The Incredible Shrinking Ex-President

Andrew E. Busch

April 1, 2002

A recent Gallup Poll has confirmed what many suspected would be the case: Bill Clinton’s retrospective presidential approval rating has plummeted to 51%, far below the average of his second term. There is no reason to believe that his fall in public esteem has yet reached bottom. Only two other presidents since 1960 have experienced declining approval ratings after leaving office (Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon). To the contrary, most presidents see their approval ratings rise after they leave office, as mistakes and partisan battles recede into the past.

This news has undoubtedly caused enormous consternation for Mr. Clinton and his entourage, who were veritably obsessed with advancing his “legacy.” Perhaps the first lesson in all of this is that there may be an inverse relationship between the attention a president lavishes on promoting his historical reputation and the reputation he actually achieves.

Of course, the circumstances surrounding Clinton’s departure from office (most notably, his spate of highly questionable pardons), the plea-bargain he was forced to accept, and some of his subsequent solipsistic comments (e.g. his thinly veiled complaint that he wished the terrorist attack had occurred while he was president) have all contributed to his downward slide. But there is a more fundamental problem facing his attempts at rehabilitation. There are numerous instances in which Clinton’s desire to score political points before leaving office have ricocheted to his (and the country’s) profound disadvantage later.

For instance, Clinton’s steadfast refusal to cut taxes in 1999 and 2000, even vetoing major tax cuts enacted by Congress, was driven by a desire to politically frame the budget surplus issue in a way that benefited Democrats and allowed him to appear as the protector of Social Security and Medicare. Yet, had the tax cut of 1999 been enacted, it would have begun to affect the economy in 2000 and 2001, perhaps averting, or at any rate mitigating, the economic slowdown that has cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and thrown state and national budgets into disarray. Americans could not help but notice that the slowdown began in Clinton’s last year with the stock market slide commencing in March 2000.

It is also increasingly clear that the Clinton years represented a short-lived window during which, with serious leadership, Americans might have been persuaded to make needed adjustments in the entitlement programs which face a troubled long-term future. That moment was systematically squandered by a president who put forward one not-very-serious Social Security reform proposal then lifted not a single finger to advance it legislatively at a time when his approval rating hovered in the high 60s. Not only did he do nothing to seize the opportunity, but he did everything in his power to block the serious reform efforts of others both in and out of his party (Bob Kerrey’s entitlement commission and John Breaux’s Medicare commission come immediately to mind). In the end, Clinton proved a better demagogue than a statesman, and the price will only keep going up.

Americans are also well able to perceive that the twin crises confronting America in the world—the terrorist assault that manifested itself on September 11 and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has reached a new crescendo of violence—festered for years under Clintonian mismanagement before exploding. The Palestinian intifada began in October 2000, three months before the end of Clinton’s presidency, as the chief executive’s almost frantic attempts to win a Nobel Peace Prize collapsed in disarray. After pressuring Israel into numerous concessions to Yasser Arafat, Clinton was forced to conclude that Arafat was, after all, duplicitous. Having received, through Clinton’s arbitration, territory from which to launch new assaults on Israel, Arafat has plunged the Middle East into crisis and presented Clinton’s successor with an extremely difficult diplomatic situation.

At the same time, Clinton pursued an anti-terrorist strategy that failed so utterly that September 11 will forever stand as a monument to, and rebuke of, its absurdity. Only weeks after his 1993 inauguration, terrorists launched the first attack on the World Trade Center. For the next eight years, the United States was subjected to an attempted assassination of its former president, bombings of its embassies, bases, and naval vessels, attempted bombings of its major airports, and a declaration of holy war issued by Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. For eight years, the American response was desultory rather than sustained, legalistic rather than rigorous, less a deterrent than a virtual invitation to further outrages. When the Clinton administration bothered to do anything at all, it either treated the terrorist war against America as a mere criminal justice issue, not unlike a drive-by shooting or grand theft auto, or a quasi-military issue demanding that a few cruise missiles be sent to some obscure location, after which all could return to normal.

As if this were not bad enough, the negative consequences of Clinton policies may be only beginning to surface. As the war against terrorism enters a new phase, it is not inconceivable that Clinton’s gross negligence of our defense needs, and his equally clear neglect of the Gulf War coalition, may reap a catastrophic harvest. As Mark Helprin argued in a recent National Review cover story, after a 40 percent real cut in defense spending and the atrophy of our alliance against Saddam Hussein, it is far from clear that we are in a position to achieve the president’s goals in Iraq, or to achieve them without incurring enormous risk to our strategic position in the rest of the world.

From the earliest days of the Clinton administration, starting with the budget plan of 1993 and the health care reform of 1994, a pattern emerged in which Clinton’s initial appeal met with an overwhelmingly positive public response which then dissipated and turned over time into either indifference or outright hostility. Stripped of the immediate benefit of Clinton’s roguish charm, the proposals faced a harsher fate when viewed in the cold light of day. It might be said that the same thing is now happening to the Clinton presidency as a whole. Viewed in the cold light of day—and the days since September 11 have indeed been both cold and illuminating—our former president emerges as a self-absorbed dilettante who had a good ride during very good times not of his making, frittering away his years on frolicking interns, relentless spin, and illusory budget surpluses gained at the cost of America’s military preparedness. Sadly for him—and for America—he has nowhere to go but down.

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, where he specializes in American government and politics. Dr. Busch is the author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. He is also the co-author of The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election.