Presidential Greatness

A lot of Donald Trump surrogates are saying that we need to give him a chance.  Of course I’ll give him a chance and so far, if I want to be at my most polite, he is on track to becoming easily the biggest disaster of a president since World War II.   

When Bill Clinton won the presidency after having taken only 43% of the popular vote in a three-way presidential race, the highest ranking republican in office, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas tried to justify his obstructionism by claiming to represent the 57% of the country that didn’t vote for Clinton.  When Obama won the presidency, the republicans in congress stepped up the obstruction even more and it persisted throughout his eight years in office. I don’t see them as doing anything that can even be remotely considered “giving [them] a chance.”

But the bigger point here is that I question why someone might say that we should give an incoming president “a chance” in the first place (beyond simple civility). It sounds to me as though this is a means of saying that we shouldn’t criticize them. And that’s just bullshit. You can always find things both to praise and criticize in any presidency. My general approval of President Obama doesn’t stop me from criticizing the NSA under his watch, or what happened with Edward Snowden, or the drone strikes. Hell, a year ago I faulted him for the fate of ACORN, the now-defunct community organizing group.  

And that got me to thinking about the greater process by which we judge our presidents.  The Wikipedia page on historical rankings of US presidents is an excellent resource here.  It’s easy to argue that FDR and Lincoln were among the best presidents and that Buchanan and Harding were among the worst.   But why?  What did they do to earn those rankings?  How hard would it be to find something worth criticism for FDR and Lincoln and/or something to praise for Buchanan and Harding?

And I’m not just talking about individual decisions that are important but ultimately not relevant, like FDR’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court.  I’m embarrassed that it was necessary to go to war to end slavery.   We should have been able to do that without so much carnage.   But is it fair to say that Lincoln deserves criticism for his apparent eagerness to go to war in the first place?  Be my guest if you want to make the argument that the fault just as readily might have lain with those who wanted to continue slavery.   You wouldn’t be wrong but the escalation of belligerent rhetoric during the decade or so prior to the war should be a blight on both sides.  

I guess that’s one of the reasons why, when I was in high school, the Advanced Placement American History test put a heavy focus on the 1850s in their questions.  (And the 1790s and the 1930s).  

But fundamentally, it’s not always easy to judge any given president.  Take Ronald Reagan, who championed tax cuts and deregulation.   If we regard these concepts as his primary legacy, were they successes or failures?   It depends on who you ask, of course.  Even if we recognize that they were worthwhile experiments (and I do), can we say, for example, that supply side economics serves nobody but the already rich?  Is it not unreasonable to say that privatizing the prisons was a bad idea?   Regardless of their merits or demerits, he got them done.  

Where is the dividing line between effectiveness at implementing and/or maintaining a given policy, and your disagreement with the policy in the first place?  

Andrew Jackson comes to mind here.  He said he’d force the native tribes to relocate, and he did.  For however horrible the policy was (and it’s a part of the reason why I don’t care for him or his legacy, and I will be grateful when his image is taken off of our $20 bills) but you can’t deny the fact that the goal he set out to achieve, got achieved.  

Just compare Teddy Roosevelt and George W Bush, two men whose interventionalist approaches to foreign policy appear quite similar to each other.   Why is TR so highly regarded but W so low on the Wikipedia page I cited above?  Did TR just get lucky where he swung the big stick?  

It’s interesting that Lincoln and FDR both succeeded presidents whose rankings are close to the bottom of the list.  Is there a degree to which we’re comparing them against their immediate predecessors?  Earlier this year I wrote a blog entry about the gun problem in this country and compared it with the inaction on the part of Herbert Hoover at the start of the Great Depression.  I gave a semi-defense of Hoover who likely had little reason to think this particular economic downturn would have been any worse than prior ones.  James Buchanan was probably correct when he took the position that the federal government had no legal power to prevent states from seceding and certainly would have overstepped its boundaries by forcing them back into the union.  

