How good a president was Bill Clinton?

Topic inspired by recent world events and my listening to some classic 90s songs earlier today. How good was Clinton, both as a campaigner and at governing? Was he like the proverbial guy who started life / his presidency on 3rd base and people thought he hit a triple?

In terms of campaigning, he got a weak Bush Sr. in 1992. Not the hero of Gulf War I, or a down home Texan people want to have a beer with, but the stiff guy in a suit from Kennebunkport who raised everyone’s taxes after he said he wouldn’t. In 1996 with Dole, he got an opponent whose picture is in the dictionary next to Generic Boring Old White Republican. With Congress he suffered the 1994 Gingrich red wave, which he never fought back against effectively. He did very little to help Al Gore in the 2000 race. And we all know about his self inflicted damage with his affairs and the blue dress.

In terms of governing, admittedly the 1990s were a good time for the US. On the other hand, he had numerous advantages not of his own making. The Cold War had just been won (temporarily as it turns out) by the Western powers. The War on Terror hadn’t started yet. The internet was just starting, and with it an economic boom leading to the balanced budgets and surpluses of the late 1990s. Global warming was still something that was going to happen in the future rather than something we were seeing the effects of in our daily lives. China was ascending but had not yet reached superpower status.

In hindsight it turns out he could have done several things differently. He missed out on capturing / killing Bin Laden when he had the chance. He missed the opportunity to help Russia recover from the Cold War as a Western democracy rather than the Putin dictatorship it turned in to. He seemingly failed to recognize what the Republican Party was turning into, and instead of confronting them about it, he worked with them as the loyal opposition. Nothing was done to address global warming. There’s other issues, but I think these are good to start off with.

Considering all this, I think Clinton was more lucky than good. Am I being too harsh on the guy? What do you all think?

I think there’s some merit to the “lucky” argument, but if so you need to acknowledge the “unlucky” element too.

The Republicans led by Newt Gingrich were an extremely disruptive force up to the impeachment and beyond, including some significant battles over the budget. They were never the “loyal opposition” and while Clinton made efforts to be bipartisan (a mistake Obama later made) there was never anything he could have done to “confront them” that would have achieved anything more than he did, and he certainly couldn’t have stopped them from marching down the road to fascism and treason they are now on.

Likewise, his initial attempts to “get” Bin Laden went awry and he was opposed by the Republicans all the way. You may recall the “wag the dog” accusations that he was using the attempt to stop Bin Laden as a distraction from his domestic issues. (And if you do recall them, that puts you ahead of the Republicans who erased their opposition to catching Bin Laden from their memories very shortly thereafter.)

As for Russia, with the benefit of hindsight he could have done more but his foreign focus was tied up with the war in Rwanda (in which the decision to do nothing proved horribly wrong), the war in Yugoslavia (in which the decision to intervene was driven by what happened in Rwanda, and it’s still not clear whether it was the right one), and the rise in the threat of Islamic terrorism (the first WTC attack was in 1993). In the space after the fall of the Soviet Union it must have been a relief to not have Russia as the biggest problem to deal with for once.

Clinton did focus on the important domestic issue of the day - the economy - and while he got lucky, he also facilitated its growth in many ways (some good, some bad). He was a good communicator and he generally continued to assert America’s cultural dominance globally in the post-Cold War era. And a lot of his missteps (“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, some of his financial regulation, etc) are really only obvious with the benefit of hindsight and seemed like a good idea at the time.

On the whole I’d say he was a good president boosted by being in office at the right time, but not a stellar one. A middle-of-the pack kind of president. But certainly better than the guy who followed him.

IIRC, Clinton was the last president with a balanced budget, which even some conservatives reluctantly appreciated.

Setting aside the more salacious incidents of his tenure (of which many past presidents have also engaged in, although not to my knowledge actually in the Oval Office and with the tacit protection of a press which saw fit not to report on them) he was more lucky than good, particularly when it came to the economy. It was under Clinton that the repeal of Glass-Steagall and removal of virtually all regulatory authority over the banking and financial industry occurred, and while it was a bipartisan effort Clinton gleefully participated, which in part led to the 2007-08 crisis and the lack of penalties for those involved. Clinton was also heavily involved in pushing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and giving China “Most Favored Nation” status in trading, leading to the massive offshoring of manufacturing, and we can see what that has done to the United States.

His support for labor could be generously described as “tepid”, and a foreign policy that was mostly about looking for opportunities for stagey agreements versus consistency or effectiveness (although at least he wasn’t running an illegal guns-for-hostages scandal and arming opponents in contravention to Congress). He flubbed on health care, instituted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ as executive policy on homosexuals serving in the military, and generally pandered to the center-right to the point of probably being a better ‘Republican’ in all but name than Richard Nixon, and dragging the rest of the Democratic party with him. Many of the ‘scandals’ associated with him by the Newt Gingrich-led neocons were inflated beyond belief but selling White House access and pardons for political contributions were both some pretty abominable breaking of Presidential norms (although, again, more in how conspicuous he was about it rather than being the first to do so).

So, across the range of presidents…probably pretty middling. Not the best we could ask for, far from the worst that we have experienced. I wouldn’t do a business deal with him but at least he didn’t try to walk of with a bust of Lincoln.


