From conception through modern times, the office of the Presidency has come to symbolize a variety of American values. For some members of our polity, the President is the de facto leader of the American people, despite Constitutional limitations. For others, he is our representative abroad, director of the Armed Forces, and for others still he is the man who turns his eye not to wealth and power, but to those who suffer in poverty.
Whatever the Presidency may or may not be for the American people, Lyndon B. Johnson rightly observed while speaking to a long-time friend and advisor 1960 that “The presidency, is a man.” (Busby, 2005, p. 47). The Presidency, despite what we may be drawn to think at times, is still the endeavor of an imperfect soul. From George Washington to Barack Obama, the history of the American Presidency has been fraught with both moments of supreme greatness and times of tribulation. Presidents are men, and as such, the Presidency experiences both strengths and weaknesses. This brief post will catalog some of the more extraordinary achievements and weaknesses of modern Presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, James E. “Jimmy” Carter and Ronald W. Reagan.
Among political scientists and historians, Franklin Roosevelt is often ranked alongside Abraham Lincoln and George Washington as one of our country’s most influential and impactful leaders (Milkis & Nelson, 2012). While leadership may often rely to some degree on innate factors, it is more often crisis situations which draw powerful leaders into their greatest moments. From his inauguration in 1933 until resignation in 1945, FDR, our country, and the world, was beset with catastrophe. FDR had to deal simultaneously with the single greatest economic meltdown in U.S. history to that date (and even now), as well as the looming threat of Nazism and a direct attack on American soil by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor in 1941. In order to restore American hope and push back the forces of foreign invaders which threatened our liberty and the liberty of our allies, FDR, pushed for and obtained some of the greatest and most expansive social/economic programs proposed in the history of the United States.
In order to restore faith in the American government and ourselves, Roosevelt is to be remembered for having created and implemented: Social Security, which ensured disabled and elderly Americans would not have to worry about their financial future should they become faced with unfortunate circumstances; the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which ensured that Americans would not lose their life savings if banks failed; and he provided economic grants to cities across the country (primarily in the South) so that new roads, schools, housing, infrastructure and hospitals could be built (Hamilton, 2011, October 11). This influx of federal money served to accomplish two memorable goals for FDR. Firstly, it put unemployed men to work. It provided them with a decent paycheck and the ability to feed their families. Secondly, the newly paid workers were now free to consume those items they felt necessary, which further stimulated the economy. These policies, taken together, are generally seen as having reduced unemployment from 30% in 1932 to 16% in 1938. Overall, historical economists agree that New Deal policies shortened the Great Depression (Whaples, 1995).
If FDR has any weaknesses, they are to be found in his handling of the War effort. However, it was not his behavior abroad which was cause for concern. Rather, it was policy at home which harms his historical stature. Believing that Japanese Americans may be cause for concern, FDR issued Executive Order 9066 which allowed local government/military leaders to imprison, without habeas corpus, Japanese members of our society. His reasoning, I conjecture, was similar to Lincoln’s imprisonment of some 20,000 Southern sympathizers during the Civil War. FDR likely feared the Empire of Japan would use Japanese-Americans to undermine the war effort. While FDR may be forgiven for being a victim of the beliefs of his time, forgetting the unlawful imprisonment of citizens based solely upon ethnic association must not be allowed to pass into our history without apology, recognition, and education.
John F. Kennedy’s Presidency was cut tragically short in 1963, but it was not without its profound moments. Aside from supporting Civil Rights legislation – which would be passed under Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and 1965 – the plan to send Americans to the Moon, and strong use of The Peace Corps to introduce greater assistance in 3rd and 4th world countries, Kennedy’s greatest achievement was the avoidance of destroying all human life on planet Earth with his extraordinary handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1963. He is also responsible for working closely with Russian leader Khrushchev to eliminate the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.
Although Kennedy’s time was cut short, there is at least one weakness which may be attributed to his presidency: secrecy as concerns abusive behavior towards women. Although it is not likely that Kennedy beat women, as “abusive behavior” might connotation, it is certain that he was unfaithful. While this has little bearing on his ability to perform well as President, such things have an effect upon the symbolic nature of the Presidency as concerns the understanding of the President’s role as moral leader in the hearts and minds of the American people.
Lyndon Johnson was a staunch admirer of FDR, and certainly considered the former President a close friend and hero. As such, Johnson carried much of Roosevelt’s New Deal progressivism with him into office (Busby, 2012). Johnson did not see the presidency as an office which merely executed the law, but rather as a position which required activism on behalf of the people. Even today, his greatest accomplishments can be seen at work in our nation. This reverberation is tied directly to his status as a master legislator. While in office, Johnson managed to propose and see passed over three hundred pieces of legislation (Hamilton, 2011, October 21). That legislation included: student aid, transportation, public housing, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare and Medicaid, and Affirmative Action (Ibid). No president before or since has matched his legislative success.
Indeed, Johnson was an active president, and one who took his job quite seriously. However, and true to his own observation, the President is still a man. Johnson’s greatest weakness (viz. failure) was his policy in Vietnam. Not only did Johnson lie to the American people about Vietnamese aggression, he pursued a war effort which was both inhumane (viz. napalm carpet bombing) and devastating to the social order at home. This was true to such an extent that race riots and massive anti-war protests broke out across the United States. Devastated that his "imperial presidency" had caused more harm than good, and no doubt feeling as though he betrayed FDR, Johnson refused to run for reelection in 1968. While he administered and ushered in a great era of social change, he will likely continue to be remembered by many in the next several generations as the man who instigated America’s first lost war.