It’s tough work upholding the constitution, especially when it runs counter to public opinion or need.  Just ask any of the lawyers working for the American Civil Liberties Union, which probably does more to defend our constitutional rights from government overreach than any other organization.  They’ll get criticism from the left when they defend the KKK’s right to hold a rally, and from the right when they point out that nativity scenes on public property violate the establishment clause of the first amendment.  That’s enough to make me wonder if the constitution would even pass a popular referendum today.   

How long after a president leaves office can we truly grasp his legacy?  In some cases, it’s immediate.  George Washington was given a blank slate as to how to run the executive branch.   In others, not so much.   We can pin the assassination of President Garfield (in 1881) on the system of patronage introduced by Andrew Jackson (when he won the 1828 election).  

If it seems as though I’m picking on Andrew Jackson a fair bit in this blog entry, you’re right.  Without regard to how good or bad a president he was, I do consider him one of the most overrated.  

JFK is another interesting example.  Popular, likeable, and, quite frankly, inspiring: many Americans have a soft spot in their hearts for the man, and likely would even if he hadn’t been assassinated.  But when you look at his foreign policy (specifically), the best thing we can say about it is that he was shortsighted.  Just look at his policy towards Cuba during the missile crisis and then later during the Bay of Pigs fiasco.   

His successor exemplifies the dichotomy between domestic and foreign policy successes and failures: he deserves accolades for the Great Society programs he instituted, and criticism for the way he handled the quagmire we know as Vietnam.   Indeed, Vietnam was the reason he became the only president since the passage of the 22nd Amendment to choose not to seek reelection.  (As opposed to being constitutionally prohibited from doing so…  I’m not counting the three presidents who lost their reelection bid who could technically have challenged their successors four or more years later but chose not to.)

How does dying in office change the overall perception of a president?  After all, that’s another thing that Lincoln and FDR have in common.  A total of eight presidents have died in office (William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, FDR, and JFK) of whom three — Lincoln, McKinley, and FDR — had already served at least one full term as president when they died.  Of the remaining five, two served less than a year (Harrison and Garfield) and probably should be exempted from any lists ranking the presidents since the fact of their deaths probably had a greater impact on the direction of the country than anything they did in life.   This is especially true for Harrison since he was the first and nowhere in the constitution was it written that the Vice President becomes president upon the death or resignation of the president.  

Side note: I use the word “was” here because the 25th amendment to the constitution settled that question in 1965.  Only 124 years later and after the death of the most recent president to die in office…

It certainly does seem as though popular opinion of presidents who died in office seems to be frozen in time based upon how we felt about them at the time and the relative suddennness of the death.  It’s at least partially why JFK is so loved today while Harding ranks near the bottom.  

But does that mean that the post-presidential activities of the 35 men who lived long enough to become ex-presidents ought to have a bearing on how they’re perceived?  I’d like to think that both Nixon and Carter managed to redeem their relatively uninspiring presidencies once they were unencumbered by the needs of the position itself.   That’s not a new phenomenon.  John Quincy Adams also looks better in the lens of history when you consider his work in congress to abolish slavery.   (Plus, he was portrayed in the movies by Anthony Hopkins.)

And no discussion of post presidential activities (at least the ones that redeem the presidency) would be complete without a huge shout-out to William Howard Taft, who went on to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  According to legend, he wanted to be on the court more than he wanted to be president.   Without regard to the validity of the legend, he certainly executed the duties of the president most consistently with the way it’s spelled out in the constitution.  It’s why he pissed off Teddy Roosevelt so much.   

There are so many moving pieces to what does and does not make for a good president, that it seems almost impossible to gauge it all.  I haven’t even gotten into the stuff we don’t (and can’t possibly) know about what happens behind the scenes, either because it’s classified or just not exceptionally relevant.   

In the end, it’s probably most fair to say that Lincoln and FDR were our best crisis managers.   And that likely means that they’ll rank near the top simply by virtue of the historical circumstances that happened to lead them to he presidency.   Yes, that gives the short end of the stick to those presidents who weren’t tested the same way.   But what can you do?

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