Middling. I would rate him higher if he weren’t such a slut.

A point in his favor, given what happened to that surplus with the following POTUS as well as those prior. LBJ had one surplus, and Eisenhower several, but Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr never did. I don’t think he was terrible, just average to slightly above average. IMHO those who rank him as good or great are overrating him.

According to the C-Span presidential rankings, he falls in the middle.

Personally, I think he was a great campaigner, an OK president, and a sub-par human being.

I don’t think he started his life on third base, however. He grew up solidly middle class in small-town Arkansas, with a somewhat turbulent home life.

There’s no correlation between balancing budgets or having a surplus and being a good president

Agreed. I don’t think he started his life on third base. I think as far as presidents go however, he did start his presidency on third base. He didn’t take office in the middle of a raging pandemic, a Great Recession, stagflation, or inherit an unwinnable war, which are just some of the things the other Democratic presidents from LBJ to present have had to deal with. The less said about Republican presidents the better.

What does this have to do with his skills as a president?

I think he used his political skills to score with women. As he held power over most of these individuals, the fact that the women were allegedly consenting is still cause for unease in my view. I’m not absolutely certain that all of them were fully consenting either.

As much as Heraclitus’s maxim that “Character is destiny” rings true, particularly in light of recent goings-on, if that standard were retroactively applied to all presidents there would be few left to account, nor does the converse–a president who doesn’t chase skirts–indicate greatness or even adequacy as illustrated by Richard Nixon. Of course, Bill Clinton has never apologized for besmirching the integrity and reputation of Monica Lewinsky or even openly acknowledged to lying under oath, although in the scope of presidential malfeasance it is pretty low on the scale of offense.

That there remain credible accusations of non-consenting advances, however, is another issue and one that should certainly tarnish Clinton’s reputation regardless of his achievements in the office. The media’s willingness to not just overlook these but actively vilify accusers is also a cautionary tale about objectivity and tacit advocacy. We don’t necessarily need to know about the untidy personal lives of candidates insofar as they do not impact suitability to hold office but we do need an objective presentation of facts that come to public attention.


If it hadn’t been for Watergate, Richard Nixon would’ve been regarded as far more than just adequate.

But I digress.

I’ve read numerous people who insisted that he shouldn’t get the credit for it. (Not just bitter folks on the right, either.) I’ve often heard it said that the PUSA has little influence over the economy, and generally isn’t to blame or worthy of praise for whatever happens when he’s in the office. (That includes the financial collapse under Bush II and the economy tanking under Trump as the pandemic took hold, or the recovery and inflation Biden is presiding over.) But at least in terms of legacy, that’s something frequently mentioned as a plus for Clinton, whether he deserves it or not.

Bill Clinton was as lucky as he was a skillful politician. He benefited from a strong economy, and as has been mentioned, he left office with a budget surplus that his successor quickly squandered.

I have a professional gripe with him, however, particular to my previous line of work, radio broadcasting. Clinton signed the Telecom Act of 1996, which allowed a small number of broadcasting companies to own a practically unlimited number of radio stations, thereby stifling competition and promoting the lackluster cookie-cutter radio we have today. In one small market I worked in the 1970s there were at least 8 or 10 independent owners. Nowadays one company there either owns outright or leases almost every radio station within 40 miles. Putting that many sources of information in the hands of a few controlling companies is dangerous.

He was a good president during a convenient period of time. He had incredible political skills and kept himself on the up side of public approval. In the end he made one massive mistake that cost the country dearly. And then his wife screwed us over even worse. Elections are as much about the losing candidate as the winner. He didn’t do as bad as a couple of the winners that followed but he was a catalyst in both their victories.

He was a brilliant campaigner, which is why so many people wanted him to stump for them. I never really understood the man’s abilities in that area until I was in a room with him and his wife and he gave a speech to the assembled diplomatic staff. The man just had a powerful presence, for lack of a better word, and a ton of charisma. He literally commanded your attention when he spoke.

I have a similar story. I’ve never been susceptible to charisma, and find most campaign speeches boring, even when I agree with the speaker.

But I happened to see Clinton on a cold New Hampshire night for a town hall, and I was blown away - he had an almost supernatural ability to mesmerize a room.

In retrospect, our center/left disbelief that the GOP could champion Trump was foreshadowed by the right’s disbelief that the left could champion Clinton. While he was magnitudes less reprehensible than Trump, there was plenty of evidence that he was a slimy cad back in '91 and '92, but many (including myself) were happy to ignore it.

Curious what you’re talking about here.

I get where you’re coming from, but I disagree. If the left had really championed Clinton, the Democrats wouldn’t have done so bad in 1994 and Al Gore would have won in 2000. The massive mistake would have been his affair with Lewinsky, which led to the Al Gore loss in 2000 (there’s no way you’ll convince me that had that not happened Gore wouldn’t have gotten another 600 votes in Florida). Had Gore won, the SCOTUS would likely be 7-2 liberal and we wouldn’t have had / still be having a near brush with the US becoming a fascist country. As for Hillary, it’s the same thing. Had she won in 2016, SCOTUS would likely be 6-3 liberal, and the same thing would apply, maybe to a lesser extent, to our brush with fascism.