NEW ALEXANDRIA, Pa. — Bonnie Kelley thinks of the good times her family had in the 1990s, when it almost seemed as if Bill Clinton pitched in as their financial counselor.
"During the Clinton administration, we were thriving," she recalled fondly. "We had a home, two cars and my husband had a good job. After the Republicans came in, we lost the house and one of the cars. It was like we lost everything."
Loyal Democrats all over Pennsylvania echoed her view they prepared to vote in their state's primary April 22. A lot of them remember the 1993-2001 Clinton era as a good time, and they see 2008 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as the heir to his magic.
"America was in a good place, and he was the leader in the good times," said Nancy Kilbane, a retired Mount Lebanon teacher.
"Hillary Clinton will have one heck of a great adviser. He's a great guy," added Llfra Miller, a retiree who came to see Hillary Clinton in Greensburg recently.
Nostalgia is a time-honored political motivator. Voters historically romanticize times that seemed better — and simpler. Scholars, though, have long agreed that no president has much direct influence over America's multi-trillion-dollar economy.
"No president has that much power or influence over the national economy. It's not a controlled system," said David Barker, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. "But voters always tend to blame or credit the president, and usually the biggest way they judge job performance is by the economy."
During Bill Clinton's years in office, the economy grew steadily. The growth was particularly robust in his second term.
He also benefited from the contrast with his predecessor. Though an eight-month recession ended in March 1991, Washington was struggling with giant federal budget deficits in 1992. Unemployment peaked at 7.7 percent that June, and the Conference Board's consumer confidence index dropped for eight straight months, ending in February 1992.
Clinton's first major initiative after he took office was a $500 billion deficit-reduction package that cut spending dramatically and increased taxes on the wealthy. Then-Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan later called the package "an unquestioned factor" in helping to boost the economy. By fiscal 1998, the federal budget logged its first annual surplus in 39 years. It went on to record three more years of surpluses.
Clinton also helped prod the economy by championing a series of trade pacts, notably the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, which the very people in Pennsylvania who are nostalgic for the Clintons now revile. That was a bipartisan effort to boost imports and exports. Then the January 1995 debut of the World Trade Organization set the standards for modern international trade.
Much of the Clinton-era boom, though, rose from forces beyond his control.
In July 1999, the Congressional Budget Office wrote in its economic outlook that "much of that favorable (fiscal) situation has resulted from atypical performances in productivity and compensation, the U.S. economy's response to international developments and the surge in stock market prices."
Baby boomers entered their peak earning years, technological advances jolted productivity and the stock-market boom led to a spike in capital gains — and the taxes that people paid on them.
Today's economy faces problems more grave and complex than those Bill Clinton inherited, and while the next president will confront them, he or she will have only limited power to solve them.
"A new president can set a tone and an agenda for steps that might be taken. But the immediate needs are in the realm of monetary policy," said William Shughart, a professor of economics at the University of Mississippi. "And (Fed Chairman) Ben Bernanke's going to be in charge of that."
Voters, however, aren't economic experts, and they hold their leaders accountable. "They don't notice gross domestic product growth, but they do notice $3.50-a-gallon gasoline," Barker said.
So when Hillary Clinton starts a rally in southwestern Pennsylvania by declaring that "it's time we had a president who cares more about Westmoreland County than Wall Street," it strikes a chord and triggers a fond memory.
"We didn't have these deficits during the Bill Clinton years," said Ed Malanowsky, a retiree from West Newton. "We didn't have job losses and we weren't at war. I'm not opposed to (Democratic candidate Barack) Obama, but I just think Clinton's more qualified. And Bill's going to have some influence."
Exactly, Kelley said. Her husband works now as a non-union carpenter, and the family is living in a trailer.
She knows she can't blame the downturn entirely on Bush; after all, the last official recession ended in November 2001.
"I can't say who's to blame," Kelley said. "But I know how better times came about. And I know when they came about."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008