In this exclusive interview with Jim Lehrer, President Clinton discusses Whitewater, how he defines himself against Bob Dole, his move to the political center, the Dick Morris affair and his signing of the welfare reform bill. Jim Lehrer opened the interview with a question about the November election and the President's double digit lead.
A RealAudio version of this Newsmaker interview is available.
In his Newsmaker with interview with Jim Lehrer President Clinton discusses:
Browse the Online NewsHour's Welfare reform coverage.
Browse the Online NewsHour's Medicare reform coverage.
Browse the Online NewsHour's Bosnia coverage.
A NewsHour segment on President Clinton's bill curbing the sale and promotion of tobacco.
Browse the Online NewsHour's Congressional coverage.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, welcome.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: Do you expected to be re-elected in November?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I hope I'll be re-elected in November, and I'm going to do everything I can between now and November to assure that. But I'm almost superstitious about not predicting. I do believe that our country is on the right track. I think by any measure we're better off than we were four years ago, and I believe that the idea, the vision I've laid before the American people on the specific plans are better for our future than those that Sen. Dole and this Republican Party, Mr. Gingrich, have laid out, so I believe I'll be successful, but you know I've learned not to predict these things.
JIM LEHRER: Does it make you nervous to be so far ahead in the polls?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: No. I don't take that entirely seriously. I think that we have to run as if we are dead even, a little behind. We have to remember the weight of history is against us, and, again, I think if we can just keep trying to engage people in a serious debate about what they want our country to be like when we enter the 21st century, what they want America to be like when their children are their age, that's the test I keep asking people to apply to this election, and I try not to even think about the polls, except to just to--it's better to be ahead than behind, but the important thing is to work like crazy till the end.
JIM LEHRER: What did you mean when you said that the weight of history is against you?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, it's been a long time since a Democrat's been re-elected. That's what I meant. I think in terms of being on the right side of history, in terms of our vision and program for the future, I think we're--history is with us in that sense, but it's been a long time since a Democrat has been re-elected.
JIM LEHRER: How important is it to you personally to be re-elected? Is it something that you've got things you want to do these next four years that you're burning to do, or you just don't want to be humiliated at being a one-term President?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: No. I have a lot of things I want to do. As a matter of fact, I've thought a lot about second term presidencies, and some of them haven't worked out so well, and I believe that they haven't worked out so well because the Presidents ran for reelection and got re-elected just because people were satisfied with the job they'd done, but they didn't have an agenda, which is why I went to the trouble to write a book about what I wanted to do in my next term, to lay out a lot of very specific things at my speech at the Democratic convention. When I go around the country, I talk about how we're going to balance the budget, how we're going to make college available to all, how we're going to build on the anti-crime efforts, and how we're going to implement welfare reform. I have a whole lot of things I really want to do in the next four years to complete this transformation of our nation into the 21st century.
JIM LEHRER: And that's what's driving you to get re-elected.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: One of the raps, of course, that's put on you, Mr. President, is that you want to get re-elected so badly that, that kind of sometimes you tailor what you do as President. For instance, Sen. Moynihan said specifically that if this were not an election year, you would never have signed that welfare reform bill. Is he right about that?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: No. I think before--and let me just say that I think we all have a tendency to believe that other people think like we do, so when they do something we don't agree with, we think that they come out compromising themselves, but one of the things I've learned in dealing with Sen. Dole and Speaker Gingrich and Mr. Armey, for example, is that we don't all think alike. Sometimes we think differently. And in this case, the reason I signed a welfare reform bill, even though I admitted it's flawed in terms of the way it treats legal immigrants and in one or two other ways, it gives us the chance to do everywhere what we've been doing a lot of for the last four years, that is, for four years I have given 43 states waivers to get out from under the federal rules, to try new ways to move people from welfare to work. We've reduced the welfare rolls by nearly 2 million. The welfare reform bill says on welfare we'll continue the national guarantee of health care and nutrition to poor families, and we will give more for child care if they go to work. But what used to be the welfare check, the federal portion of that, will now go to the states, and the states will have the responsibility to take that money with their money and not only continue to support people but to--by the system, by the system to move the able-bodied ones from welfare to work within two years. And I believe it can be done. I was in Kansas City the other day at a meeting with their Full Employment Council, with the business people, the welfare workers, the adult educators, all these folks. It's very exciting. All we have to do to revolutionize welfare now is to get the states to spend that money in ways that make it attractive for employers to hire people as extra employees, and we will revolutionize the way welfare works.
JIM LEHRER: Welfare, some other adjustments I guess would be the word that you've made in the last three or four years, or I mean, let's say the last year, when the election really took place, and compared with your position three or four years before that, is that--the suggestion has been made that you have decided to go where the majority of the American people are, rather than try to bring them where you are. Is that legit?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: No. No. If you look at what I've done as President, it's remarkably consistent with what I did as governor and very consistent with what I said I would do when I ran for President. There's been study after study after study saying that I have either done or worked very hard to do 80 percent of what I outlined in 1992. One book just came out and said it was over 90 percent. One scholar said I kept a higher percentage of my commitments than the last five presidents. There is a remarkable consistency here.
But what I do is different from what traditionally people have thought of as Democratic politics or Republican politics. I've tried to break some new ground, to take a new approach, to say we have to change the way government works to create opportunity, demand responsibility, and then build a stronger sense of community. But let's just take some issues here. Let's take three issues: the economy, crime, and welfare. When we had a Democratic Congress in 93 and 94, we had an economic program that reduced the deficit for all four years of a President's term for the first time since the 1840's. We reduced the government by more than any administration ever has to its smallest size since Kennedy was President. On welfare, we immediately began to give the states more authority, and, as I said, those decisions had a major role in reducing the welfare rolls by 1.8 million. This welfare reform bill has played no role in that. On crime, we passed the crime bill in the Democratic Congress and the Brady bill to put 100,000 police on the street, banned assault weapons, required the reg--the waiting period for handguns, had the death penalties for drug kingpins, three strikes and you're out, as well as prevention programs for young people. Now that is a consistent pattern that we have followed.
We broke new ground. We did things that I thought would work, and I think we did the right thing. And if you look at the future, I've laid out the plan to go on and balance the budget but protect Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment, to make education universal, to create jobs for people on welfare, so we could actually move em to work, and to finish the business of putting 100,000 police on the street, to expand the Brady bill to people who beat up their spouses and kids, and we've got a lot of plans in this area that are quite consistent. So--and I just think, you know, when you do things that don't fit into people's little boxes, they always want to say you don't have convictions about them, but you also could look at all the tough decisions I've made--Bosnia and Haiti--taken on the tobacco companies, taken on the gun lobby for the first time, a lot of other things that I think just kind of put the lie to those attacks.