The Trouble With the Clinton/Obama Legacies
Success Divorced From the Working Class
It is by no means controversial to suggest that the Democratic Party faithful hold former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in high regard. Both presided over periods of sustained economic growth, and their presidencies ended with the stock market reaching all-time highs. The legacies of their legislative agendas, however, tell a far different story, one that is antithetical to the Democratic tradition of FDR’s pro-labor populism, and as such, is anathema to the interests of working-class Americans.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s stewardship of the country through the Great Depression and World War II led to the most significant and impactful populist legislation in American history. The New Deal and the G.I. Bill were responsible for pulling the U.S. out of the Great Depression and for building the American middle class. The decidedly pro-labor economic agenda of Roosevelt’s presidency demonstrated the ability of the U.S. government to foster collective financial security and prosperity through public policy, the benefits of which were felt long after Roosevelt’s death.
More than 45 years after FDR’s passing, Clinton ushered in a new era of Democratic presidential governance. His chairmanship of the Democratic Leadership Council would prove prescient for the direction of the Democratic Party after he was elected in 1992. No longer would the Democratic Party be the “party of the people”, instead they would become the party of the “Professional Managerial Class”; participants in professional occupations whose employment required post-secondary education and beyond. Economic policy would be steered away from the populist traditions set forth by the New Deal and would instead center the PMC as its primary benefactor.
To outflank Republicans, Clinton’s campaign and governing philosophy utilized the electoral and governance strategies of counter-scheduling and triangulation. Antagonizing and shunning the progressive and pro-labor wing of the Democratic Party and their insistence on populist governance, as well as adopting the right-wing positions of deregulation, balanced budgets, and “tough on crime” punitive measures, became the hallmarks of the Clinton presidency. Clinton’s political strategy, as deft as it was cynical, was appropriately crystalized by his calculation that those populist elements in the party would have no choice but to acquiesce and vote Democrat because they “had nowhere else to go”.
This new approach to presidential governance, detrimental to the interests of the base of the Democratic Party, yielded numerous legislative victories for Clinton as Republicans in Congress were all too eager to roll back the remaining vestiges of the New Deal. The repeal of the Glass Steagall Act, signed into law as a response to the Wall Street Crash of 1929, removed regulatory measures meant to separate investment and retail banking. The passage of “Welfare Reform” in 1996, replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children federal assistance program (signed into law by FDR in 1935), and with it the United States’ commitment to ensuring that children wouldn’t be held responsible for the indigent circumstances of their parents. The law was so unforgiving of those living in impoverished conditions that three assistant secretaries in the Department of Health And Human Services resigned in protest.
The passage of NAFTA, applauded by free trade evangelists and derided by organized labor, resulted in the decimation of America’s manufacturing sector as companies moved supply chains out of the U.S. in search of cheap labor.
The “Crime Bill” of 1994, used to undermine the Republican monopoly on “tough on crime” rhetoric, escalated what would become known as “Mass Incarceration”. The United States has imprisoned a higher percentage of its citizens than any other nation in the world, even more so than the world’s authoritarian regimes. Astutely examined in Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”, the “Crime Bill” disproportionately affected the Democratic Party’s most loyal voting base, that of Black Americans.
Clinton, in recent years, in numerous public speaking engagements, undoubtedly in response to the acute criticism of his legacy, has apologized profusely for much of the consequences of his legislative program. As revered by his party as Clinton is, that he has much to apologize for is a testament to how forgiving the Democratic Party can be, provided they hold the executive branch and preside over a soaring stock market.
Obama, whose 2008 presidential victory represented a transformational achievement by becoming the United States’ first Black president, still maintains a high favorability rating and is especially longed for, given the abnormal and inflammatory behavior of his successor. Obama took office after a disastrous eight years of President George W. Bush and inherited an economic collapse — for which a contributor was deregulation passed during the Clinton administration — and two military conflicts.
Given the economic collapse and the widespread reckless and criminal behavior of the financial institutions responsible for the Great Recession, the Obama administration passed on an opportunity to restructure the U.S economy in a more egalitarian fashion. Instead, his administration facilitated a more than $700B bailout to the same Wall Street firms who created the financial calamity. At the end of Obama’s second term, the stock market had soared to an all-time high as financial firms, buoyed by hundreds of billions of American taxpayer dollars, reaped record profits. At the same time, the millions of Americans who lost their homes to foreclosure and saw their savings and retirements decimated were excluded from the recovery effort.
Chief among Obama’s accomplishments was the passage of the Affordable Health Care Act, meant to aide the more than 30 million Americans without health insurance and prevent the economic ruination of families grappling with the exorbitant costs of medical treatment. The conservative “free market” solution to universal healthcare, born out of the Heritage Foundation and first implemented by Obama’s 2012 Republican opponent, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, would serve as the foundation for the United States’ first attempt at universal healthcare.
Pejoratively nicknamed “Obamacare”, the negotiations for the landmark legislation began with policy concessions that represented a significant portion of Obama’s progressive campaign promises. Dropping the “public option” from consideration was quickly followed by capitulations to the pharmaceutical industry, specifically that the U.S. government would not seek to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices. More than a decade after its passage, American families are still reeling from much of the same hardships the ACA was supposed to alleviate; 87 million Americans remain underinsured, 30 million of which lack health insurance altogether.
Repealing effective decades-old New Deal legislation and establishing draconian punitive measures resulted in the punishment of the poor, the deepening of extreme poverty, and an escalation of mass incarceration never before seen in the land of the free and the home of the brave. The deregulation of Wall Street and the widespread financial fraud that ensued destroyed the livelihood of millions of American families and culminated in the Great Recession of 2008. Woefully inadequate healthcare legislation along with an economic recovery where much of the gains went to corporations and Wall Street firms concluded with the electoral victory of a reality T.V. host and real estate mogul to the presidency.
Both Democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama, ended their executive reigns with soaring stock markets and growing GDPs, and as such, are widely regarded as “successful” presidents by the Democratic Party. This judgment, however, disconnected from much of the lived reality of what formerly was the base of the party, the working-class, is decidedly short-sighted, as the party faithful have ignored the damaging repercussions of the Clinton and Obama presidencies.
If the legacies of Clinton and Obama include a departure from the pro-labor populism that made the U.S. an economic superpower, a financial calamity, the escalation of mass incarceration, and the ascension of Donald Trump to the White House, then why exactly does the Democratic Party regard their presidencies as successful? A much more ominous question is how long will the Democratic Party’s understanding of presidential success remain divorced from the economic livelihood and well-being of the working-class.