President Bill Clinton’s Foreign and Domestic Policies
Fewer than half the people who voted for a presidential candidate in 1992 voted for Bill Clinton, which shows there was a pretty fair number of people who either disliked him or didn’t trust him. At 46, he was the youngest president since John F. Kennedy. Like JFK, Clinton could be charming and affable, was a convincing public speaker, and had a weakness for women.
A Democrat, Clinton was the first of the baby-boomer generation — those born between 1946 and 1964 — to be president. He had avoided the draft during Vietnam and admitted that he smoked marijuana at least once. In short, he was a new kind of chief executive.
Treading lightly abroad
On the foreign front, Clinton was cautious. He did push through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which greatly reduced barriers among the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
But his biggest challenge came in what was the former country of Yugoslavia. It had split into smaller states after the collapse of Soviet dominance in Europe in the late 1980s. In Bosnia, which was one of those states, Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian groups were fighting a civil war that threatened to spread.
When diplomatic efforts failed, the United States and other nations sent in peacekeeping troops to enforce a fragile truce. Later in the decade, U.S. military forces and other countries also intervened (and eventually restored order) when the former Yugoslavian state of Serbia invaded and terrorized neighboring Kosovo.
Clinton was much less successful — and apparently less interested — in solving problems in Africa. He inherited a mess in Somalia, where U.S. troops had been sent in as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force. They failed to quiet things down.
In October 1993, Americans were repulsed by video of the bodies of U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Somalia’s capital. U.S. troops were removed in 1994. Clinton also failed to intercede in the genocidal conflict in Rwanda, where millions were killed or forced to become refugees. A decade later, and presumably wiser, Clinton apologized for his “personal failure” to do more.
In 1998, a radical Islamic terrorist group called al-Qaida bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Clinton ordered retaliatory missile attacks against suspected al-Qaida havens in Sudan and Afghanistan, to little effect.
Frustrated with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s refusal to cooperate with UN weapons inspections, the United States and Great Britain launched air strikes against Iraq in late 1998, also to little effect. Both the terrorist group and the dictator would prove to be even bigger headaches for Clinton’s successor.
Pushing harder on the home front
Clinton was much more interested and engaged when it came to domestic policies. His first big battle as president was over his ambitious plan to reform the country’s healthcare system. It was a system plagued by soaring costs, confusing programs, and increasing unavailability to the unemployed and the uninsured. As the baby boomers aged and needed more medical care, the strain on the system would only get worse.
Clinton put his wife, Hillary, in charge of getting his reforms through Congress. But her efforts were hampered when she became embroiled in a probe into the financial dealings of an Arkansas company called the Whitewater Development Corporation.
The Whitewater probe led to Hillary Clinton becoming the first First Lady to be subpoenaed in a criminal investigation. The scandal, Hillary’s stubbornness in refusing to compromise with legislators, and a massive and well-financed campaign by the health and pharmaceutical industries combined to sink the president’s healthcare reforms.
In turn, the failure of Clinton’s healthcare reforms, a series of mini-scandals at the White House, and the clever political strategy of a Georgia congressman named Newt Gingrich gave the Republicans control of both houses of Congress in 1995 for the first time since 1946. Gingrich was elected House speaker.