People like Bill Clinton. They liked him during much of the time he was president; his approval ratings were solidly above 50 percent for the bulk of his two terms. And they like him now; over the summer Gallup put his current approval rating at 66 percent — as high as it was when he first took office in 1993. 

Indeed, Clinton’s favorability ratings are substantially better than President Obama’s. But Clinton has been trying to help the current president narrow the gap. He gave the best speech of the presidential campaign at this year’s Democratic National Convention. And he’s been hitting the trail to make the case for President Obama in the months since, becoming a major draw at campaign rallies. Over the weekend, he and Obama made their first joint appearance on the campaign trail.

Clinton has been sticking to familiar Team Obama talking points: Romney can’t be trusted, and if Obama gets a second term, he will lead an economic recovery. The gist of Bill Clinton’s argument, though, is pretty simple: If you like Bill Clinton — as many people do — vote for Obama.

But here’s the thing. Neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney are returning to Clinton-era governance. Indeed, for all its flaws and evasions, some parts of Romney’s proposed policy agenda actually look more Clintonian than Obama’s.


Bill Clinton’s presidency benefited greatly from a number of external factors: the end of the Cold War, low energy prices, the tech boom. But there’s still a fair amount to like about the
policies over which he presided.

Here are some crucial facts about Clinton’s governance: He raised income tax rates; he shrank defense spending in real terms; he block granted welfare; he kept government spending slightly below its historical average as a share of the economy; and he ran the smallest annual budget deficits of any modern president.

Let’s take these one at a time.

On income tax rates, Obama, who wants to raise top marginal rates, can clearly claim to be Clinton’s heir. Still, there are differences between the two. The president has said he wants to raise rates on income earned above $250,000 a year, but leave in place current rates on lower and middle income earners.

On defense spending, Obama, who has proposed to keep spending basically flat in the near term and let it rise slowly after that, is relatively closer to Clinton than Romney, who has proposed to set a floor for defense spending that would amount to a huge increase. But Clinton actually let defense spending drop noticeably in inflation-adjusted dollars over the first five years of his presidency before letting them begin to rise again, and they never reached the level they were at when he took office. 

Clinton also signed a bipartisan bill to block grant welfare, a financial assistance program with a long history of problems, to the states. This resulted in a substantial reduction in welfare rolls, which, years later, Clinton claimed as a success. Romney has proposed a similar overhaul for Medicaid, a deeply dysfunctional health care program for the poor and disabled. President Obama, in contrast, wants to roughly double federal spending on the program over the next decade.

Clinton also exercised spending restraint. He kept federal spending at an average of 18.2 percent of gross domestic product during his eight years in office, slightly below the historical post World-War II average. Romney has proposed reducing federal spending as a share of GDP to 20 percent, though he hasn’t provided details about how he would do this (more on this in a moment). President Obama, meanwhile, wants total federal spending to equal 23-24 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).  

Finally, Clinton has the best record of balancing the budget of any president since John F. Kennedy. Obama’s track record of trillion dollar deficits speaks for itself, and neither his gimmicky proposals nor his half-hearted nods to mounting federal debt don’t suggest that he’d pursue aggressive deficit reduction in his second term. Romney isn’t proposing to balance the budget immediately,  but he says he would put the country on track to a balanced budget over a decade, and points to the fiscal reforms he enacted while governor of Massachusetts as evidence that he can do so. 

So it’s clear that neither candidate is offering a swift return to the relative restraint of the Clinton years. But on these five big-ticket policies of the Clinton years, Romney is somewhat closer on three. At least that’s the case on paper (or PowerPoint, as the case may be).

The big problem with Romney, as Bill Clinton has argued, is that it’s hard to trust his promises. The math behind Romney’s tax plan doesn’t add up, which means it will be hard — probably impossible — to fulfill all of his major economic promises. Romney’s advisers have hinted, however, that his income tax cuts may not make the final cut. That actually tracks well with Romney’s record. Running for governor of Massachusetts, he promised not to cuts taxes. He didn't, exactly. But once in office, he sought additional revenue by closing tax loopholes and raising fees (taxes, to the layman) instead.

Still, given Romney’s problematic budget math and his campaign’s unwavering commitment to evasiveness on crucial policy details, it’s more than fair to be wary of the former governor’s promises.

Indeed, that’s the core of Clinton’s economic argument against Romney, who has accused the GOP candidate of trying to “hide the numbers” of his economic plan. The problem is that it could just as easily be part of an argument against President Obama.

Obama's major budgeting second-term budgeting proposal is supposedly a $4 trillion “balanced” deficit reduction plan that cuts $2.50 in spending for every dollar in tax hikes. In fact, it’s packed with obvious budget gimmicks. Strip them away and it’s actually a $2 trillion plan made up almost entirely of tax hikes. When asked to defend the details, the Obama campaign can’t make them add up.

Which is part of the reason why Obama has such a hard time running on his predecessor's successes. One of the reasons Clinton looks so good in retrospect is because he made his budgets add up. As the former president said at an Obama rally over the weekend, "Budgets based on arithmetic work better than those based on illusion." He was talking about Romney, of course. But it applies to President Obama too.