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Early Lessons From 42 To 44

America’s 42nd president, Bill Clinton, was reportedly hospitalized with chest pains this afternoon in New York. Hopefully he’ll be fine, but naturally any threat to his health puts one in mind of the man’s legacy as a two-term president.

What struck me is this: when he was president, there was endless debate about Bill Clinton. Was he a liberal at heart who tacked to the center for pragmatic reasons, or was he essentially a moderate? Was he wasting his prodigious political talents, or was campaigning all he really knew to do well anyway? Did he revive liberalism from its decline, or validate the Reagan Revolution?

But nine years after he left office, as his presidency begins to recede into history and his party has passed to new leadership, this much is clear: it doesn’t matter anymore what Clinton’s intentions were, or what his talents were, or what he believed in. It doesn’t matter anymore who was up or who was down in his Administration, or who leaked what to which newspaper, or how he went about making decisions. It doesn’t matter who the public blamed or what the polls said. It doesn’t matter what Clinton said, either – we remember a few stock phrases (other than the embarrassing ones about his various scandals, probably his most enduring line was his campaign’s standing reminder to then-candidate Clinton that “It’s the economy, stupid”).

What matters from the Clinton Administration is what the president and his Administration did, and what it failed to do. Thus, for example, Clinton’s fiscal and economic legacy was not Hillarycare or the BTU tax, which went nowhere, nor was it the Contract with America, but rather an essentially centrist set of compromises with the GOP that yielded income tax hikes, capital gains tax cuts, welfare reform, fits of spending restraint but few spending cuts, major free trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT, and a series of both regulatory and deregulatory bills on the workplace, private securities litigation, and the financial markets. The book isn’t closed yet on the ripples from that era, but the decisions made, the bills passed, the judges appointed, the wars fought and unfought, etc., are done, and as historians debate President Clinton’s legacy, that is what they will examine. The same will be true of George W. Bush.

And the same will be true of Barack Obama. Obama is known for his eloquence, but little he says is remembered the next day, and still less will live on after him. Obama spends much of his days pointing fingers of blame – at the Bush Administration, at Congressional Republicans – but blame is not a legacy. Obama’s true intentions are subject to as much debate as Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s, or for that matter FDR’s or Lincoln’s, but only his record will really matter.

Which ought to give him pause. Obama entered office with an unprecedented base of support in Congress – even FDR didn’t have a filibuster-proof majority in his first year in office – and yet it is hard to think of a modern two-term president who accomplished less, either legislatively or in international affairs, than Obama in his first year. Even Clinton, for all the frustrations of his first year in office, got his tax hike package passed.

Unlike Clinton or Bush, Obama’s political obituary is far from written. But we should not lose sight of the fact that when it is, all the rhetoric and the news cycles will pale in comparison to that awful question: what did you do with the time that was given to you?

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