In 1992, Clinton won the Democratic presidential nomination after a primary campaign in which his character and private life were repeatedly questioned and, with running mate Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, went on to win the election, garnering 43% of the national vote in defeating Republican incumbent George H. W. Bush and independent H. Ross Perot. By his election, he became the first president born after World War II to serve in the office and the first to lead the country in the post-cold war era.
In his first year in office, Clinton won passage of a national service program and of tax increases and spending cuts to reduce the federal deficit. He also proposed major changes in the U.S. health-care system that ultimately would have provided health-insurance coverage to most Americans. Clinton was unable to overcome widespread opposition to changes in the health-care system, however, and in a major policy defeat, failed to win passage of his plan. After this failure, his proposed programs were never as sweeping. The president's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he married in 1975, played a more visibly active role in her husband's first term than most first ladies; she was particularly prominent in his attempt to revamp the health-care system.
In 1994, Clinton sent U.S. forces to Haiti as part of the negotiated restoration of Jean-Bertrand Aristide's presidency. He also withdrew U.S. forces from Somalia (1994), where while helping to avert famine they had suffered casualties in a futile effort to capture a Somali warlord. Clinton promoted peace negotiations in the Middle East, which bore fruit in important agreements, and in the former Yugoslavia, which led to a peace agreement in late 1995. He also restored U.S. diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995.
After the Democratic party lost control of both houses of Congress in Nov., 1994, in elections that were regarded as a strong rebuff to the president, Clinton appeared to have lost some of his political initiative. He was often criticized for vacillating on issues; at the same time, he was embroiled in conflict with sometimes radically conservative Republicans in Congress, whose goals in education, Medicare, and other areas often were at odds with his own. In 1995 and 1996, congressional Republicans and Clinton clashed over budget and deficit-reduction priorities, leading to two partial federal government shutdowns. Perceived as the victor in those conflicts, Clinton regained some of his standing with the public. Allegations of improper activities by the Clintons relating to Whitewater persisted but were not proved, despite congressional and independent counsel investigations.
By 1996, Clinton had succeeded in characterizing the Republican agenda as extremist while himself adopting many aspects of it. Forced to compromise on such items as welfare reform in order to assure passage of any change, Republicans passed bills that often seemed as much part of the president's program as their own. The welfare bill that he signed at the end of his term revolutionized the system, requiring that recipients work, while providing them with various subsidies to aid in the transition. Clinton won renomination by his party unopposed in 1996. Benefiting from a basically healthy economy, he handily won reelection in Nov., 1996, garnering 49% of the vote against Republican candidate Bob Dole and Reform party candidate Ross Perot, and became the first Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt to win two terms at the polls.
In 1997, Clinton and the Republicans agreed on a deal that combined tax cuts and reductions in spending to produce the first balanced federal budget in three decades. The president now seemed to have mastered the art of employing incremental, rather than large-scale, governmental action to effect change, leaving the Republicans, with their announced mandate for fundamental change, to appear visionary and extreme. Having taken the center, and with stock markets continuing to boom and unemployment low, Clinton enjoyed high popularity, presiding over an enormous national surge in prosperity and innovation.
At the beginning of 1998, however, ongoing investigations into his past actions engulfed him in the Lewinsky scandal, and for the rest of the year American politics were convulsed by the struggle between the president and his Republican accusers, which led to his impeachment on Dec. 19. He thus became the first elected president to be impeached (Andrew Johnson, the only other chief executive to be impeached, fell heir to the office when Pres. Lincoln was assassinated). It was apparent, however, that much of the public, while fascinated by the scandal, held the impeachment drive to be partisan and irrelevant to national affairs. In Jan., 1999, two impeachment counts were tried in the Senate, which on Feb. 12 acquitted Clinton. In the year following, U.S. domestic politics returned to something like normality, although the looming campaign for the 2000 presidential election began to overshadow Clinton's presidency. During both his terms Clinton took an active interest in environmental preservation, and by 2000 he had set aside more than three million acres (1.25 million hectares) of land in wilderness or national monuments, protecting more acreage in the lower 48 states than any other president.
