As Barack Obama becomes the most polarizing president in recent American history, Bill Clinton is becoming one of the least polarizing. Fox News host Sean Hannity calls him “good old Bill.” Rep. Paul Ryan admits, “I enjoy Bill Clinton.” Sen. Orrin Hatch says “he will go down in history as a better president” than Obama. More than 60 percent of Americans have a positive view of Clinton — more, even, than approve of Ronald Reagan. This month, Esquire interviewed Clinton under the headline: “Bill Clinton: Someone we can all agree on.” Which just goes to show that how polarizing a president is has very little to do with how ideological they were, or are.
Then came Clinton’s health-care law, which, if it had passed, would have moved most Americans from the employer-based market to federally regulated “health-insurance alliances.” Everyone would have had to have coverage, employers would foot part of the bill, and premiums would have been capped. It was, in other words, a far more ambitious bill than the one Obama passed, and it envisioned a far larger role for the government.
In both cases, Clinton had the better of the policy argument. His health-care law would have done more to control costs and rationalize the health-care system than the Affordable Care Act, and his tax rates make much more sense given the retirement of the baby boomers. And, to be fair, when Clinton was trying to pass these policies, he was very polarizing. According to Gallup, in 1996, Clinton was the most polarizing president up to that point in American history. Now that he’s not president, Clinton is no longer polarizing.
That’s partly because time has passed, and partly because Clinton is no longer a threat to the Republican Party. But it’s really because the economy eventually boomed under Clinton, and his presidency was retrospectively judged a historic success. The ideology behind that success is either forgotten, deemed irrelevant or spun.
And so it will be with Obama. If he is reelected and the economy continues to recover, he will likely by the president Republicans yearn for when the next Democrat is trying to raise taxes and pass a public option. If he isn’t reelected, or the economy doesn’t continue to recover, he’ll continue to be a polarizing figure.