Bill Clinton's Presidency

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How did Bill Clinton combine social liberalism with conservative economic ideas during his presidency?

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Bill Clinton belonged to a faction of the Democratic Party that promoted conservative economic ideas while championing progressive social causes. Clinton was able to successfully grow the economy by implementing a pro-capitalist and pro–free trade economic agenda while balancing the budget and reducing the national deficit. However, he also pushed for a more liberal social agenda, promoting progressive policies when it came to issues such as women’s rights, civil rights, affirmative action, and gay rights.

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When Bill Clinton entered the national political stage at the end of the 1980s, there hadn’t been a Democratic president since 1968. The Democratic Party realized they needed to change in order to appeal to more moderate voters. After losing the presidential election in 1984, party leaders introduced a new political ideology, called the Third Way. This more centrist faction of the Democratic Party, called the New Democrats, moved to the right on economic issues while remaining progressive on social issues. Clinton campaigned successfully as a New Democrat, taking a more conservative, pro–free-market capitalist stance on economic issues while still supporting a liberal social agenda.

Clinton entered office during a recession and period of stagnation in the US economy, and his first priority was fixing the economy. Following the more conservative economic agenda set forth in his campaign, he promised to limit spending, balance the budget, and reduce the nation’s $60 billion deficit. Clinton was also pro–free trade, and he ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which had previously been opposed by labor unions, in 1994. Welfare reform was also a central part of Clinton’s agenda. He passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which ended the federal government’s control over the welfare program, and created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Under TANF, fewer people qualified for benefits, and those that did qualify had to to comply with stricter limits on the amount of aid and benefits they were eligible to receive.

Clinton’s economic policies were seen as a success. While in office, Clinton oversaw economic growth of around 3.8 percent per year, a reduction in unemployment, a drop in national poverty rates to 3.9 percent, and a reduction of the country’s deficit.

At the same time, Clinton promised to uphold progressive cultural and social ideals, particularly when it came to the rights of women and people of color. He reaffirmed a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion and supported the Equal Rights Amendment, ensuring equal pay for women. Clinton also upheld the civil rights reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, including supporting the continuation of affirmative action programs. He also took a progressive stance on gay rights, appointing openly gay men and women to government positions and initially promising to end the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military. However, once in office, he instead instituted the more conservative policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Clinton also campaigned on implementing universal healthcare. Although that never became a reality, he pushed through smaller healthcare changes, including the passage of the Kennedy-Kassebaum Act, which prevented workers from losing their health are when they switched jobs, and the Family and Medical Leave Act. He succeeded in implementing gradual improvements to the social safety net, such as raising the minimum wage and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit to benefit lower-income Americans.

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