15 Ways Bill Clinton’s White House Failed America and the World
Bill Clinton remains one of America’s most popular presidents. A national poll last March by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found 56 percent of Americans had a clearly favorable view of Clinton. That’s long been true for African Americans—from novelist Toni Morrison famously calling him the “first black president” while in office, to books explaining his appeal after his presidency ended.
Clinton has used this popularity to build his enormously ambitious global foundation, collecting $2 billion in assets for many anti-poverty and health initiatives, as well as building a personal fortune from speechmaking estimated at $30 million or more. In recent years, most of the public has forgotten what Clinton did as president, even as he has steadily been in the news.
But for more than a year before Hillary Clinton launched her latest presidential campaign, Bill Clinton has been selectively telling media outlets that he made some mistakes as president and might have acted otherwise. He's even tried to recast actual events and been taken to task by fact-checkers who recall his leading role in what became major crises, such as the 2008 global financial implosion.
What follows are 15 ways Bill Clinton’s presidency did not serve America or the world, and in many ways deepened and perpetuated the problems we face today. This article was prepared by AlterNet staff members Janet Allon, Michael Arria, Jan Frel, Tana Ganeva, Kali Holloway, Zaid Jilani, Adam Johnson, Steven Rosenfeld, Phillip Smith, Terrell Jermaine Starr and Carrie Weissman.
1. Prison-loving president. In May, on the heels of the unrest in Baltimore sparked by Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, Clinton apologized for locking too many people up. Thanks, Bill.
The 2.4 million people in prison and the 160,000 Americans serving life in prison largely because of his policies might be excused for not accepting Clinton's apology. Tag-teaming with ex-President Ronald Reagan, Clinton is the president most responsible for the mass incarceration of Americans on an epic scale. The gung-ho crime fighter-in-chief passed the single most damaging law with his omnibus federal crime bill in 1994, which included the infamous “three strikes” law (three felony convictions means a life sentence) and ensured that mandatory minimum sentences imprisoned even low-level, non-violent offenders for a long, long time.
Clinton discussed his regrets about the crime bill with CNN's Christiane Amanpour. "The problem is the way it was written and implemented is we cast too wide a net and we had too many people in prison," he said. "And we wound up... putting so many people in prison that there wasn't enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives."
All true, except it was not just lack of funds that eliminated education and rehabilitation programs in prison, it was a deliberate choice. Sensing the political popularity of being tough on crime, Clinton fully embraced the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality, and gloated about three strikes. It strains credulity to think that this exceptionally intelligent man did not understand the dire consequences of what he was doing, as his wife now says.
Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 helped set the national mood. Dozens of states followed with their own mandatory minimum laws. While there is some talk today of criminal justice reform on a minor level (like for low-level drug offenses), no one is talking about the all-but-forgotten population doing hard time thanks in large part to Clinton.
2. Punitive welfare reform. The consequences of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform bill have been devastating for millions of American families. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 took a page directly from Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. In an atmosphere steeped in decades of conservative scaremongering around the specter of sexually reckless “welfare queens,” Clinton’s 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it” played directly to white voters' fears of black crime and poverty. Twenty years after scrapping the longstanding Aid to Families with Dependent Children in favor of the right wing’s underfunded and more punitive vision, the number of poor American children has exploded and black welfare recipients are subject to the system’s most stringent rules.
In 2012, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that while “in 1996, for every 100 families with children living in poverty, TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] provided cash aid to 68 families,” that number plunged to 27 out of every 100 families living in poverty by 2010. Conservatives trumpet these numbers, often citing the fact that nationally, TANF enrollment fell 58 percent between 1995-2010. But they neglect to mention that the number of poor families with children rose 17 percent in the same period.
Sociologist Joe Soss, who has examined the long-term racial consequences of welfare reform, which allowed states to decide how funds were allotted and eligibility determined, also noted that, “all of the states with more African Americans on the welfare rolls chose tougher rules…[E]ven though the Civil Rights Act prevents the government from creating different programs for black and white recipients, when states choose according to this pattern, it ends up that large numbers of African Americans get concentrated in the states with the toughest rules, and large numbers of white recipients get concentrated in the states with the more lenient rules.”
