This is a revision and expansion of a post that I published at my old blog late in 2007. The didactic style of this post reflects its original purpose, which was to give my grandchildren some insights into American history that aren’t found in standard textbooks. Readers who consider themselves already well-versed in the history of American politics should nevertheless scan this post for its occasionally provocative observations.
Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (1858-1919) was elected Vice President as a Republican in 1900, when William McKinley was elected to a second term as President. Roosevelt became President when McKinley was assassinated in September 1901. Roosevelt was re-elected President in 1904, with 56 percent of the “national” popular vote. (I mention popular-vote percentages here and throughout this post because they are a gauge of the general popularity of presidential candidates, though an inaccurate gauge if a strong third-party candidate emerges to distort the usual two-party dominance of the popular vote. There is, in fact, no such thing as a national popular vote. Rather, it is the vote in each State which determines the distribution of that State’s electoral votes between the various candidates. The electoral votes of all States are officially tallied about a month after the general election, and the president-elect is the candidate with the most electoral votes. I have more to say more about electoral votes in several of the entries that follow this one.)
Theodore Roosevelt (also known as TR) served almost two full terms as President, from September 14, 1901, to March 4, 1909. (Before 1937, a President’s term of office began on March 4 of the year following his election to office.)
Roosevelt was an “activist” President. Roosevelt used what he called the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to gain popular support for programs that exceeded the limits set in the Constitution. Roosevelt was especially willing to use the power of government to regulate business and to break up companies that had become successful by offering products that consumers wanted. Roosevelt was typical of politicians who inherited a lot of money and didn’t understand how successful businesses provided jobs and useful products for less-wealthy Americans.
Roosevelt was more like the Democrat Presidents of the Twentieth Century. He did not like the “weak” government envisioned by the authors of the Constitution. The authors of the Constitution designed a government that would allow people to decide how to live their own lives (as long as they didn’t hurt other people) and to run their own businesses as they wished to (as long as they didn’t cheat other people). The authors of the Constitution thought government should exist only to protect people from criminals and foreign enemies.
William Howard Taft (1857-1930), a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, served as President from March 4, 1909, to March 4, 1913. Taft ran for the presidency as a Republican in 1908 with Roosevelt’s support. But Taft didn’t carry out Roosevelt’s anti-business agenda aggressively enough to suit Roosevelt. So, in 1912, when Taft ran for re-election as a Republican, Roosevelt ran for election as a Progressive (a newly formed political party). Many Republican voters decided to vote for Roosevelt instead of Taft. The result was that a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, won the most electoral votes. Although Taft was defeated for re-election, he later became Chief Justice of the United States, making him the only person ever to have served as head of the executive and judicial branches of the U.S. Government.
Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) served as President from March 4, 1913, to March 4, 1921. (Wilson didn’t use his first name, and was known officially as Woodrow Wilson.) Wilson is the only President to have earned the degree of doctor of philosophy. Wilson’s field of study was political science, and he had many ideas about how to make government “better”. But “better” government, to Wilson, was “strong” government of the kind favored by Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, it was government by executive decree rather than according to the Constitution’s rules for law-making, in which Congress plays the central role.
Wilson was re-elected in 1916 because he promised to keep the United States out of World War I, which had begun in 1914. But Wilson changed his mind in 1917 and asked Congress to declare war on Germany. After the war, Wilson tried to get the United States to join the League of Nations, an international organization that was supposed to prevent future wars by having nations assemble to discuss their differences. The U.S. Senate, which must approve America’s membership in international organizations, refused to join the League of Nations. The League did not succeed in preventing future wars because wars are started by leaders who don’t want to discuss their differences with other nations.
Warren Gamaliel Harding (1865-1923), a Republican, was elected in 1920 and inaugurated on March 4, 1921. Harding asked voters to reject the kind of government favored by Democrats, and voters gave Harding what is known as a “landslide” victory; he received 60 percent of the votes cast in the 1920 election for president, one of the highest percentages ever recorded. Harding’s administration was about to become involved in a major scandal when Harding died suddenly on August 3, 1923, while he was on a trip to the West Coast. The exact cause of Harding’s death is unknown, but he may have had a stroke when he learned of the impending scandal, which involved Albert Fall, Secretary of the Interior. Fall had secretly allowed some of his business associates to lease government land for oil-drilling, in return for personal loans.
