President Clinton: Thumbs up!

He presided over the digital revolution and helped fuel the explosive growth of the new economy. That's how he'll be remembered.

By Peter Leyden
Published August 12, 2000 7:19PM (EDT)

In January 1993, Wired magazine launched and Bill Clinton became president, heralding both the dawn of the digital revolution and a new administration. The extraordinary events of the next eight years say much about our tumultuous times -- and what will be Clinton's historical legacy.

People looking back on our era will understand that a massive transformation took place: the building of a fundamentally new technological infrastructure, a change in the nature of capitalism, a shift to a highly integrated global system that will define the 21st century. We are simultaneously crossing many thresholds, described variously as the shift from an analog to a digital world, from an Industrial Age to an Information Age, from the Cold War to some ill-defined post-Cold War geopolitics. However you frame it, Clinton was the midwife to this process. The birth of the 21st century world happened on his watch.

When Clinton was inaugurated, essentially no one but a handful of geeks had even heard of the Internet. The first Mosaic Web browser was just being invented, and the tech obsession of the day was Interactive TV. Remember that?

Today everyone from Montana to Mongolia understands that the Net is the future. No one has to explain anymore that computers actually are productive tools, that all information is going digital, that all people need to be connected. Everybody gets it.

Clinton can't take credit for a technological transformation of that scale, but he and his administration by and large did the right things to help foster it. He got it early on, and mostly took a hands-off approach, allowing companies and industries to rapidly innovate and migrate to common standards by themselves. He stepped in only when everything got stuck, as happened with the revamping of telecommunications law in 1996, or when a situation became outrageously unfair, as when his Justice Department rightly moved to break up Microsoft.

When Clinton took office, the country was still coming off a recession, downsizing was the managerial obsession, growth was anemic, the paltry productivity rate hadn't changed in 20 years. The conventional wisdom was still that the Japanese were going to run the global economy and America was in decline.

Today the U.S. economy is continuing on its largest economic expansion ever - and the Federal Reserve Bank is doing everything it can to slow the economy down. This is an astounding economy, sustaining historically high 4-percent growth rates, on average, throughout the entire Clinton era. Productivity has shot up to levels not seen since the 1960s, undermining almost all signs of inflation, and even allowing solid wage gains for the first time in a generation. It's a fundamentally different kind of high-tech, high-growth economy, the new economy, and it's here to stay. We are in the middle, if not the beginning, of a Long Boom, a vast global economic expansion that's reminiscent of, but even bigger than, the post-World War II boom.

Clinton is as responsible as any president can be for the state of the economy. And he deserves credit. He made tough choices early on to balance the budget in order to help interest rates come down. He kept moving government away from the 20th century welfare state model, initiating welfare reform. And he appointed top-flight economic people, like Robert Rubin as treasury secretary, who were respected throughout the economy and the world.

When Clinton took office, the politics of this country were defined by scarcity. The 1980s legacy had been to cut taxes, downsize government and then ferociously fight for what money was left. The battle royal was between the Republicans wanting money for the military, and the Democrats wanting money for the surviving social programs. The result was an unsustainable annual deficit of about $300 billion and a massive national debt of more than $2 trillion.

Today governments at all levels, whether national or local, are enjoying fabulous surpluses, essentially at the same tax rates as before. The federal government recently revised its rather conservative estimate that the federal tax surplus will top $3 trillion (yes, trillion) over the next 10 years.

This will be one of Clinton's most enduring legacies. He ushered in the era of a new politics of prosperity. By skillfully operating in the political environment of scarcity, he helped prepare the groundwork for the good times to come.

To do that, he needed to refashion the Democratic Party, which will be seen as another important part of this legacy. Remember how before Clinton everyone talked about the Republican lock on the presidency? How the Democrats could not win in the South or reach out to the new middle class? Clinton obliterated that theory by taking the market orientation of traditional Republicans and fusing it with the social orientation of traditional Democrats.

It's a formula that worked in this country and has been copied all over the world by leaders of other "parties of the people," as opposed to the parties associated with business. So Tony Blair reshaped the new Labour Party. Gerhard Schroeder did the same to the German Social Democrats. They all understand the winning formula now.