3. Wall Street’s Deregulator-in-Chief. As president, Clinton outdid the GOP when it came to unleashing Wall Street’s worst instincts, by supporting and signing into law more financial deregulation legislation than any other president, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
He didn’t just push the Democrats controlling the House to pass a bill (Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act) that dissolved the Depression-era Glass-Steagall law, which barred investment banks from commercial banking activities. He deregulated the risky derivatives market (Commodity Futures Modernization Act), gutted state regulation of banks (Riegle-Neal) leading to a wave of banking mergers, and reappointed Alan Greenspan as Federal Reserve chair. In recent years, Clinton has ludicrously claimed that the GOP forced him to do this, which led in no small part to the global financial crisis of 2008 and the too-big-to-fail ethos, with the federal government obligated to bail out multinational banks while doing little for individual account holders.
“What happened?” he told CNN in 2013. “The American people gave the Congress to a group of very conservative Republicans. When they passed bills with veto-proof majority with a lot of Democrats voting for it, that I couldn’t stop, all of a sudden we turn out to be maniacal deregulators. I mean, come on.” As CJR put it, “This is, to be kind, bullshit,” reciting a list of Clinton deregulatory actions that began while Democrats were the majority, starting with appointing “Robert Rubin and Larry Summers in the Treasury, which officially did in Glass-Steagall and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which left the derivatives market a laissez-faire Wild West.”
CJR concludes, “The bottom line is: Bill Clinton was responsible for more damaging financial deregulation—and thus, for the  financial crisis—than any other president.”
4. Gutted manufacturing via trade agreements. Bill Clinton helped gut America’s manufacturing base by promoting and passing the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, in 1993, when Democrats controlled Congress. That especially resonates today, when another Democratic president, Barack Obama, and Republicans in Congress, are allied against labor unions and liberal Democrats to pass its like-minded descendant, the Trans Pacific Partnership. “NAFTA signaled that the Democratic Party—the “progressive” side of the U.S. two-party system—had accepted the reactionary economic ideology of Ronald Reagan,” wrote Jeff Faux, on the Economic Policy Institute Working Economics Blog.
In 1979, then-candidate Reagan proposed a trade pact between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. But the Democrats who controlled the Congress would not approve it until Clinton pushed it in his first year in office. NAFTA has affected U.S. workers in four major ways, EPI said. It caused the permanent loss of 700,000 manufacturing jobs in industrial states such as California, Texas and Michigan. It gave corporate managers an excuse to cut wages and benefits, threatening otherwise to move to Mexico. Selling U.S. farm products in Mexico “dislocated millions of Mexican workers and their families,” which “was a major cause in the dramatic increase in undocumented workers flowing into the U.S. labor market.” And NAFTA became a “template for rules of the emerging global economy, in which the benefits would flow to capital and the costs to labor.”
The World Trade Organization, World Bank, International Monetary Fund all applied NAFTA's principles, which gave corporations the power to challenge local laws protecting health and safety if they cut into profits—like labeling tobacco packaging. The NAFTA “doctrine of socialism for capital and free markets for labor” could also be seen in the way the U.S. government “organized the rescue of the world’s banks and corporate investors and let workers fend for themselves” in the Mexican peso crisis of 1994-'95, the Asian financial crash of 1997, and the global financial meltdown of 2008.
5. No LGBT equality: Defense of Marriage Act. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was one of conservatives' biggest victories in the 1990s. Passed by Congress and signed into law by Clinton in 1996, the bill defined spouse as "heterosexual" and deprived legally wed same-sex couples of many significant benefits, from Social Security benefits to hospital visitation rights. It allowed states to refuse legal recognition of couples married in other states.
Writing in the New Yorker, Clinton's former advisor on gay issues, Richard Socarides, addressed why he signed the wildly discriminatory legislation. For one thing, Socarides said that Clinton's political opponents outmaneuvered him. He also chalks up the president's decision as "a failure to imagine how quickly gay rights would evolve." The former president was hardly an ardent supporter of the legislation. The New York Times noted, "Mr. Clinton considered it a gay-baiting measure, but was unwilling to risk re-election by vetoing it."
