Stateline Story

Clinton Posting Mediocre Domestic Record, Scholars Say

President Clinton sent his budget for the 2001 fiscal year  -- the last of his presidency -- to Capitol Hill Monday (2/7), with the expectation that lawmakers will consider a host of spending increases in his favorite domestic programs: public education, health care, middle-class tax cuts and welfare.

Political analysts have seen in Clinton's proposals this year a return to a warm embrace of traditional democratic issues, an attempt to solidify the party's base in an election year. Indeed, the tone of Clinton's State of the Union message sent a strong signal of support to the party's hard-core constituents.

"America again has the confidence to dream big dreams," Clinton said. "To 21st century America, let us pledge these things: Every child will begin school ready to learn and graduate ready to succeed. Every family will be able to succeed at home and at work, and no child will be raised in poverty... We will assure quality, affordable health care, at last, for all Americans."

But the Clinton budget, like his speech, is expected to be short on grand designs and long on incremental increases. In fact, while the President will again battle this year for new gun controls, a prescription drug benefit for Medicare patients and funds for new schools, most of his proposals will seek to build on previous initiatives.

Every president sends to Congress a long list of pet projects. But Clinton is notable for elevating even the most minor programs to national debate. He has promoted Head Start, a small pre-school program for disadvantaged youngsters, in nearly every State of the Union address. Over the past two years, he has requested modest tax credits for families caring for ailing and dying relatives, a proposal few healthcare experts believe comes close to addressing the crisis many families face in providing long-term care.

Many scholars say Clinton's style of incrementalism, or 'miniaturization,' as University of Texas professor Bruce Buchanan calls it, may deprive him of an enduring legacy. Clinton's grandest initiatives -- welfare reform, the new Children's Health Insurance Program and the push for national education standards -- have yet to prove sure-fire successes. And they pale in comparison to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, which gave us Social Security, or Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, which spawned Medicare and Medicaid.

"I can't go back in history and find another President who will be remembered in an important way for so many little things," said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "I don't think his legacy will be anything grand."

Aside from the ignominy of becoming the second president in history impeached by the House of Representatives, Clinton's most lasting endowment to the nation may be his fiscal restraint. By building on the tax increases and spending cuts of the Bush administration, he helped to balance the federal budget and to usher in the longest economic expansion in the nation's history.

Clinton was a relative latecomer to the mantra of deficit reduction. Reform Party founder Ross Perot first drove that issue home in 1992. In 1993, Clinton actually proposed a $30 billion jobs program, which Congress rejected.

Clinton did come around quickly. And for that reason, few scholars now discount his intuition which, when helped along by extensive polling, has led him to grab onto the popular ideas of others and make them his own. Seven years into his presidency, Clinton's single biggest spending proposal was a $110 billion hike in the Pentagon's budget, an initiative embraced and increased by Congressional Republicans.

Bill Clinton's success as president -- and few objective observers consider him a failure -- rests as much on his potent political skills as his policy accomplishments.

"At the very least, once can say he does contribute to setting the agenda in a very important way," Hess said.

"He is pretty adept at capturing the middle," Buchanan said. Incrementalism may prove to be an effective governing style, he says, suitable for prosperous economic times.

"There is a reconfiguration of the very model of the presidency here... If that model takes root, then Clinton is the architect."

A review of the Clinton record reveals a dedication to expanding health care coverage, increasing access to college and improving public education, helping working families, revitalizing cities and reforming welfare.

Health Care

No Clinton initiative was trumpeted as loudly and defeated as soundly as his plan, or rather Hillary Rodham Clinton's plan, to extend health insurance to every American. Three years later, however, Clinton did win what he constantly refers to as "the single largest investment in health care since 1965," the Children's Health Insurance Program or CHIP. The program, $24 billion over five years distributed in block grants to the states, is enough to fund health care for five of the estimated 11 million children without health insurance.

But since the death of the 1994 health care plan, the number of uninsured has only grown, from almost 38 million (15.2 percent) to 44 million (16.3 percent). CHIP may put a dent in those figures. This year, the president has proposed extending CHIP to parents.

"We didn't achieve the goal of universal coverage and that means the problem still exists," said Judy Feder, dean of Georgetown University's Institute for Health Care Research. "Given that, has he made any strides? I'd say absolutely."

Welfare Reform

In a unique straddling of the political divide, the same year Clinton pushed universal health care he also asked Congress to revamp the welfare system. "We have to end welfare as a way of life and make it a path to independence and dignity," he told Congress in 1994. Clinton advocated forcing recipients to work, but smoothing their transition into the labor force with generous health care, child care and transportation benefits.

