In a widely lauded speech at the Democratic National Convention in September, former President Bill Clinton made the case for re-electing Barack Obama. The speech was a reminder of the prosperity that marked the Clinton years.
Vote Obama, Clinton said, “if you think the president was right to open the doors of American opportunity to all those young immigrants brought here when they were young so they can serve in the military or go to college.” Vote Obama “if you want a future of shared prosperity, where the middle class is growing and poverty is declining, where the American dream is really alive and well again and where the United States maintains its leadership as a force for peace and justice and prosperity in this highly competitive world.” Vote Obama, in other words, if you want to live in Bill Clinton’s America.
But Bill Clinton’s federal government was substantially different from Barack Obama’s government. In “Clintonomicus,” an article for the December 1994 issue of reason, Thomas W. Hazlett praised Bill Clinton’s economic team, which pushed back against the president’s political team—and Clinton himself—on issues such as health care price controls and expanding the deficit. Clinton’s economic advisers didn’t always win, but at least they stated their case.
That alone gave Hazlett a reason to hope. Clinton, he wrote, “may not have the integrity to accept the reality that his economists explain to him, but at least he’s had the smarts to seek their counsel before ignoring it.”
When it came to core economic issues, Clinton’s governance departed greatly from Obama’s. Yes, marginal tax rates were higher. But his health care overhaul did not pass, and in the wake of its failure the size of government as a share of the economy was kept in check. Total federal debt levels dropped as a percentage of America’s total economic output, and annual budget deficits were almost nonexistent—by far the lowest of any president in the postwar era. By the end of Clinton’s presidency, federal spending accounted for just 18.2 percent of the economy, compared to 24.1 percent in 2011.
Clinton’s presidency did not produce a small government. But in contrast to today, it was relatively restrained—and that showed in the economy. For that, both Clinton and his economic team deserve praise.