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.