With the Hillary 2016 bandwagon creaking under the weight of just about every prominent Democrat, nostalgia for the Clinton years seems higher than ever. But do the numbers support those blue-tinted memories? The short answer: Sort of, but they'll look better if you're a Republican.
The triumph of the Clinton presidency is unemployment, which reached a staggeringly low 3.9% at the very end of his second term. This was an impressive number then and now, but it lasted only a moment. A year after Clinton left office, the early-2000s recession pushed unemployment to 5.7% and almost entirely wiped out the Clinton-era decline. How much responsibility the administration (or any single actor) bears for any movement in unemployment rate is a complex economic problem that defies a simple answer, but Republicans and Democrats alike can at least agree that the Clinton years were good when it comes to unemployment.
Source: Extreme Poverty in the United States, 1996 to 2011, H. Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin
Those same years don't look nearly so rosy in this chart, particularly for Democrats in favor of a strong social safety net. One dataset that can be clearly linked to Clinton is the sharp rise in extreme poverty, both during his term and afterwards. This spike has been shown to be in large part the result of the 1996 welfare reform signed by Clinton after the failure of his health care package. Those enormous benefit cuts continue to have ramifications today.
Some will be quick to point out that the administration also presided over a 3.6% decrease in headline poverty. Unlike measures of extreme poverty, however, this much broader rate was largely the result of low unemployment and economic growth — and the causes of those are hard to pin down. Headline poverty rose with the early 2000s recession and fell when the recession left, while extreme poverty has consistently trended upwards since 1996.
Source: The Washington Post
But this is the chart that should really put a stop to Democratic Clinton-idolizing. Income inequality rose more sharply on Clinton's watch than during any prior administration in recent history. This trend is linked to the rapid expansion of the financial industry which, with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, became much riskier. Those who do not care much about income inequality (generally Republicans) probably won't see this chart as a blemish on Clinton's record. But the same Democrats who are pimping the Clinton legacy claim to be fighting for a 99% that their hero did little to help.