But the damage was done. For almost a decade, same-sex couples suffered financial and emotional hardships. Gay couples weren't allowed to make medical decisions for their partners, couldn't get the major tax breaks afforded to heterosexual couples, and faced unequal treatment in many other areas of law. In 2013, Clinton stated his opposition to the law. That year, in a major gay rights victory, the Supreme Court declared DOMA’s Section 3 (which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman) unconstitutional. Today, 37 states have legalized same-sex marriage, and in coming days, the Supreme Court is expected to do so.
6. Expanded the war on drugs. Although Clinton called for treatment instead of prison for drug offenders during his 1992 campaign, once in office he reverted to the same drug war strategies of his Republican predecessors. He rejected the U.S. Sentencing Commission's recommendation to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences. He rejected lifting the federal ban on funding for needle exchange programs. He placed a permanent eligibility ban on food stamps for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense, even marijuana possession. And he prohibited felons from living in public housing.
He also championed the 1994 crime bill, a $30 billion effort that included more mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine, extra funds for states that severely punished convicts, limited judges' discretion in sentencing, and allocated billions for federal prison construction and expansion. During Clinton's tenure, federal prison spending jumped $19 billion (171%), while funding for public housing declined by $17 billion (61%). Under Clinton, nearly $1 billion in state spending shifted from education to prisons.
The U.S. prison population doubled from about 600,000 to about 1.2 million during the Clinton years, and the federal prison population swelled even more dramatically, driven almost entirely by drug war prosecutions. Yet a month before leaving office, Clinton said in a Rolling Stone interview that "we really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment" of drug users and that pot smoking "should be decriminalized." If only he had acted on those sentiments when it mattered.
7. Expanded the death penalty. When running for president in 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Clinton allowed his state to execute Ricky Ray Rector, a convicted murderer with severe mental impairments. Despite much criticism, Clinton's decision not to commute the sentence not only established his tough-on-crime credentials as a national candidate, it also became a precedent to the expansion of the federal death penalty under his White House.
Clinton’s 1994 crime bill expanded the death penalty to 60 additional crimes including three that don’t involve murder: espionage, treason and drug trafficking in large amounts. Throughout his presidency he ignored calls for a national moratorium on federal executions. In April 1996, Clinton followed up and signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) into law. Introduced by Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole in response to the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, it severely restricted the ability of federal judges to grant relief in cases, reduced trials for convicted criminals and sped up the sentencing process.
In 2011, Troy Davis, an African American convicted of killing an off-duty cop, was put to death in Georgia. Davis’ case sparked nationwide protests as many believed he was innocent. There was no evidence linking him to the crime and seven witnesses who helped put him on Death Row later recanted their testimony.
Many believe Bill Clinton helped seal Davis’ fate years before. Many of Davis’ appeals were denied for procedural reasons and his 2004 petition, which included the recanted testimony and the possible identity of the killer, was rejected by the federal judge since, under current regulations, such evidence has to be presented first in state court. Davis’ defense was unable to do that because, shortly before AEDPA became law, Congress slashed $20 million from post-conviction legal defense organizations. In a piece in Time, Brendan Lowe quoted Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender in Arizona: “The bottom line is that the AEDPA is very harsh and unforgiving.”
8. Returned to Cold War priorities. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. under President George H.W. Bush forged ahead with the same imperialist stance toward Europe. As Bush's successor, Clinton had an historic opportunity to attempt a cooperative, non-aggressive international model based on international law. While his administration frequently gave lip service to these ideals, a far-reaching economic and political agenda to bring Eastern Europe into the NATO-E.U.-U.S. orbit was in the works. As Clinton's former national security advisor Anthony Lake summarized, "Throughout the cold war, we contained a global threat to market democracies: now we should seek to enlarge their reach." And enlarge they did.
The Clinton administration intervened massively across the former Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe, with direct interventions in the Balkans through NATO, corporate buyouts of industry from Poland to the Czech Republic, and the notorious "shock doctrine" of neoliberal economic reforms in exchange for IMF loans: cutting wages and corporate taxes, increasing working hours and slashing social programs. Bringing the Baltic states and Eastern Bloc countries into military arrangements associated with NATO, and establishing a major military garrison in the Balkans, Bill Clinton set the stage for the clash on Russia's border in Ukraine currently overseen by Obama, which could last for decades and undermine the process of integrating Russia into the industrialized world.