There were a few other scandals, but Harding probably had nothing to do with any of them. Because of the scandals, most historians say that they consider Harding to have been a poor President. But that isn’t the real reason for their dislike of Harding. Most historians, like most college professors, favor “strong” government. Historians don’t like Harding because he didn’t use the power of government to interfere in the nation’s economy. An important result of Harding’s policy (called laissez-faire, or “hands off”) was high employment and increasing prosperity during the 1920s.
John Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) , who was Harding’s Vice President, became President upon Harding’s death in 1923. (Coolidge didn’t use his first name, and was known as Calvin.) Coolidge was elected President in 1924. He served as President from August 3, 1923, to March 4, 1929. Coolidge continued Harding’s policy of not interfering in the economy, and people continued to become more prosperous as businesses grew and hired more people and paid them higher wages. Coolidge was known as “Silent Cal” because he was a man of few words. He said only what was necessary for him to say, and he meant what he said. That was in keeping with his approach to the presidency. He was not the “activist” that reporters and historians like to see in the presidency; he simply did the job required of him by the Constitution, which was to execute the laws of the United States. He continued Harding’s hands-off policy, and the country prospered as a result. Coolidge chose not run for re-election in 1928, even though he was quite popular.
Herbert Clark Hoover (1874-1964), a Republican who had been Secretary of Commerce under Coolidge, was elected to the presidency in 1928. He served as President from March 4, 1929, to March 4, 1933.
Hoover won 58 percent of the popular vote, an endorsement of the hands-off policy of Harding and Coolidge. Hoover’s administration is known mostly for the huge drop in the price of stocks (shares of corporations, which are bought and sold in places known as stock exchanges), and for the Great Depression that was caused partly by the “Crash” — as it became known. The rate of unemployment (the percentage of American workers without jobs) rose from 3 percent just before the Crash to 25 percent by 1933, at the depth of the Great Depression.
The Crash had two main causes. First, the prices of shares in businesses (called stocks) began to rise sharply in the late 1920s. That caused many persons to borrow money in order to buy stocks, in the hope that the price of stocks would continue to rise. If the price of stocks continued to rise, buyers could sell their stocks at a profit and repay the money they had borrowed. But when stock prices got very high in the fall of 1929, some buyers began to worry that prices would fall, so they began to sell their stocks. That drove down the price of stocks, and caused more buyers to sell in the hope of getting out of the stock market before prices fell further. But prices went down so quickly that almost everyone who owned stocks lost money. Prices of stocks kept going down. By 1933, many stocks had become worthless and most stocks were selling for only a small fraction of prices that they had sold for before the Crash.
Because so many people had borrowed money to buy stocks, they went broke when stock prices dropped. When they went broke, they were unable to pay their other debts. That had a ripple effect throughout the economy. As people went broke they spent less money and were unable to pay their debts. Banks had less money to lend. Because people were buying less from businesses, and because businesses couldn’t get loans to stay in business, many businesses closed and people lost their jobs. Then the people who lost their jobs had less money to spend, and so more people lost their jobs.
The effects of the Great Depression were felt in other countries because Americans couldn’t afford to buy as much as they used to from other countries. Also, Congress passed a law known as the Smoot-Hawley Tarrif Act, which President Hoover signed. The Smoot-Hawley Act raised tarrifs (taxes) on items imported into the United States, which meant that Americans bought even less from foreign countries. Foreign countries passed similar laws, which meant that foreigners began to buy less from Americans, which put more Americans out of work.
