On Friday afternoon, former President Bill Clinton (SFS ‘68) spoke at Gaston Hall, and reflected on the current economic and political state of the country. His speech was part of the “Clinton-Gore Economics: Understanding the Lessons of the 1990s” symposium, which highlighted economic successes that the speakers attributed to the Clinton administration’s policies and leadership.
The symposium consisted of two panel discussions in addition to Clinton’s keynote speech. The panelists, including top officials and political players during the Clinton administration, addressed the 1993 budget battle and how the Clinton administration treated education, technology, transportation, and other issues within the larger economic plan. They also highlighted the important role that investment played during his administration.
The panelists and the former president also spoke about the country’s balanced budget during his second term, as well as the drops in unemployment numbers and number of people on welfare during his administration, the latter of which decreased from 14.1 million to 5.6 million. They argued that the administration’s policies played a measurable role in changing the economic state in which the country had been during the previous decate.
Clinton, however, noted that the policies made during his administration were not prescriptive. “As you look at the problems that the President faces today, the members of Congress face today, I would like to first state the obvious,” he said. “The particular solution we pursued is not appropriate to this particular moment because the problem is different.”
However, he did say that some of the philosophies that shaped the policies under his administration remain relevant today.
“Abraham Lincoln said that in America, it was good to have wealthy people because it fostered innovation and creativity and effort in the rest of us,” Clinton said. “On the other hand, as an economic matter, we all need to pitch in and do what we can so that those of us who had all of the gains of the last decade [and in the 1980s], just as I did, should make a contribution. That’s a contribution we can make.”
Early in his speech, Clinton noted that the unemployment numbers inadequately describe the number of people who struggle with debt and lack jobs that sustain normal living expenses, as they do not include those with part-time jobs or those who have stopped looking for employment.
“I think it’s very important that we acknowledge… that a substantial number of decent people who are perfectly intelligent, perfectly able to be productive, and perfectly wiling to get out there and do what they’re supposed to do go months and months without jobs, weighed down by paralyzing debt and even more by paralyzing doubt,” Clinton said. “Doubt keeps you from playing the game.”
Clinton asserted that the importance of employment was “fundamental to human dignity and firing the imagination.”
The former president extended the idea of social responsibility to the current policies and attitudes in the United States toward immigration. “I don’t think Americans are being kept out of work because there are illegal immigrants in the country,” he said, drawing loud applause from Gaston’s audience.
Clinton also expressed his disappointment that the economic plan established during his administration was not permanent. He said that a clear distinction probably had not been made between investment economics, which he supported, and trickle down economics. “In 2001, in the face of what worked better, we went to trickle down economics,” Clinton said, citing the anti-government philosophy that is persistent in American culture as one of the main obstacles for the continuation of his administration’s plan.
Turning towards other sources of this discontinuation, he criticized the media’s simplification of the political system, with any conservative as “someone who takes the anti-government position, whatever that is, no matter how radical it is, no matter how unconvincingly conservative it is” and a liberal as “anyone who disagrees with [that position]”. He noted that he tried to break out of the dominant anti-government undercurrent established in the 1980s, as well as the rigid definitions of conservatives and liberals.
Clinton also spoke briefly about the difficult decisions he had to make during his presidency.
“But I don’t want to kid you. I caused a lot of people in my party to get beat, for voting for the economic plan, for voting for the assault weapons plan,” he said. “I lost a lot of sleepless nights, and I still think about it.”
While Clinton noted that the office of the presidency is subject to political pressures, he also said that the President of plays a vital role in establishing the course for the future of the country.
“The future doesn’t have as many votes, the future doesn’t have as much money… but at least [the president has] a big megaphone,” he said. “You can talk to the American people.” Clinton then voiced his support of President Obama’s jobs plan and the student loan plan.
“No one else can speak for the future if the President refuses to,” said Clinton. “We got big things to do and I appreciate the fact that the President is still trying to reach out, but starting to take his own course.”
Photo by Max Blodgett.