly headed for the White House of the Capitol building, crashed in Pennsylvania when the passengers fought back and took the plane from the terrorists. Over three thousand people were killed in the attack. An outburst of patriotic fervor not seen since the Pearl Harbor attacks swept the country; the evening of the attack, all available members of Congress stood together on the Capitol building steps and sang “God Bless America.”


Bush then declared that America was engaged in a “War on Terror” and authorized an attack on Al Qaeda’s strongholds in Afghanistan.  The Afghan government, led by a group known at the Taliban (in Islamic, “Students”) who were sympathetic to Al Qaeda were ousted but not eliminated, neither was Al Qaeda.  Its leader, Osama bin Laden, escaped into the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan and remained there until killed by American commandos several years later. Bush promulgated the “Bush doctrine” that the U.S. had the right to act in “anticipatory self defense” that is act proactively, to protect itself. Based on this doctrine, and the belief that neighboring Iraq and its President, Saddam Hussein, had developed Nuclear Weapons, Bush authorized an invasion of Iraq and ousted Hussein who ultimately was captured an executed by the new Iraqi government.


In the 2004 Presidential election, Bush was re-elected by defeating Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts in a campaign that was marked by attacks on Kerry’s patriotism and war record, many of which were of questionable validity.  Bush, who was accused of “stealing” the 2000 election, much as Rutherford B. Hayes had been accused of stealing the 1876 election, was now clearly a legitimate President.


The economy entered a steep decline in Bush’s second term. By fall, 2008, the Dow Jones Average was halved, and many banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions collapsed. The American automobile industry was on the verge of bankruptcy, employment increased to ten per cent and housing prices dropped by 40 per cent. The end result was the Great Recession, the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Much of it was caused by reckless borrowing and lending practices and a real estate bubble which eventually collapsed.


It was in the face of the Great Recession that Americans elected the first African American President, Barack Hussein Obama who took office January 20, 2009.  In his inaugural address, Obama stated that Americans must “begin again the work of remaking America.”




Towards a Global Economy


During the 1990’s, the American economy was no longer isolated and self sufficient; rather it was part of a larger world wide economy based on capitalistic principles. The bi-polar world dominated by the U.S. and U.S.S.R. had morphed into a multipolar world in which Europe, China, Japan, India and Brazil became major players. Western European nations formed the European Union comprised of twenty questions in a federalist type economic organization and soon created a new currency, the Euro. This constituted a major competition for the dollar and the U.S. economy.  Other issues resulted from the economic explosion of China, which quadrupled its GDP from 2000 to 2008. Many of the products which Americans consumed were now produced in China. China deliberately kept its currency weak against the dollar to make its products cheap in the U.S.  The end result has been a loss of American manufacturing jobs.  Also, China has kept its currency weak by purchasing American debt. As of 2014, twenty five per cent of U.S. debt was held by Chinese financial institutions. Additionally, many American companies moved manufacturing operations to offshore sites where labor was cheaper, thus placing an even greater strain on American manufacturing jobs. In response to the creation of the European Union (EU) the U.S., Canada and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement to create a trade zone in North America similar to the EU.


A Technological Revolution:  Changes in technology, such as cell phones, personal computers, the Internet and World Wide Web have created the greatest technological revolution since the introduction of the radio. The internet was first created as the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network in the late 1960’s for military research.  With the help of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, its use became more centralized and by 2011 was used by 78 percent of Americans and two billion people worldwide.