The late 1990s saw a number of foreign-policy successes and setbacks for President Clinton. He continued to work for permanent peace in the Middle East, and his administration helped foster accords between the Palestinians and Israel in 1997 and 1999, but further negotiations in 2000 proved unsuccessful. Iraq's Saddam Hussein increased his resistance to UN weapons inspections in the late 1990s, leading to U.S. and British air attacks in late 1998; attacks continued at a lower level throughout much of 1999 while the issue of weapons inspections remained unresolved. In Apr.-June, 1999, a breakdown in an attempt to achieve a negotiated settlement in Kosovo sparked a 78-day U.S.-led NATO air war that forced the former Yugoslavia to cede control of the province, but not before Yugoslav forces had made refugees of millions and killed several thousand.
The second term of Clinton's presidency saw a pronounced effort to use international trade agreeements to foster political changes in countries throughout the world, including Russia, China (with whom he established normal trade relations in 2000), Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia. While global trade flourished, Clinton's hopes that trade would lead to democratization and improved human rights policies in a number of countries by and large failed to be realized. In 1997 the Clinton administration had won ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (signed 1993), but it refused to join in a major international treaty banning land mines. The Republican-dominated Senate narrowly rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in late 1999 in a major policy setback; in late 2000, Clinton made the United States a party to the 1998 Rome Treaty on the establishment of an International Criminal Court for war crimes.
Clinton benefited during his entire presidency from a strong economy, leading the country during an unprecedented period of economic expansion and, with some partisan critics giving credit to skill and some to luck, making a steady national prosperity the hallmark of his administrations. He left office having revived and strengthened the national Democratic party, which he guided toward more centrist positions, emphasizing fiscal responsibility, championing the middle class, and reversing many of the public's negative stereotypes regarding the party's liberal stance. Although Vice President Al Gore failed to win the 2000 presidential election, he won a plurality of the popular vote, and the party scored some gains in Congress, especially the Senate. The president's pardoning, however, of more than 100 people on his last day in office sparked one final controversy. Several persons he pardoned were well connnected and even notorious but not apparently deserving, and even Clinton supporters and appointees were openly critical. Charges that pardons were obtained through bribery, however, appeared to be unfounded.
No one major accomplishment or program marked Clinton's terms in office; his many real achievements were mainly incremental, and were often overshadowed by setbacks. However, through his extraordinary ability to relate to ordinary Americans, his intelligence and wit, and his skill in manipulating the media, he maintained an unusual level of popularity and a high approval rating throughout most of two terms in office. Nonetheless, the Lewinsky scandal, in particular, permanently marred his presidency. This was so although the sexual affair at its core was neither unique for Clinton, who had had other extramarital liaisons, nor for the office, some of the earlier holders of which had engaged in similar, although much less publicized, behavior.
As he left office, Clinton faced mountains of legal bills and continued threats of legal action. The youngest former president since Theodore Roosevelt, he established his presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., and, moving to New York where his wife was now a senator, opened an office and foundation in Harlem. He remains an influential and generally popular figure, and became prominent in a number of causes, including international AIDS treatment. He joined with his predecessor to raise funds for the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004) and Hurricane Katrina (2005), and in 2005 was appointed to a two-year term as UN special envoy for tsunami recovery, with responsibility for sustaining the international efforts for its victims. In 2009 he was named UN special envoy to Haiti, focusing on supporting the island's economic and social developement, and following the 2010 earthquake there joined with his successor to raise funds for relief.
See his autobiography, My Life (2004). See also J. Brummett, Highwire (1994); E. Drew, On the Edge (1994) and Showdown (1996); D. Maraniss, First in His Class (1995); R. A. Posner, An Affair of State (1999); J. Klein, The Natural (2002); J. F. Harris, The Survivor (2005); N. Hamilton, Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency (2007); T. Branch, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (2009).
