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Divided Nation: 1992–2016

Bill Clinton's Presidency

1992 Presidential Election

In 1992 "New Democrat" Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush, the incumbent Republican president, on a platform of economic growth and social reform.

The 1992 U.S. presidential election took place during the nation's slow recovery from an eight-month recession that had ended in March 1991. Yet it was a "jobless recovery." The number of Americans living in poverty was growing as the price of goods increased and the purchasing power of money decreased. This inflation also slowed the growth of American businesses. Many employers could not afford to keep the employees they already had, let alone hire new ones. Ten million adults were out of work in 1992, which translates to an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent, the highest it had been since 1984.

Though technically the recession had ended, Americans of all political backgrounds remained uneasy about the economy. Republicans were particularly mistrustful of Bush, who four years earlier had campaigned on a platform of "no new taxes," a promise he broke just two years later in an effort to address a ballooning federal deficit caused by the government spending more than it was bringing in.

Dissatisfaction with the incumbent's presidency opened the door for two serious challengers: Democrat and former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton and independent Texas billionaire Ross Perot. Perot was essentially a single-platform candidate, wholly focused on the need to eliminate the federal deficit. Doing that would mean cutting various government programs and increasing income, gasoline, and Social Security taxes.

Clinton also wanted to raise taxes. Instead of paying down the federal deficit, he wanted to invest that money in education, job training, and public works as a means of boosting the economy. His ideas were a departure from traditional Democratic ambivalence about business growth. In the past, Democrats had focused most of their efforts on social reform and government intervention to help the neediest populations. But Clinton branded himself as a "new" Democrat, one who understood the needs of the poor as well as the problems faced by big business. He didn't believe in a sprawling government that involved itself in every aspect of citizen's lives, yet he felt there were places, such as education and health care, where the government could be of assistance.

Clinton's hopeful vision for the future starkly contrasted with Bush's insistence on maintaining the status quo. Americans wanted change, and Clinton's moderate policies and promises of a strong economy sent many self-described conservatives across party lines. Perot's popularity among Republicans further split that party's vote. Clinton won the 1992 presidential election with 43 percent of the popular vote and 370 electoral votes. Bush earned only 37.4 percent of the popular vote and 168 electoral votes, while Perot got 18.9 percent of the popular vote and 0 electoral votes.

1992 Electoral Map

Although Ross Perot received nearly 20 percent of the popular vote, he received no electoral votes. Still, some felt he split the Republican vote, ensuring a Clinton victory.


President Clinton's two terms in office were plagued by scandal, tying up his second term in a political struggle for survival that ended with impeachment in December 1998.

Bill Clinton's presidency was plagued with scandal even before he entered office. In January 1992, before Clinton was named the official presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, supermarket tabloid Star published a story accusing Clinton of having a 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers, an Arkansas state employee and former cabaret dancer. Clinton denied the affair and went on to secure the party's nomination.

During his candidacy, Clinton and his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton also became the subjects of what is now known as the Whitewater investigation—a federal investigation into the Clintons' alleged involvement in a scheme to defraud two financial institutions. In 1978 the Clintons invested in property with real estate developer and friend Jim McDougal. Previously, McDougal had purchased a small financial institution and then created a subsidiary real estate development corporation. The Clintons invested in McDougal's Whitewater real estate development deal. The Whitewater venture ultimately failed, and McDougal illegally took money from the bank to cover his real estate losses. When the matter came under investigation, the Clintons were suspected of being involved in McDougal's bank fraud scheme. Fifteen people were ultimately found guilty, but the Clintons never faced prosecution.

Another scandal erupted just a few months later. Called Travelgate, it concerned the May 1993 firing of seven employees of the White House's travel office. The White House said the firings were related to ethics and poorly kept financial records, but critics suspected the Clintons of replacing wholly competent employees with their own friends. An FBI investigation found no grounds for bringing charges against either of the Clintons.

Perjury, Obstruction, and Impeachment

The most serious scandal to face the Clinton White House led to the second impeachment of a president in U.S. Senate history.

The biggest scandal of Bill Clinton's presidency began in 1994 with an investigation into allegations that Clinton sexually harassed former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones while serving as governor. During their investigation, Jones's lawyers uncovered evidence that Clinton had been engaging in inappropriate sexual relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. That information was made public in January 1998. For eight months Clinton denied the accusation. Some of those denials were made under oath during Jones's civil trial. In September 1998 prosecutor Kenneth Starr produced a damning report that proved Clinton did have a sexual relationship with Lewinsky.

