Clinton Presidential Library provides contrast to Obama's transformative presidency

Last month, I visited the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock. It was my second visit since its opening in 2004 so it was nice to see it again, this time with completed grounds and the nearby Heifer International headquarters. It’s worth a visit if you haven’t been.

While walking through the exhibits, I thought back to Obama’s comments during the ’08 primary about the need for a more transformative presidency. He argued the Democratic party needs a President like Reagan, who changed the trajectory of American politics, as opposed to someone like Bill Clinton, who did not.

Some liberal blogs and Hillary Clinton’s campaign tried to gin up outrage by accusing Obama of praising Reagan’s conservative agenda. But, when touring the Clinton Library, it’s easy to see what Obama really meant.

Most of the accomplishments Bill Clinton brags about were undone within a year of George W. Bush taking office.

The Clinton budget surplus became Bush’s record deficits. Responsible fiscal and tax policies that were more fair to the middle-class were scrapped for Paris Hilton tax cuts and government run on credit card debt. Strong job growth gave way to the Bush recession. His reduction in the crime rate ended as soon as the next recession hit. A time of relative peace and good relations with most of the world was squandered by Bush’s war of aggression that made the United States more hated than it has ever been.

In contrast, the damaging aspects of the Clinton presidency are more enduring. Trade agreements destroyed the American manufacturing sector. Clinton’s lending and financial deregulation, done near the end of his presidency, contributed to the housing mortgage collapse. Deregulation left the media in the hands of a few mega-corporations, limiting the diversity of viewpoints in news and homogenizing American culture. All of these were touted as accomplishments in the Clinton Library.

Plus, one can’t ignore Clinton’s adoption of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, his failure to take meaningful action on climate change, and his lack of effort in pushing for universal health care after the ’93 failure. The truth is that Obama isn’t just cleaning up Bush’s mess. He’s also fixing the damage done by Clinton.

If Obama’s first-term accomplishments are defended against future efforts to dismantle them, they will profoundly change America. Consider:

  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
  • Obamacare
  • Reducing dependence on oil
  • Saved the US auto industry from collapse and pushed them to modernize their gas-guzzling fleet
  • Most significant re-regulation of Wall Street, lending, and credit cards since the New Deal
  • Largest investment in clean energy and efficiency projects in American history
  • Ended a war, began deescalation of another, and reduced the world’s nuclear weapons stockpile
  • Taking student loans back from the banks
  • Half a dozen EPA rule changes that will reduce pollution from coal

These are accomplishments progressives spent years fighting for; that previous Presidents have attempted and failed to achieve. The impact of these actions will be felt decades from now. If Obama goes on to effectively deal with climate change, he can easily be listed among the most effective Presidents in American history.

The difference can also be seen in how Obama advocates for progressive ideals. Obama often pushes progressive proposals in language that appeals to moderates. The fact that he’s still advancing progressive ideals is sometimes lost on the netroots, who would rather be pandered to with fiery Kucinich-style speeches.

In contrast, Clinton sold conservative agenda items like welfare reform, financial deregulation, and free trade in language that appeals to Democrats. Obama introduces agenda items that challenge Congress to move left. Clinton split the difference between the two parties while pulling Congressional Democrats rightward.

Clinton’s approach enabled conservatives to build momentum and boosted Green Party membership. Much as Reagan did for conservatism, Obama’s approach is laying the foundation for a generation of progressive change.

Political junkies are already talking about who Democrats will run for President in 2016. Many feel that beating Republicans is the most important priority, even if it means electing someone similar to Bill Clinton whose primary appeal is being an electable alternative to the Republican candidate.

The Clinton/Obama contrast highlights what Americans lose by electing a Democratic President who’s merely less damaging than a Republican. We squander 4-8 years that could be spent accomplishing much more. The negative consequences of electing a placeholder are felt for years, while the benefits are short-lived.

© 2013 Willinois. This article is reproduced by permission of the author. All rights reserved.