Nixon, like Johnson, was also a strong leader and utilized the powers of the imperial presidency. Even to his own demise as evidenced in the Watergate scandal. But also like Johnson, Nixon oversaw several powerful legislative measures, one of which has been almost consistently under attack by the Republican Party for the past twenty years: the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to the achievements as concerns the EPA, Nixon supported the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and signed the associated act into law when presented with it (Hamilton, 2011, October 21). For all of Nixon’s achievements, his behavior as concerns the Watergate scandal is a great weakness, and it is a weakness which may have damaged the office of the presidency. Historian C. Vann Woodward writes:
Heretofore, no president has been proved to be the chief coordinator of the crime and misdemeanor charged against his own administration as a deliberate course of conduct or plan. Heretofore, no president has been held to be the chief personal beneficiary of misconduct in his administration or of measures taken to destroy or cover up evidence of it. Heretofore, the malfeasance and misdemeanor have had no confessed ideological purpose, no constitutionally subversive ends. Heretofore, no president has been accused of extensively subverting and secretly using established government to defame or discredit political opponents and critics, to obstruct justice, to conceal misconduct and protect criminals, or to deprive citizens of their rights and liberties. Heretofore, no president has been accused of creating secret investigative units to engage in covert and unlawful activities against private citizens and their rights. (as cited in Pfiffner 2011, p.236)The issues Woodward addresses are expansive but related. In each case, it may be argued that the President failed to fulfill his oath in Article II, Section I, Clause VIII. In doing so, Nixon caused harm to the office of the presidency. He resigned his position August 9, 1974 before impeachment proceedings began.
While the country was still recovering from the abuses of power perpetrated under Nixon, James “Jimmy” Carter was elected. While perhaps not always remembered for obtaining great legislative success, Carter was nonetheless the 3rd most legislatively successful president after Wilson and Johnson (Hamilton, 2011). Until the expiration of his term in 1980, Carter nearly doubled the amount of protected wilderness in the United States, established a coastal park off the shore of North Carolina, passed the Civil Service Reform Act, and began the buildup of cruise missiles which Reagan would later both exacerbate and reduce (Ibid.). While Carter was not an overtly or outwardly powerful man, he was quite successful with the legislature on account of his extensive experience as a member of Congress and the relationships he built with others (Bell, et al., 2008). For the most part, Carter is remembered not so much for his outstanding policy work – though it was obviously beneficial – but rather for his good nature, finalization of diplomatic relations with China, and the reframing of Cold War behavior by refocusing nuclear weapons on strategic Russian locations and away from civilian areas.
As we have seen with other Presidents, weaknesses have come primarily from policy decisions – FDRs internment camps, Johnson’s Vietnam policy, Kennedy’s secrecy, and Nixon’s disregard for the law. Carter’s weakness, however, was perhaps more unexpected. Following the Watergate scandal, and Nixon’s general dislike for the media, major news sources, for the first time, had become openly hostile toward the Office of The President. Carter’s weakness comes from his inability to anticipate this change and adapt to it accordingly. Although he improved this relationship in his last two years, relations certainly could have better – relations which would no doubt have seriously impacted the public perception of his presidency as being productive and beneficial.
Finally, we arrive at the presidency of Ronald Reagan. As Reagan is still fresh in the minds of many Americans, it should come as no surprise that he is still viewed with a certain degree of mythology and contempt. Nonetheless, there are several policy areas where Reagan was quite successful. Firstly, Reagan solidified and empowered the voting coalition Nixon managed to grab from southern Democrats while Johnson was in office. This bolstering of support, coupled with extremely high name recognition, enabled the Republican Party to reassert its dominance by winning the presidency consecutively, gaining seats in the Congress and supporting a resurgence of Republican Governors and Republican-run state governments (Hamilton, 2011). Reagan was also successful insofar as negative media attention was generally rebuffed and silenced. Chris Hamilton, professor of political science at Washburn University, notes this may have been accomplished on account of Reagan’s “grandfatherly” attitude (Ibid).
In addition to these alterations, Reagan experienced great success in reducing the number of nuclear arms around the world with his Arms Reduction Treaties in the late 1980s. While not directly responsible for the fall of communism in Russia, it is hardly arguable that he did not have significant impact on creating a safer, less nuclear world (Ibid). We all are better-off for it.
Unfortunately, while Reagan’s foreign policy issues may have been excellent as concerns the reduction of nuclear arms around the world, his greatest weakness comes to us in the form of the Iran-Contra affair. Pfiffner (2011) writes:
There was no doubt about what the law prohibited; there had been a high-level public debate over aid to the contras throughout the 1980s, and the administration had not been able to convince a majority of the Congress that continued military aid to the Contras in 1985 was essential to U.S. security. (238)Despite the wishes of Congress, Reagan aids and Lt. Colonel Oliver North devised a way to obtain money for funding by selling arms to Iran. In any case, it is very difficult to argue that Reagan did not willfully and knowingly obstruct the will of the Congress and degrade the balance of power in our Constitutional system. Ultimately, and as with many presidents, Reagan’s administration was fraught with both moments of masterful statesmanship and periods of poor decision making.
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Busby, H. (2005). The Thirty-first of March: An Intimate Portrait of Lyndon Johnson's Final Days in Office. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Hamilton, C. (2011). Presidential Records [PDF]. Topeka: Washburn University
Hamilton, C. (2011, October 11). Personal Interview. Topeka: Washburn University.
Hamilton, C. (2011, October 21). Personal Interview. Topeka: Washburn University.
Milkis, S. M and Nelson, M. (2012). The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2011. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Pfiffner, J. (2011). The Modern Presidency. Boston: Wadsworth.
Whaples, R. (1995). Where is There Consensus among American Economic Historians? The Results of a Survey on Forty Propositions. The Journal of Economic History, 55(1).