Columnist Steven Chapman is missing Bill Clinton, a sentiment that has often occurred to me in recent years as well:
If Barack Obama achieves nothing else in his presidency, he may do something that once seemed impossible: give a lot of people who aren't crazy about his party a new respect for Bill Clinton.
Clinton, for all his appetites and excesses, was a cautious, centrist sort of Democrat. He had innumerable ideas for things the government could do, but most were small and fairly innocuous. He was willing to go along with Republicans on some of their sound ideas—such as balancing the budget, reforming the welfare system, and expanding foreign trade.
He focused on making government better, not making it bigger. He didn't greatly enlarge Washington's role in our lives. He proclaimed—or conceded—that the "era of big government is over...."
Obama's fiscal blueprint builds on profligate habits established by George W. Bush. Under Clinton, federal spending fell to 18.4 percent of gross domestic product—the lowest level since 1966. By 2007, it was up to 20 percent. By 2019, according to the administration, it would rise to 22.6 percent.
This increase may not sound like much, but it is. Before the current recession began, reports budget analyst Brian Riedl of the conservative Heritage Foundation, government spending amounted to about $24,000 per household. Under Obama's plan, it would exceed $32,000 per household (in inflation-adjusted dollars). Someone will have to pay for every cent of that spending, and it won't be just the rich.
In retrospect, Clinton's record looks very good compared to that of both of his successors, each of whom presided over massive expansions of government. Among the many flaws of Obama's recently passed stimulus bill is its undermining of the 1996 welfare reform act, one of Clinton's greatest achievements.
There is no need to romanticize Clinton. Government growth was constrained on his watch in part because his worst instincts were checked by a Republican Congress, and he in turn checked theirs. As a general rule, divided government leads to limited government. Obviously, Obama has also been able to take advantage of a massive economic crisis, the kind of event that often provides opportunities for expanding government power. Clinton's relatively impressive record was in part the product of the political constraints he faced (no big crisis to exploit, and a Congress controlled by a hostile opposition party during his last six years in office).
Still, Clinton appears to have had a genuine commitment to welfare reform and free trade, among other market-oriented policies. No such tendencies are evident in Obama. I never knew how much I would miss Bubba until he was gone.