That same year, however, dozens of Congressional Democrats lost their seats in mid-term elections and the Republican Congress that returned designed a welfare plan much tougher than what the President had envisioned. For the first time, Congress gave parents five years to get a job and get off the dole, ending a 61-year tradition of open-ended cash assistance to poor families. Clinton signed the law over the strident objections of members of his own party less than three months before his reelection. It was a successful political gamble, but the true test of the law's wisdom, experts on poverty say, awaits the next recession, when rising demand will test the new program's benefits and expose its drawbacks.

In the welfare program, Congress did accede to the Clinton administration's request for massive child care spending. It merged federal programs into the Child Care Development Fund, which gives states $20 billion to fund day care for low-income families.

This year, the President has asked Congress invest $21 billion more over 10 years in the earned income tax credit for the working poor, a program that in the past has enjoyed bi-partisan support. Under the program, working families at or near the poverty level can receive an annual check from the government, whether or not they owe any federal income taxes. Clinton won an earlier expansion of the credit in 1993.

Education and Training

"My number one priority for the next four year is to insure that Americans have the best education in the world," Clinton announced in 1997, at the start of his second term. With that speech, he refocused his sights on improving the nation's public schools.

In his first term, however, Clinton had dedicated as much if not more attention to education and training for adults. Few may remember that Clinton once touted a national apprenticeship program. He has also consistently argued for "skills grants" that laid-off workers could use for vocational school.

Although his apprenticeship program and training vouchers were rejected, Clinton has won some new benefits for workers in his second term. In 1998, Congress passed the Workforce Investment Act, which orders states to streamline their patchwork of employment programs. It also frees states to experiment with programs not specifically laid out by officials in Washington.

The 1997 Taxpayer Relief Act set up $1000 annual tax credits for adults who return to school. It also established "HOPE scholarship" tax credits to help families pay for the first two years of college. Pell Grants, one of the chief supports for low-income students who want to go to college, were also expanded.

Despite the fact that Clinton did not turn his full attention to improving public primary and high schools until his second term, he had already developed an expertise on the subject as governor of Arkansas. Under the Bush administration, Clinton pushed hard for Goals 2000, a program to design tough, new national education standards.

As president, however, Clinton was not able to persuade Congress to make the standards mandatory. He did however succeed in ordering states that receive federal education dollars for low-income students, commonly referred to as Title I money, to embrace standards for all their students.

In the 1990s, 49 states adopted some form of education standards, according to one of the nation's largest teachers' unions, the American Federation of Teachers. Forty-six states are in the process of developing tests. More important, the AFT says, states are moving towards uniformity.

"The standards movement is very much alive and it is moving ahead in a very non-partisan way," said AFT spokesman Jamie Horwitz. "It's there, it's happening and it hasn't been politicized."

Clinton has fought hard for a program to connect every school to the Internet, and last year, he prevailed in a tough battle with Congress over $2.5 billion to enable states to hire 100,000 new teachers. This year, he will again ask Congress to appropriate $5 billion to help districts build new schools and repair old ones. And he has renewed his request for a $10,000 tax deduction for college tuition. Both face very tough opposition.


Under the Clinton administration, the nation's largest cities have seen their first extended revival in decades. "I'd give him a good deal of credit," says the Urban League president Hugh Price.

"This is the most remarkable economic surge that African-Americans have seen since World War II," he said.

Clinton's fiscal policies have played an important role, Price says, but the business community also deserves commendation for its renewed interest in inner-city markets.

Price also credits the administration's support for Empowerment Zones and for college grants for disadvantaged students.

In the 1993 budget, Clinton won the first installment of a $1.3 billion effort to pour federal money into some of the nation's most destitute urban and rural areas. Congress also created tax benefits for the businesses that move into these regions.

This year, Clinton has asked Congress once again to expand the Empowerment Zone program and invest $110 million in Mississippi and in Native American reservations. "If we don't do this now, when in the wide world will we get around to it?" he asked Congress in his State of the Union address.


President Clinton often cites as a top achievement the national drop in crime, particularly violent crime. As with welfare reform, he established common ground with Congressional Republicans over tough new sentences for federal offenders and funds for new police officers -- 100,000 between 1994 and 1999. Many argue local leaders should take the most credit for falling crime rates. But the economy has certainly helped, they say.

As with Clinton's 100,000 teachers, the money for the police officers will expire unless renewed by Congress, leading many to question whether, like so many other Clinton initiatives, the effort will be long-lasting.