At 50, Bill Clinton is the first Democratic president to win re-election since Franklin Roosevelt. Riding a healthy economy and surging approval ratings to a convincing electoral victory over GOP nominee Bob Dole, Clinton nonetheless approached his second term seemingly without a substantial agenda or mandate (he got 49 percent of the popular vote), while the fog of scandal seemed to be thickening.
With Congress still in Republican hands after the elections, Clinton immediately signaled his intention to pursue a centrist course. He declared a balanced budget his top priority and highlighted his commitment to expanding educational opportunities. In naming new Cabinet members, the president played it safe, nominating former Republican Sen. William Cohen as secretary of defense, and the popular, hawkish Madeleine Albright as secretary of state.
Many wondered what surprises might lie ahead as the flap over Democratic fund-raising continued to flap. Threatening to embarrass the president further was a Supreme Court hearing into the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. And, lurking in the background was Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel appointed to investigate Clinton's conduct in Arkansas and Washington on several matters from his Whitewater real estate investments to the Travelgate scandal to the administration's improper collection of some 900 Republican FBI files.
Clinton remains popular, but he may owe that mainly to congressional Republicans, whose 1994 takeover of Congress and the Washington agenda seemed to backfire on them during 1996.
Clinton certainly had a tough ride until then. He drew fire early on for pushing for gays in the military. He fumbled on judicial and administration appointments. Republicans opposed his commitment of U.S. troops in Haiti. Most spectacular was the highly visible failure of the Clinton health care reform effort, led by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The president triumphed with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but it came only over loud protest from within his party, and with near-unanimous support of congressional Republicans.
Many blamed the Democrats' rout in the 1994 congressional elections at least in part on the president's perceived weakness. Faced with House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution, however, the "Comeback Kid" proved remarkably adept on defense, successfully portraying the GOP agenda as extreme and out of step with ordinary Americans, especially on the politically explosive issue of reforming Medicare.
Clinton doused GOP fire by promising action on such traditionally Republican issues as affirmative action, crime, welfare and a seven-year timetable to balance the federal budget. His controversial deployment of U.S. troops in Bosnia has so far kept peace in that region.
In the protracted budget stalemate of 1995, Clinton won the rhetorical fight, blaming the Republicans for two federal shutdowns. By the spring of 1996, Clinton went on the offensive, castigating Republicans for resisting a hike in the minimum wage. His approval ratings rebounded to the highest of his presidency while continued moderate economic growth and a halved deficit allowed him to claim the healthiest economy in years.
While Clinton has incurred the ire of his own party's liberal wing for his willingness to sign GOP welfare reform legislation, Democrats, perhaps spooked by the prospect of Republicans in control of both legislative and executives branches, rallied around their leader. Despite all the nipping around his heels, and a successful GOP convention, Clinton held onto double-digit leads in most public opinion surveys throughout the fall campaign and easily won re-election over Dole.
The man from Hope, Ark., has demonstrated remarkable resilience after devastating political setbacks and the myriad scandals that sprout up like crab grass. As he begins his second term, two questions seem paramount: can this young president succeed in creating a lasting, positive legacy and will he quell the drumbeat of scandal that so often seems to imperil his presidency?
Updated Mar 4, 1997
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