Study Guide

Hillary Clinton in 1996 State of the Union Address

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Hillary Clinton

Being First Lady of the United States isn't just a smile-and-wave job…despite every image we have of Jackie Kennedy and her gorgeous hostess-with-the-mostess promo pics.

Presidential spouses like Abigail Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Nancy Reagan have all used their positions to try to launch projects of various levels of ambition. But no First Lady ever had as much responsibility as Hillary Clinton. Because in 1993, President Clinton appointed his wife the head of an administration task force dedicated to reforming the nation's healthcare system. (Source)

Why Should You Care About Healthcare?

Since President Nixon's administration, America had moved steadily toward an insurance-based system run by HMOs, or Health Maintenance Organizations. Under this system, private companies collect monthly fees from customers, promising to pay for their healthcare later on the off chance they get sick.

The only problem is, insurance companies sometimes "drop" peoples' coverage at inopportune times (as in, as soon as they get sick), and come up with excuses. This is the equivalent of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown.

Only the consequences can include death.

In the early '90s, President Clinton started to toy with the idea of a nationalized, or government-run healthcare system. If the government could give people Social Security retirement benefits and assistance paying their insurance costs, why not use taxes to also pay for people's healthcare?

It was a controversial idea. Ronald Reagan, the most popular Republican president of modern times, opposed putting the government in charge of healthcare (source). To conservatives, this was the definition of "big government," and not in a good way. They feared it would lead to corruption, or even tyranny.

President and Mrs. Clinton's scheme to overhaul the whole system involved imposing greater regulations on insurance companies and expanding coverage. Though we eventually got something similar with the Affordable Care Act years later, it was an uphill battle from the start. The legislation the Clinton committee came up with, dubbed "Hillarycare" by critics, ultimately failed. Even with Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, there just wasn't enough appetite in America for ceding control over the healthcare system to the government.

More than a few people were upset that Hillary was put in charge of this job at all. Even Vice President Al Gore was miffed (source). Part of this was attributable to a lack of precedent (a First Lady had never acted as a de facto cabinet member before), part of it was outright hatred of both Clintons, and part of it was probably some good (meaning: bad) old fashioned sexism.

On to the Next One

The failure of Hillarycare proved to be a turning point for the administration. The legislation died in September of 1994, just months before Republicans took control of the legislative branch of government (source). Heading into the 1996 elections, the Clintons had to pivot to a more conservative agenda, with policies like welfare reform and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Unfortunately for Mrs. Clinton, the trouble didn't end there. 

In 1998, during President Clinton's second term, she had to deal with revelations about her husband's infidelity, which she initially dubbed a "vast right-wing conspiracy" (source).

Despite her later contributions to policy, such as traveling the world in support of American diplomacy, Hillary ended up having to talk a lot about the state of her marriage.

Not exactly one to shrink into the background, she came back with a vengeance after the end of her husband's administration. Clinton launched her own political career with a successful Senate bid in 2000, followed by a term as Secretary of State under President Obama. And, oh yeah, she ran for president in 2016.

In terms of outpacing a wildly successful husband in fame and notoriety, she's probably second only to Beyoncé.

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