Bill Clinton was riding high after his election in 1992. With Vice President Al Gore at his side, he held daylong meetings on a variety of topics and discussed a range of potential policy actions for his White House. His youth and charm, after the older Bush left office, was refreshing to the country. Yet he stumbled through his first year in office.
Clinton had run as a moderate and he governed like a liberal. He proposed an end to the ban on gay Americans serving in the military, which instead became the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy after Joints Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell balked. He secured a tax increase which passed the Senate by Al Gore’s vote as Senate president in the summer of 1993.
Hamstrung by Washington, as a result of Clinton’s betrayed promises and the impression that he was not a moderate, Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich devised a congressional election strategy, the Contract with America, enabling the Republican takeover of both houses of Congress in 1994. It was the first time the GOP held both houses of Congress since 1954. This was seen as a critical challenge to Clinton’s re-election process as the former history professor, Gingrich, tried to raise his speakership into the center of power in Washington.
The country was changing in rapid ways throughout the 1990s. Globalization and the rise of China to economic preeminence fundamentally transformed labor patterns and contributed to the increase of low-wage workers to America from Central America in search of work. China’s economy rose after 1989 when it embraced economic openness and attracted billions in foreign capital investment, while still clinging to communism as a governing system.
Immigration, both legal and illegal, boomed during the decade, with most immigrants coming from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America. There were a reported 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, most of them from Mexico, and the culture and ethnic makeup of America changed markedly.
American technological innovation also contributed to the rapid rise of the internet after 1996 and to the use of new forms of communication such as cellular telephones and personal computers. Companies like Dell Computers, Microsoft, Google and Amazon replaced older firms as innovators and market drivers in the new economy.
The economy boomed as investment in stocks, tech companies and housing fueled a new Gilded Age, which caused gaps in wealth disparity between highly trained and educated workers and low-wage, unskilled workers. Unemployment was low throughout the decade and after his initial activism faded, Clinton adjusted to working with the Republican Congress and Wall Street.
Clinton ran for re-election in 1996. He had positioned himself favorably by signing a major welfare reform act earlier that summer. This welfare act required welfare recipients eligible to work to enter state-administered workfare programs. The Republican challenger, Kansas U.S. Senator Bob Dole, a wounded World War II hero, appeared hapless against Clinton.
- Bill Clinton ran as a moderate, but tried to govern as a liberal until he lost Congress in 1994. What does it say about the American public at the time that he felt the need to campaign as more moderate than he wanted to govern?
- After Republicans captured the House and Senate in 1994 (for the first time since the 1950s), Clinton governed as a moderate, as well. Do you think divided government produces better outcomes for the country?
- Clinton presided over a major technology boom, as well as a growing divide between rich and poor. Why do you think equality increased under a Democratic president? Do you think it would have been different (more or less inequality) under a Republican president? Why?
This reading is an excerpt from Certell’s Common Sense American History eBook. Certell offers curriculum materials and eBooks free of charge for students and teachers. Click Here to download the Common Sense American History materials.
11, April 2018, Bill Clinton [Digital photograph]. Retrieved from <google.com>.