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Contrasting Legasies: Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON (1993 - 2001) -- Scandals aside, Bill Clinton managed to get a great deal done as president, which may explain why the latest poll conducted by the American Political Science Association, ranks Clinton as the eighth most successful president in American History. “Bill Clinton’s was, by any measure, a consequential presidency,” says historian Michael Tomasky.

Early in life Clinton learned he could take a punch, Tomasky points out. Unlike Richard Nixon—yet another controversial president—Clinton didn’t give in to hate, strike back or try to get even with his enemies. He kept his head while a sexual scandal threatened his downfall. Clinton “survived and even triumphed,” says Tomasky. “He left an enviable record of achievements, helped guide the country into the new Information Age, and after a shaky start developed into a respected global leader.” The economy thrived under his watch (22 million jobs were created and median household income grew by 11 percent), and he kept the nation out of war.

Scandals plagued Clinton from the start, even as he ran for president. First, there were accusations of infidelity (Clinton’s “roving eye,” as one journalist put it) followed by accusations that he had been a draft dodger during the Vietnam War. He weathered both, and after the summer conventions, led in the polls. In the Fall campaign, the incumbent George H. W. Bush underestimated Clinton’s broad appeal. According to one pundit, the Bush campaign erred by attacking Clinton’s character when they should have attacked his record as governor of Arkansas, which was modest at best. What Clinton did exceedingly well was connect with voters—strikingly evident during the presidential debates—something which Bush failed to do.

Domestically, Clinton reformed welfare, making work requirements far stricter for recipients of federal support; enacted groundbreaking family and medical leave legislation; protected medical coverage for workers switching jobs; won passage of bills that banned assault weapons and pushed for bill that mandated background checks for weapons purchases; won passage of the Violence Against Women Act; persuaded Congress to ratify NAFTA, which eliminated trade barriers between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico; and, working with Congress, increased taxes on the top 1.2 percent of American wage earners as well as an increase in the corporate tax rate in order to fund several of Clinton’s initiatives, and bring the federal budget not only out of deficit but into a surplus for the first time in several decades.

Overseas, Clinton was just as active. In Haiti, he threatened American intervention to persuade the leaders of a coup to return to power a democratically elected government. In Bosnia, he collaborated with NATO to conduct strategic bombing raids to halt Serbian efforts at ethnic cleansing and to bring the parties to the negotiating table, and thus end the killing. He lead a U.S.-inspired NATO effort to achieve similar results in Kosovo. With considerable U.S. involvement, a peace agreement was reached in Northern Ireland, ending centuries of strife there. Clinton’s one major regret was that he failed to address the genocidal conflict in Rwanda between Hutu and Tutsi tribes.

Clinton considered his decision to agree to the appointment of a Whitewater special prosecutor to be “the single dumbest mistake” of his presidency. There was no need for it. Previous investigations had found no proof of wrongdoing, and, as it turned out, neither would Whitewater special prosecutor Ken Starr. Nonetheless, the claims of wrongdoing haunted the Clinton presidency for six years. Starr was about to give up when the Monica Lewinsky sexual scandal began making headlines, which encouraged Starr to continue but in a new direction.

(Ironically, Clinton was not the only politician in Washington guilty of sexual infidelity, which came to light while Starr’s investigation continued. As it turned out, Congressman Newt Gingrinch was among those who had cheated on his wife. As Speaker of the House, he presided over two government shutdowns, hoping to hurt Clinton, but instead hurt himself. “We made a mistake,” he later admitted. “We thought he would cave.” After being reprimanded by the House for misuse of a political action committee, he resigned from office.

The biggest black mark against the Clinton presidency may very well have been the drastic deregulation of the financial industry during his watch, both in terms of organizational structure (companies were allowed to combine the functions of a commercial bank, an investment firm, and an insurance company) and the free creation of financial instruments, notably collateralized debt obligations. Both of these developments were significant contributors to the financial collapse of 2008.

Clinton left office with an approval rating of 64 percent, and his popularity has remained strong ever since. Recently, Time Magazine averaged the results of five presidential polls. The result placed Clinton 17th on the list of presidential effectiveness.

GEORGE W. BUSH (2001 - 2009) -- America had never been stronger or as well off, when George W. Bush took office in January 2001. The nation was not at war. As a global power, America had no serious rival. At home, the U.S. economy had grown rapidly through the 1990s; the one major economic question was what to do about the large surpluses the federal budget was generating.