The U.S. House of Representatives formally leveled charges of perjury, or willfully lying in court while under oath, against Clinton on December 20, 1998. They also charged him with obstruction of justice, meaning the attempt to hinder an investigation or legal process. They moved to impeach the president, or formally level charges against him. When impeaching a president, the House of Representatives initiates the proceedings. The case then moves to the Senate for trial. In December 1998 Clinton became the second president, after Andrew Johnson (1868), to be tried under the articles of impeachment. The resulting senatorial vote on whether to convict Clinton illustrated the deep divisions within Congress. A guilty verdict requires a two-thirds majority vote. Out of 55 Republicans, 50 believed Clinton guilty of obstruction of justice. Forty-five thought he was guilty of perjury. The numbers fell short of conviction. Clinton was acquitted of all charges in February 1999, but his presidency was forever tarnished.

Environmental Matters

Numerous severe weather events during Clinton's presidency emphasized the need for environmental protection policies to reduce the potential threat of climate change.

During his presidential campaign, Bill Clinton and vice presidential candidate Al Gore spoke at length about the environment. Incumbent George Bush had initially cast himself as an "environmental president," and was responsible for applauded efforts such as the Clean Air Act in 1990. However, two years into his four-year term, dealing with job losses began taking precedence over proposed environmental regulations. Jobs for American workers became his priority. Clinton and Gore argued that environmental protection and economic growth go hand in hand.

Climate change—also termed global warming—is a long-term change in usual weather patterns associated with the buildup and warming effect of greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere. These greenhouse gases are by-products of human activity such as manufacturing, farming, and the burning of fossil fuels. The more gases accumulate, the more heat is trapped within Earth's atmosphere. That causes Earth's average temperatures to rise, which leads to long-term changes in weather patterns and an increase in the occurrence and intensity of extreme weather events.

Concern about the effects of climate change rose during Clinton's first presidential campaign. In August 1992 Hurricane Andrew hit the Bahamas, southern Florida, and south-central Louisiana. Property damage in the United States climbed to $26.5 billion. Over 25,000 homes were destroyed in Dade County, on the southeastern tip of Florida; another 100,000 in the area were damaged. As many as 65 people died. It was not the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history, however. Hurricane Andrew was judged the strongest to have ever occurred.

Extreme Weather Continues

In response to superstorms, floods, severe heat waves, and other climatic disasters, President Clinton and Vice President Gore encouraged innovation and green technologies.

Hurricane Andrew was followed by several more significant events. Between March 12 and 15, 1993, a superstorm labeled the storm of the century hit the East Coast of the United States, unleashing extreme winds, heavy rain, snowstorms, and freezing temperatures from Maine to Florida. Some 270 people died in that disaster. Later that year, the Midwest was hit with the Great Flood of 1993 as the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers rose above their banks. Over 400,000 square miles in nine states were flooded that summer, destroying homes, businesses, roads, and farmlands and causing the deaths of 50 people. The Chicago heat wave of July 1995 killed 739 people over the course of three days, and a string of 14 tornadoes in Oklahoma killed 44 in May 1999.

While responding to the immediate disasters, Clinton also attempted to address the challenging and complex issue of climate change. Through executive orders, he sought to reduce the federal use of fossil fuels, reduce pollution, increase energy efficiency, and use alternative energy sources whenever possible. Through speeches, policies, and more executive orders, he and Gore encouraged innovative thinking and new, environmentally friendly technologies such as wind and solar power, with the goal of promoting a thriving national and global economy while keeping Earth in balance.

20th-Century Global Temperature Anomalies

Charting temperature data helps scientists identify shifts in weather and atmospheric conditions. The zero line represents the long-term average global temperature. The red and green bars show average temperature deviations from the long-term average.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy ended the military's explicit ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces, but it required gay service members to keep their sexual orientation a secret.

In the period between his election and his inauguration to the presidency, Bill Clinton vowed to end the ban on homosexuals serving in the U.S. armed forces. Gay rights activists, who had been vocal opponents of the military's policies since the 1970s, applauded Clinton's resolve, as did his more liberal supporters. Nevertheless, many Americans opposed the president's plan, including Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Clinton agreed to a compromise that became known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Gay men and women were allowed to serve in the military as long as they didn't openly speak about their sexual orientation or engage in sexual activity.