9. Joycelyn Elders and the culture war. At a 1994 U.N. Conference on AIDS, the U.S. Surgeon General, Joycelyn Elders, was asked if “a more explicit discussion and promotion of masturbation” could help limit the spread of the virus. Elders said she was “a very strong advocate” of teaching sex education in schools “at a very early age.” She added, “As per your specific question in regard to masturbation, I think that it is something that is a part of human sexuality and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we’ve not even taught our children the very basics.”
Less than a month later, Elders was asked for her resignation. She had spent just 15 month serving as Surgeon General of the Public Health Service under the Clinton administration. As Arkansas governor, Clinton had appointed her director of the state’s Health Department, the first African American to hold the title.
Elders later clarified that she'd suggested not to teach schoolchildren how to masturbate, but that masturbation is a natural part of human sexuality. “People have taken a lot of things I’ve said in a most unusual way,” she said. However, Clinton White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta said her comment was, “just one too many,” and her remarks on masturbation were “not what a surgeon general should say.” Elders has also endorsed legalizing drugs and giving out birth control in high schools.
Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich said, "It's good for the country and good for the president that she's departed." But as the New York Times reported, Elders' dismissal was met with heavy criticism from gay rights organizations, abortion rights groups and liberal organizations like People for the American Way. The New York City chapter of Planned Parenthood commented, "Mr. Clinton will be making a serious political mistake if he continues to try to out-Newt Mr. Gingrich.”
10. Turning Lincoln Bedroom into fundraising condo. The Lincoln Bedroom is an historic bedroom on the second floor of the White House that was at one time Abraham Lincoln's personal office. Under Clinton, it served another purpose: an overnight apartment for top political donors. Between 1995 and 1996, donors who gave a total of $5.4 million to the Democratic National Committee—including businessman William Rollnick, who gave $235,000 to the DNC, and investor Dirk Ziff, who gave $411,000—stayed overnight as White House guests.
Clinton had few doubts about the idea. When originally pitched to him in a note by deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, the president responded, “Ready to start overnights right away.” Sadly, Clinton started a trend. On the campaign trail, George W. Bush criticized Clinton for “virtually renting out the Lincoln Bedroom to big campaign donors.” Yet when Bush took office he continued the practice, handing the location over to donors who had given him over $100,000 and personal friends, including Texas oilman Joe O'Neill and Republican National Committee fundraiser Brad Freeman.
11. Bombed Sudanese pharmaceutical plant. On Aug. 20, 1998 the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum North, Sudan was annihilated by a cruise missile strike launched by the Clinton administration. President Clinton claimed the plant was making a deadly nerve agent and maintained connections to Osama bin Laden, who was unknown to most Americans at the time. Sudan claimed it was a factory producing medicines that saved thousands.
The factory’s owner, Salah Idris, denied the allegations vehemently and unsuccessfully tried to sue the U.S. government. According to a U.K. Guardian story, the plant "provided 50 percent of Sudan’s medicines” and was the country’s main source of anti-malaria drugs. Germany’s ambassador to Sudan, Werner Daum, says the bombing led to "several tens of thousands of deaths” and Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to the president explaining how it had slowed down relief efforts in the region. In his book, Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Jason Burke credits the bombing with bolstering terrorism: “[it] confirmed to [bin Laden and his cohorts], and others with similar views worldwide, that their conception of the world as a cosmic struggle between good and evil was the right one.” Noam Chomsky has written that the bombing’s consequences “may be comparable” to the attacks of September 11.
12. Doubled down on Iraq sanctions. Due to President George W. Bush’s disastrous war of choice in Iraq, people forget Bill Clinton’s Iraq humanitarian disaster: U.S. sanctions that decimated the Iraqi economy, crippled the civilian infrastructure, and according to a 1999 UNICEF survey, ultimately led to the deaths of more than 500,000 children. Though the sanctions began under President George H.W. Bush in 1990, Clinton expanded them, insisting a week before he took office in 1993, “There is no difference between my policy and the policy of the [Bush] administration” and squashing any subsequent effort to rein them in.
