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Bill Clinton's economic legacy: Boom or collapse?

February 18, 2013|By Doyle McManus
  • Former President Clinton speaks to reporters during a news conference with President Obama in the White House Briefing Room in Washington.
Former President Clinton speaks to reporters during a news conference… (Bill Auth / Getty Images )

In my Sunday column, I wrote that President Obama, with his permanent campaign promoting the poll-tested proposals in his State of the Union address, was beginning to resemble Bill Clinton.

That provoked some angry email from readers who thought I was being too easy on the president -- President Clinton, that is.

"Clinton left office with a solid list of accomplishments, high popularity and a healthy economy," I wrote. Several readers asked if I had forgotten the collapse of the "dot-com bubble" in 2000 and the recession that followed in 2001. 

"Clinton left behind a collapsing economy -- a recession. Period," wrote one reader from Los Angeles. "The other thing that Clinton left behind was the housing bubble and the makings of the subprime crisis which led to the great recession."

That's one way to look at the Clinton economic record -- although it does seem a bit unfair to hold Clinton responsible for a crisis that exploded more than five years after he left office.

Here's another way to look at the record: Clinton presided over eight years of economic growth that averaged better than 3.5%. When he left office in 2001, unemployment was only 3.8%, a handsome number by any standard.

The recession that followed lasted eight months and drove unemployment to a high of 6.4%.  It was the shortest, mildest recession of modern times; by the end of 2003, the economy was growing at 3% again and unemployment was falling.

So did Clinton leave office with "a healthy economy" or a collapsing economy"?  Neither adjective contains enough nuance.  "Healthy" needs a modifier or two: "comparatively healthy, with flaws that needed attention."  But "collapsing"? Today, with growth stuck at 2% and unemployment at almost 8%, I'd say: Give us more collapses like Clinton's.


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