Bill Clinton remains one of America’s most popular presidents. A national poll last March by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found  56 percent of Americans had a clearly favorable view of Clinton. That’s long been true for African Americans—from novelist Toni Morrison famously calling him the “first black president ” while in office, to books explaining  his appeal after his presidency ended.
Clinton has used this popularity to build his enormously ambitious global foundation, collecting $2 billion in assets for many anti-poverty and health initiatives, as well as building a personal fortune from speechmaking estimated at $30 million or more. In recent years, most of the public has forgotten what Clinton did as president, even as he has steadily been in the news.
But for more than a year before Hillary Clinton launched her latest presidential campaign, Bill Clinton has been selectively telling media outlets that he made some mistakes as president and might have acted otherwise. He’s even tried to recast actual events and been taken to task by fact-checkers who recall his leading role in what became major crises, such as the 2008 global financial implosion.
What follows are 15 ways Bill Clinton’s presidency did not serve America or the world, and in many ways deepened and perpetuated the problems we face today. This article was prepared by AlterNet staff members Janet Allon, Michael Arria, Jan Frel, Tana Ganeva, Kali Holloway, Zaid Jilani, Adam Johnson, Steven Rosenfeld, Phillip Smith, Terrell Jermaine Starr and Carrie Weissman.
1. Prison-loving president. In May, on the heels of the unrest in Baltimore sparked by Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, Clinton apologized for locking too many people up. Thanks, Bill.
The 2.4 million people in prison and the 160,000 Americans serving life in prison largely because of his policies might be excused for not accepting Clinton’s apology. Tag-teaming with ex-President Ronald Reagan, Clinton is the president most responsible for the mass incarceration of Americans on an epic scale. The gung-ho crime fighter-in-chief passed the single most damaging law with his omnibus federal crime bill in 1994, which included the infamous “three strikes” law (three felony convictions means a life sentence) and ensured that mandatory minimum sentences imprisoned even low-level, non-violent offenders for a long, long time.
Clinton discussed his regrets about the crime bill with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “The problem is the way it was written and implemented is we cast too wide a net and we had too many people in prison,” he said. “And we wound up… putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives.”
All true, except it was not just lack of funds that eliminated education and rehabilitation programs in prison, it was a deliberate choice. Sensing the political popularity of being tough on crime, Clinton fully embraced the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality, and gloated about three strikes. It strains credulity to think that this exceptionally intelligent man did not understand the dire consequences of what he was doing, as his wife now says.
Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 helped set the national mood. Dozens of states followed with their own mandatory minimum laws. While there is some talk today of criminal justice reform on a minor level (like for low-level drug offenses), no one is talking about the all-but-forgotten population doing hard time thanks in large part to Clinton.