Federal Family Policy and Family Values from Clinton to Obama, 1992-2012 and Beyond

99 Pages Posted: 10 May 2014

See all articles by Linda C. McClain

Linda C. McClain

Boston University - School of Law

Date Written: May 8, 2014


This Article traces the evolution of federal family law and policy from 1992-2012 and beyond by considering the legacy of Clintonism, the “Third Way” political philosophy developed by William Jefferson Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council. Present day economic inequality is spurring reflection on the role of government and on the meaning and form of progressive politics. Clintonism’s centrist, progressive approach linked governmental provision of opportunity to personal responsibility (“working hard and playing by the rules”) and appealed to values of family, community, faith, liberty, and inclusion. By linking family values to family policies, Clintonism’s New Covenant successfully challenged the idea that family values were the sole domain of the Republicans. An examination of Democratic platforms in each election year since 1992 reveals both continuity and change with respect to the family, family values, and family policy. To illustrate, this article traces the trajectory of three statutes enacted during Clinton’s presidency: the Family and Medical Leave Act (1993), the welfare reform law, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (1996), and the Defense of Marriage Act (1996) (DOMA). Family leave and welfare reform featured prominently in Clinton’s New Covenant, which stressed giving people the tools they needed to succeed at home and at work and to eliminate forced choices, while insisting that welfare should be “a second chance, not a way of life.” By contrast, DOMA seemed at odds with Clinton’s stated commitment to inclusion and to ending discrimination against gay men and lesbians. The Obama Administration’s approach to family policy and family values has shown significant continuity with basic tenets of Clintonism, stressing unfinished business with the FMLA and with addressing poverty. By contrast, President Obama’s evolved stance on DOMA and his Administration’s robust embrace of marriage equality reflects the sharpest departure from Clintonism. (Clinton himself has repudiated DOMA as a relic of an earlier era.) This article identifies several distinctive features of the Obama administration’s approach to work-family policy: (1) making the personal political by referencing the First Family and First Marriage in supporting responsible fatherhood and marriage education and highlighting the challenge of balancing work and family; (2) focusing on women and girls in designing federal policy even while insisting that a range of economic and family issues are “not just women’s issues,” but ones that affect men, families, the economy, and society; and (3) calling for a “new New Deal,” in which the economy, governmental policies, and institutions (such as the workplace) must catch up with the realities and needs of twenty-first century families and workers.

Keywords: progressive, welfare policy, welfare reform, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Family and Medical Leave Act, Defense of Marriage Act, family values, work/family conflict, responsible fatherhood, marriage promotion, Third Way, discrimination

JEL Classification: K19, K29, K39

Suggested Citation

McClain, Linda C., Federal Family Policy and Family Values from Clinton to Obama, 1992-2012 and Beyond (May 8, 2014). Michigan State Law Review, Vol. 2013, p. 1621, 2014, Boston Univ. School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 14-20, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2434728

Linda C. McClain (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

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