See biography by D. Bobbé (1933, rev. ed. 1962); H. L. McBain, De Witt Clinton and the Origin of the Spoils System (1907, repr. 1967); D. R. Fox, Decline of Aristocracy in the Politics of New York (1919, repr. 1965); E. Cornog, The Birth of Empire (1998).
Under the new state constitution, which George Clinton helped to frame, he was elected (June, 1777) the first governor of New York state. His energy and leadership as governor for six successive terms (1777-95) led to his being called the father of New York state. He managed trade and public welfare problems ably, and he successfully settled the Native American troubles in W New York. He advanced New York's claims to the New Hampshire Grants (now Vermont), initiated action on building canals (later realized by his nephew, De Witt Clinton), and unsuccessfully fought the transfer from New York to the United States of the right to collect duties at the port of New York.
An advocate of state sovereignty, Clinton was one of the chief opponents of the U.S. Constitution, writing seven letters against ratification, signed Cato, in the New York Journal. These were answered by Alexander Hamilton in his letters, signed Caesar, in the Daily Advertiser. Clinton's views on the Constitution were opposed by a rapidly growing party, the Federalists, under the leadership of John Jay. Jay, running against Clinton for governor, lost the election of 1792 only by a questionable manipulation of returns on the part of the Clintonians, and in 1795 Jay won with ease, Clinton having declined to become a candidate.
As a result of his alliance with the Livingstons and Aaron Burr, Clinton became governor for a seventh term in the Republican triumph of 1800; he still holds the record for longest-serving New York governor-22 years. In 1804 he was elected vice president for President Jefferson's second term. He sought the presidency in 1808, having won support for that office in previous elections, but again he received only the vice presidency, this time under James Madison.
See his Public Papers (ed. by H. Hastings and J. A. Holden, 10 vol., 1899-1914); E. W. Spaulding, His Excellency George Clinton (1938, repr. 1964) and New York in the Critical Period, 1783-1789 (1932, repr. 1960).
Clinton took part in the battle of Bunker Hill (1775), commanded (1776) an unsuccessful expedition against Charleston, S.C., and served under Sir William Howe in the battle of Long Island, in the occupation of New York, and at White Plains. In 1777 he headed the British occupation of Rhode Island. When Howe moved on Philadelphia, Clinton assumed the command of New York. He did not fulfill the part expected of the New York command in the British strategy that resulted in defeat with the Saratoga campaign; he advanced up the Hudson valley, capturing the patriot strongholds of Fort Clinton (strongly defended by James Clinton) and Fort Montgomery, but after burning Kingston he turned back.
Sir Henry (knighted 1777) succeeded Howe in the supreme command in America in 1778. Acting on orders from London, he evacuated Philadelphia and, after Washington's attempt to halt him failed (see Monmouth, battle of), he reached New York. He complained that Lord George Germain did not answer his requests for supplies and twice tried to resign. In Dec., 1779, he left Baron Knyphausen in command in New York and redeemed his failure of 1776 by capturing Charleston (1780). After placing Cornwallis in command in the Carolinas, he returned to New York. In 1781, expecting Washington to attack, he remained in New York too long and failed to aid Cornwallis in the Yorktown campaign. He resigned and was succeeded by Sir Guy Carleton.
Clinton later served (1794-95) governor of Gibraltar. He recorded his campaigns from 1775 to 1782 (published in 1954 as The American Rebellion, ed. by W. B. Willcox). Cornwallis criticized his account, and the controversy between the two continued until Clinton's death.
See W. B. Willcox, Portrait of a General (1964).
See biographies by D. Radcliffe (1994), D. Brock (1996), G. Sheehy (1999), G. Troy (2006), Carl Bernstein (2007), and J. Gerth and D. Van Natta, Jr. (2007).