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Decisive Moments

Some predict Clinton will return to his liberal roots. But everything about the past four years -- from Wall Street's blessing to the election returns -- reinforces his conservative turn. Here's a preview of battles to come.

Bill Clinton was once a populist who appealed to voters by promising to protect them from a rapidly advancing global economy. He talked about investing heavily in education and training, so that more middle-class Americans could get decent-paying jobs. He promised to make the rules of international trade fair, so that labor exploitation in foreign nations wouldn't undermine the well-being of U.S. workers. And he vowed to shore up pensions and health security to ease the burden on families trying to cope with a job market in constant flux. Recession, Clinton said, was just a temporary symptom of a larger problem -- the long-term trend toward economic insecurity for most Americans.

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Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the White House. For many reasons, including bond market pressure to balance the budget and corporate pressure to pursue a business-friendly growth strategy, Clinton lost faith in his own plans for renewal. By the summer of 1996, the grandest promise Clinton could muster was an education tax credit -- a worthy measure, for sure, but nothing that inspired the political imagination like his 1992 platform of "putting people first."

Some speculate that having won a second term, Clinton will return to his liberal roots. But everything about the past four years -- from Wall Street's blessing to the Election Day returns -- has validated Clinton's most conservative impulses. On the one hand, you can't argue with success: The economy appears robust, living standards are up, and Clinton handily won his second term. On the other hand, if the growth in wages is just part of the economic cycle -- as outgoing Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and others suspect it may be -- Americans have reason to worry, since the underlying forces dragging down the country's living standards would still be at work. At this point, says Reich, "it's hard to tell whether [the upswing is] a consequence of the expansion or a structural change."

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