In 1996, Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright continued to defend the sanctions. By 2000, some members of Congress cited an increasing number of reports of the humanitarian crisis, calling for an end to sanctions. House Democratic Whip David Bonior referred to it as “infanticide masquerading as policy.” But Clinton refused to budge, defending the policy until the end of his presidency in 2001. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden cited the sanctions as one of his primary motives behind the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC later that year.
13. Political smears: Sistah Souljah. Clinton was highly regarded by African Americans during the 1992 election cycle for his ability to articulate how racism impacted their communities. However, when it mattered most, he dropped the ball on race when it was completely unnecessary. It started when he blasted hop-hop artist Sistah Souljah over her comments in a Washington Post article about the Los Angeles riots, which were sparked by the acquittal of several Los Angeles policemen who beat truck driver Rodney King. “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” she said.
Souljah claims she was misquoted. However, a few weeks later, both she and Clinton spoke at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition conference in Washington. Clinton used his appearance to criticize her statements, saying, “We can’t get anywhere in this country pointing the finger at one another across racial lines.” He compared her remarks to former KKK wizard David Duke.
As Matt Bai wrote for Yahoo, Clinton was not going to lose black votes by calling the rapper out. Black people were (and still are) hyper loyal to the Democratic Party. But since Clinton is being reflective about his presidency, perhaps he needs to go back to 1992 and rethink why he used his time at the Rainbow Coalition to appeal to a segment of white voters who may have wanted to see him distance himself from Rev. Jackson, still a key leader in the Democratic Party at the time.
If you read the full Washington Post coverage and listen to some of Sistah Souljah's commentary on white supremacy, you’ll see she makes some valuable points about anti-blackness and structural racism that are worth considering. But Clinton chose not to delve into that. Instead, he preferred to sell a sistah out and play the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show.
14. Knew about coming Rwandan genocide. This might be Clinton’s worst foreign policy failure. Intelligence analysts knew in advance about the plans for the Hutu-led genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda, yet the White House did nothing to try to stop it. In 2013, Clinton told MSNBS that he could have sent some 10,000 U.S. troops to the Central African nation to support a U.N. peacekeeping force and perhaps saved 300,000 lives—about a third of those who perished.
In retrospect, Clinton said, “You can’t stop everything bad that's happening.” He pointed to his success ending sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, the Bosnian war and the 1993 Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestinians. The fact remains that the White House knew one of the worst genocides since World War II was coming, and did not try to halt it.
15. Escalated America's foreign drug wars. In Clinton's second term, he initiated Plan Colombia, a multibillion-dollar effort to reduce that country's coca and cocaine production and end a decades-long war between Bogota and leftist FARC rebels. While Colombian President Andres Pastrana Arango originally envisioned the initiative as an economic development, roughly 80% of U.S. aid under Plan Colombia was military assistance, making Colombia the third largest recipient of foreign aid after Israel and Egypt.
Plan Colombia strengthened the Colombian military, which was allied with rightist paramilitary groups. It made gains against the drug trade and the FARC, but at a huge cost. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands became internal refugees. Concern over human rights abuses in the Colombian security forces resulted in the passage of the Leahy Provision, which barred anti-drug aid to any military unit involved in human rights abuses.
And then there was Mexico. Early this year when in Mexico, Clinton apologized for the U.S. role in the war on drugs and also for NAFTA, both of which led to violence. “I wish you had no narco-trafficking, but it’s not really your fault,” he said. Clinton’s policies were a double blow for Mexico. He deepened the drug war’s efforts to reduce U.S. domestic drug use by interdicting flows from abroad, forever changing the nature of Mexico's contraband economy from small-time mom-and-pop operations to the immensely wealthy, powerful and violent cartels of today. Meanwhile, NAFTA opened the floodgates to illegal drugs hidden in the massive flows of legitimate commerce across the border. Large corporations weren't the only beneficiaries of free trade; so were Mexican drug traffickers.