When Clinton came into office, the world was still in shock that the Cold War was over. The concept of globalization was just being bandied about. Some Americans were still thumping their chests that we had won the "war" against a two-bit tyrant, who, incidentally, we still left in power in Iraq.

Today there is no doubt that we're well on our way to creating a new highly integrated global economy and need to devise a much more interconnected global system for the 21st century. Everything is going global in a shift that will be seen as a watershed by generations in the future. They'll understand that around the turn of the century, all systems, all institutions started reorienting to this new reality, the norm from that point on.

Clinton understood that trend and did some effective things to start laying the foundations for the looming transition. He dragged his party, kicking and screaming, to support opening up the flow of trade, starting with the fight for the North American Free Trade Agreement, and ending with getting China accepted into the World Trade Organization (almost). He started America down a path toward a more multilateral foreign policy. He appropriately scaled back the military, allowing former enemies and even allies to breathe easier. And he pushed for reform and a higher profile for the existing global institutions like the International Monetary Fund.

Still, for all that he's done, Bill Clinton did not do enough. He will not have a truly great legacy. He was disappointing for many of us who can simultaneously appreciate his very real contributions. Set aside the moral issues, like Monica, that the Republicans get apoplectic about. Those issues are peripheral to what's really going on in this country. They are just the background noise of the ongoing culture war.

Clinton didn't fully step into his historical opportunity. He didn't make the most of his historical moment. He didn't really become a great president, a visionary leader. He always seemed too incremental, too willing to compromise, too cautious about doing something really bold.

Perhaps that's a function of our contemporary, highly mediated, poll-driven politics. Perhaps it's a function of being a midwife to the birth of a new system. None of us, back in January 1993, really understood what was going to happen to this country and the world in the next eight years. We had no idea of the changes that were in store. For most of those next eight years we were extremely confused. To point out just one example, conventional wisdom has been predicting the collapse of the economy and the crash of the stock market every year for the last five years.

Clinton was no better than any of us in feeling his way off past habits and tired preconceptions and an outdated mindset to this very different world that we take for granted now. And maybe that's the kind of president we needed for those times.

Clinton himself understands that his agenda is unfinished. In February, he addressed many of the world's top business and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum. After his keynote speech the audience asked him what was the one thing the world needed most right now? Without hesitation he said: "A shared vision."

He's absolutely right. What the world needs now is a post-Cold War global vision that shows how all regions, all peoples, all cultures can thrive in the 21st century. It needs a vision that shows how all sectors of society can share in the opportunities and wealth being created today.

That's what the current election is about. Clinton got us this far. We've broken out of the confusion. We've made the basic transition to a new technological infrastructure and a new kind of economy.

But now the debate must shift. The issue now becomes: What are we going to do with these new technologies and this prosperous new economy? What kind of a world are we going to build out of this new politics of prosperity? How do we make our economy and society truly inclusive? How do we broaden and deepen the boom, improving the lives of everyone?

We need deep structural reform and rapid innovation in K-12 education, and we need a learning infrastructure that extends far beyond K-12 education -- public and private environments where all people at all ages can learn new skills and expand their knowledge throughout their lifetimes, at many different junctures in their careers, ensuring that they won't get left behind.

We need to rethink everything in a new global context -- for example, establishing what really constitutes a monopoly in the global economy and fashion modernized anti-trust laws to deal with that new definition. We must reinvent copyright law and patent law to fit a knowledge economy predicated on the spread of ideas.

We must also rethink the role of the military in a highly interdependent world. You don't want to unilaterally build missile defense systems that alienate both your former enemies and your allies.

And the most pressing problem the world probably will face in the next 20 years will be the deterioration of the planet's environment. Global warming is almost a certainty, and the deterioration of the planet's ecosystem is on a frightening trajectory. We're not going to be able to support a global economic boom unless we take environmental issues extremely seriously and rapidly migrate to new clean technologies -- a fact that has been largely lost on business and political leaders to date.

Clinton helped get the technological infrastructure up and running, and he got our economic house in order. The next president will be responsible for building a much better society and world.

Clinton got us to the 21st century. But our work has just begun.

Peter Leyden

Peter Leyden is coauthor of "The Long Boom: A Vision for the Coming Age of Prosperity," due out in paperback in September. He is the former managing editor of Wired magazine and writes and speaks frequently about technology, economics, politics and the future.

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