Bill Clinton as Governor of Arkansas

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Before Bill Clinton was President of the United States, he was the governor of Arkansas. In this lesson, we'll examine Clinton's experiences in Little Rock and see how they shaped his political career.

Governor Bill Clinton

We tend to see presidents as such national figures that we sometimes forget that they have home states. In fact, many presidents were pretty active in those states before taking to the national stage. One great example is Bill Clinton. Clinton was the President of the United States from 1993-2001, but before that, he was the 40th and 42nd Governor of Arkansas.

Governor Bill Clinton
Governor Clinton

First Term (1979-1981)

Bill Clinton was a young, politically motivated lawyer when he joined the faculty of the University of Arkansas. Shortly after, he proceeded to run for the House of Representatives. He lost that race, but was soon elected attorney general and gained a name for himself in that position. Then, in 1978 he ran for the position of governor. Smart, charismatic, and popular, Clinton won the election by a sizable majority. He was 32 at the time, making him the youngest governor in the United States.

A young Governor Clinton meets Jimmy Carter in 1978
Young Clinton

Clinton stepped into office with the enthusiasm of an inexperienced politician. He tackled education and healthcare reform, working closely with his wife (and fellow lawyer/politician) Hillary. Despite some early successes, however, Clinton revealed his youth by blundering into some major issues during his first term as governor.

He convinced the legislature to support an expensive highway development program, which in turn raised taxes and cost him significant political support. He also mishandled a riot of Cuban refugees in Arkansas' Fort Chaffee. Arkansas' governors held terms of 2 years at the time, and in 1980 Clinton's opponent showed videos of rioting Cubans and complained about vehicle and license taxes. Clinton lost the election and left office in 1981.

Second Term

Bill Clinton wasn't ready to call it quits, however. He publically acknowledged the mistakes he had made, gained back the trust of the Arkansas people, and managed to win back the governor's office in 1982. Clinton's second term as governor began in 1983. He wouldn't leave that office until 1992, winning reelection 3 more times.

Clinton was decisive but conciliatory in his second term, working with Democrats and Republicans to improve the state
Clinton 2nd Term

Clinton came back into office with a strong focus on education, again working closely with Hillary to develop higher standards for the state. When the state Supreme Court overturned the state's existing educational financing system, Clinton went before the legislature and introduced a set of new laws and policies. Most of these laws, along with a moderate tax increase to pay for education reform, were adopted.

Education was just one area of success for Governor Clinton. Governing one of the nation's poorest states, he promoted economic reform by changing banking laws, providing tax incentives to Arkansas businesses, and encouraging new tech industries. Arkansas became one of the top states in job creation, even if the average income remained low. Part of the inequity was racial; Arkansas had historically denied positions of power to African Americans, and Clinton worked hard to open up access to government jobs to black citizens of the state.

Moving from Governor to President

Aware of the role that public perception had played in both his removal and return to office, Bill Clinton put lots of effort into managing public opinion during his time as governor. It's been said that he ran his entire governorship like a political campaign, running constant polls to evaluate the public response and maintaining an active marketing campaign to increase support for his policies.

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