Former president Bill Clinton defended his economic record Wednesday evening, arguing that all Americans benefited from growth during his tenure.

Speaking at a gala hosted by the liberal Center for American Progress in Washington, Clinton said he was tired of hearing that income inequality had been increasing unabated since the late 1970s.

“In the period I served was the only period since the late 70s” when Americans across the income distribution saw gains, he said. In fact, he noted, the bottom fifth of earners saw more gains than the top fifth.

“That is not an accident,” he said. “That is policy.”

Clinton’s record has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, especially from the political left, which raised concerns about his positions on a number of issues, including financial regulation, and has also pointed out that inequality did continue to grow during his presidency.

Clinton said “too much inequality is a severe constraint on growth,” but that fighting inequality could not be the only aim of government. Government also had to grow the economy, to ensure incomes are rising and jobs are plentiful, he said.

“When you change the job mix, if you also create a lot of jobs, then you have tigher labor markets and median income goes up and inequality goes down,” he said. “That’s policy.”

Clinton then argued that the American people can respond to – and appreciate – when leaders explain complex policy to them.  “Real voters who are often treated like they are two-dimensional cardboard cutouts with a single-digit IQ – they appreciate it,” he said. “I think it is a colossal error to be afraid to discuss policy with the American people.”

Echoing remarks he made earlier in the day at an economic summit, Clinton urged Democrats to embrace one complex policy – the Affordable Care Act – in the midterm elections.

“I think it’s a terrible mistake for people who voted for the health-care bill to run away from it,” he said.