Move forward eight years, to the end of Bush’s second term, and the nation was in quite a different state. The U.S. was fighting war on two fronts in the Middle East, and facing economic collapse at home.

When he took office—after an incredibly close election, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court—the expectations were that Bush would proceed slowly, and work both sides of the isle in Congress, as he had as governor of Texas, where he achieved broad support as a moderate working equally with Republicans and Democrats alike. As it turned out, he didn’t. He appeased the Republican right wing by pushing for two big tax cuts, one in 2001, and the second in 2003. By then, the hopes in early 2001 of more budget surpluses had been dashed; the federal government was already running a deficit, and the only question was the extent to which any new tax cuts would increase the deficit. Bush’s Veep, Dick Cheney weighed in: “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter. . . . We won the (2002) midterms. This is our due.”

By the time of the second tax cut, Bush had already dispatched American troops to Iraq. Lowering taxes while engaged in war was something no president had ever advocated. Indeed, in every military conflict since the Civil War, U.S. presidents have raised taxes to help defray costs. Bush not only declined to raise taxes during wartime, he lowered them. Overall, the Bush tax measures reduced income taxes to their lowest levels since World War II. At the same time the cuts ushered in a new era of budget deficits, in which the federal government was forced to borrow more and more money to pay for its operations. In fiscal 2000, before Bush took office, the government ran a surplus of $86 billion. By the fiscal year ending September 2008, just before the onset of the financial crisis, the government deficit had ballooned to $642 billion.

Which brings us to the cost of the Iraq war. One of Bush’s principle economic advisors speculated at the outset that the cost would exceed $100 billion. No one beloved him, and he was fired shortly thereafter. In fact, his estimate was vastly underestimated—by a factor of twenty. In 2013, ten years after military intervention in Iraq, direct U.S. government expenditures for the war had surpassed $2 trillion.

Without question, Bush’s push for the invasion of Iraq was supported in Congress by both Republicans and Democrats alike, swayed as they were by evidence the White House put forth of Iraq’s presumed stockpiling of WMD (weapons of mass destruction). As it turned out, such weapons were never found. Not only did the Bush White House err in justifying the war, it failed to plan properly for postwar operations in Iraq. In point of fact, the White House had no plan. Four days before the start of the war, in an interview on MEET THE PRESS, Cheney admitted as much. Asked whether he thought the American people were prepared for a long, costly and bloody battle with significant U.S. casualties, he replied: “I don’t really think it’s likely to unfold that way, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators.”

Bush never dreamed of being a wartime president when he entered office, but the terrorists attacks orchestrated by Osama Bin Laden on September 11, 2001, and the choices he made that followed, led him to become one. The decision to invade Afghanistan was carried out to capture or kill Bin Laden. American forces took control of the region quickly, but failed in capturing the terrorist leader, who had fled into the mountainous caves of Tora Bora and escaped. In fact, he would not be located and killed until Barack Obama was president.

The decision to invade Iraq was not as clearcut. WMD aside, there was no connection between Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. The Bush administration, however, felt the two would find each other eventually. Unlike his father, George H.W. Bush, who built an alliance of over 30 nations before invading Iraq (a short lived-war that did not tax the U.S. treasury one cent) George W. Bush failed to gather anything like the support his father had before him. Among the nations that mattered, only Great Britain supported the invasion. The others, Germany, France, Russia, advised Bush against it. Also unlike his father, he did not have a plan for getting out. Years later, Bush acknowledged that, even though he thought the U.S. was prepared to deal with postwar Iraq, “our nation building capabilities were limited, and no one knew for sure what needs would arise.” Writes one presidential historian: “(Bush) had, in fact, relied on his advisors for many of the judgements about war with Iraq.” He adds: “One of the tasks of an American president, however, is to be skeptical of the advice he is getting and to sense when the predictions of what will come are governed more by hope than by reality.” Had Bush examined a bit of history he would have realized how expert advice can mislead a president. Indeed, he could have looked no further than the Bay of Pigs invasion, the result of a decision based on fanciful evidence that very nearly destroyed the Kennedy presidency in its infancy.

The Iraqi War, coupled with the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and a woefully slow federal response, coupled with the economic collapse of 2008, which plunged the nation into its worst depression since 1929, throwing millions into unemployment and decimating the savings of millions more. It's little wonder that George W. Bush should find himself rated among our worst presidents ever. Time Magazine recently averaged the results of five polls and put Bush 31st on the list, ahead of Richard Nixon but behind the likes of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and his father.

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