Many military officers disagreed with the new policy, which went into effect on October 1, 1993. They thought the presence of unidentified homosexuals would lower the morale of heterosexuals in the service. Gay rights activists were also disappointed. Even though recruiters could no longer weed out applicants based on a stated sexual preference, the new policy was still discriminatory against service members who wished to be openly gay.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was the basis of several court decisions. McVeigh v. Cohen (1998) involved Navy serviceman Timothy R. McVeigh (not to be confused with domestic terrorist Timothy James McVeigh). McVeigh's sexual preference was discovered through no fault of his own. He sent an anonymous e-mail to a civilian, who connected the e-mail address to a profile on Internet service provider America Online (AOL). The profile identified the user as gay. This information made its way to McVeigh's superiors, who instructed a Navy paralegal to confirm with AOL that McVeigh was the person behind the e-mail account. This was confirmed. A few days later, McVeigh learned he was going to be discharged for making "a statement of homosexuality." McVeigh petitioned the court for an injunction to stop the discharge. The court complied after concluding that McVeigh's AOL profile, which did not include his name, was not a public declaration of sexual orientation. McVeigh was allowed to retire from the service with full benefits.

Repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

The repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in September 2011 paved the way for later changes in the status and rights of gay and lesbian couples.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was repealed in September 2011 a few months after the verdict in Witt v. Department of the Air Force. Major Margaret Witt, a decorated career air force officer, had been abruptly discharged based on a claim that she had engaged in a sexual relationship with another woman. The woman in question was her long-term civilian partner. Witt had never disclosed her sexual orientation to her colleagues, had guarded her privacy, and had maintained a home with her partner 250 miles from the military base. Witt fought and won her case, was reinstated to the air force, and retired with full benefits.

Repeal of the policy was a first step in establishing equal rights for gays and lesbians. It would pave the way for repeal of all provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. This law effectively barred same-sex couples from all rights and privileges extended to opposite-sex couples. It was repealed in its entirety in 2015 during President Obama's administration following the landmark civil rights case Obergefell v. Hodges. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by the Constitution. As a result of the court's decision and the subsequent repeal of DOMA, same-sex marriage is now deemed a constitutional right in all 50 states.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was instituted in 1993. By 2008 over 12,000 officers had been discharged for refusing to hide their sexual orientation. Those who wished to remain in the military worried their orientation might be discovered and reported to commanding officers.


Despite some negative side effects, international free trade agreements such as NAFTA generally boosted the American economy and decreased unemployment levels in the 1990s.

One of President Clinton's main focuses was rebuilding the U.S. economy. The unemployment and inflation rates were high, and foreign trade was sluggish. To rectify the latter, Clinton urged Congress to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed by George H.W. Bush in 1992. NAFTA encouraged free trade between the United States, Canada, and Mexico by gradually eliminating policies that had created trade barriers. NAFTA's opponents argued that U.S. companies would move their manufacturing facilities to Mexico to take advantage of lower labor costs. High-paying U.S. jobs would be lost. While this did occur, the benefits of the pact offset some of these economic losses. Trade with Mexico climbed 109 percent between 1993 and 1999, while exports to the rest of the world increased by 49 percent. In all, Clinton signed 300 global trade agreements during his presidency, most of which helped boost U.S. exports, jobs, and the economy.

The uptick in the economy benefited Americans from all walks of life. By the end of Clinton's term in 2000, 22.5 million new jobs were created, and individual incomes had risen by an average of $6,338. All income brackets saw double-digit growth, including the lower class. The number of Americans living at or below the poverty level went from 15.1 percent in 1993 to 11.8 percent in 2000. Unemployment was at a 30-year record low of 4 percent, down from 6.9 percent in 1993. The number of Americans who owned their own homes increased by 4 percent during Clinton's time in office, and the economy grew by 4 percent each year.

The booming economy benefited millions of Americans. However, hidden in the numbers were the beginnings of a shrinking middle class. As critics of NAFTA had predicted, many middle-class American workers began losing their jobs as manufacturing companies relocated to Mexico. In addition, defense industries had their government funding cut and were forced to cut thousands of jobs or shut down. New jobs for displaced workers often involved longer hours for less pay or only part-time work. While the U.S. economy prospered overall, these middle-class workers struggled to keep their families fed and housed. This trend continued over the ensuing decades, despite periodic bubbles of prosperity, such as the Internet-based boom (1997–2000). When those economic bubbles burst, jobs and wealth were wiped out. Well into the 2000s, companies continued to relocate outside the United States. U.S.-based multinational companies sought to lower wage-related costs by hiring fewer Americans. Less income, fewer opportunities, rising debt, and reduction in personal savings continued to shrink America's middle class.