The economy would have recovered quickly, as it had done in the past when stock prices fell and unemployment increased. But the actions of government — raising tariffs and making loans harder to get — only made things worse. What could have been a brief recession turned into the Great Depression. People were frightened. They blamed President Hoover for their problems, although President Hoover didn’t cause the Crash. Hoover ran for re-election in 1932, but he lost to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), known as FDR, served as President from March 4, 1933 until his death on April 12, 1945, just a month before V-E Day. FDR was elected to the presidency in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944 — the only person elected more than twice. Roosevelt was a very popular President because he served during the Depression and World War II, when most Americans — having lost faith in themselves — sought reassurance that “someone was in charge”. FDR was not universally popular; his share of the popular vote rose from 57 percent in 1932 to 61 percent in 1936, but then dropped to 55 percent in 1940 and 54 percent in 1944. Americans were coming to understand what FDR’s opponents knew at the time, and what objective historians have said since:
- FDR’s efforts to bring America out of the Great Depression only made it worse.
- FDR’s leadership during World War II faltered toward the end, when he was gravely ill, and under the influence of well-placed Communists in the U.S. government, he allowed the Soviet Union to take over Eastern Europe.
FDR’s program to end the Great Depression was known as the New Deal. It consisted of welfare programs, which put people to work on government projects instead of making useful things. It also consisted of higher taxes and other restrictions on business, which discouraged people from starting and investing in businesses, which is the cure for unemployment.
Roosevelt did try to face up to the growing threat from Germany and Japan. However, he wasn’t able to do much to prepare America’s defenses because of strong isolationist and anti-war feelings in the country. Those feelings were the result of America’s involvement in World War I. (Similar feelings in Great Britain kept that country from preparing for war with Germany, which encouraged Hitler’s belief that he could easily conquer Europe.)
When America went to war after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt proved to be an able and inspiring commander-in-chief. But toward the end of the war his health was failing and he was influenced by close aides who were pro-communist and sympathetic to the Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR). Roosevelt allowed Soviet forces to claim Eastern Europe, including half of Germany. Roosevelt also encouraged the formation of the United Nations, where the Soviet Union (now the Russian Federation) has had a strong voice because it was made a permanent member of the Security Council, the policy-making body of the UN. As a member of the Security Council, Russia can obstruct actions proposed by the United States. (In any event, the UN has long since become a hotbed of anti-American, left-wing sentiment.)
Roosevelt’s appeasement of the USSR caused Josef Stalin (the Soviet dictator) to believe that the U.S. had weak leaders who would not challenge the USSR’s efforts to spread Communism. The result was the Cold War, which lasted for 45 years. During the Cold War the USSR developed nuclear weapons, built large military forces, kept a tight rein on countries behind the Iron Curtain (in Eastern Europe), and expanded its influence to other parts of the world.
Stalin’s belief in the weakness of U.S. leaders was largely correct, until Ronald Reagan became President. As I will discuss, Reagan’s policies led to the end of the Cold War.
Harry S Truman (1884-1972), who was Vice President in FDR’s fourth term, became President upon FDR’s death. Truman was re-elected in 1948, so he served as President from April 12, 1945 until January 20, 1953 — almost two full terms.
Truman made one right decision during his presidency. He approved the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. Although hundreds of thousands of Japanese were killed by the bombs, the Japanese soon surrendered. If the Japanese hadn’t surrendered then, U.S. forces would have invaded Japan and millions of Americans and Japanese lives would have been lost in the battles that followed the invasion.
Truman ordered drastic reductions in the defense budget because he thought that Stalin was an ally of the United States. (Truman, like FDR, had advisers who were Communists.) Truman changed his mind about defense budgets, and about Stalin, when Communist North Korea attacked South Korea in 1950. The attack on South Korea came after Truman’s Secretary of State (the man responsible for relations with other countries) made a speech about countries that the United States would defend. South Korea was not one of those countries.
When South Korea was invaded, Truman asked General of the Army Douglas MacArthur to lead the defense of South Korea. MacArthur planned and executed the amphibious landing at Inchon, which turned the war in favor of South Korea and its allies. The allied forces then succeeded in pushing the front line far into North Korea. Communist China then entered the war on the side of North Korea. MacArthur wanted to counterattack Communist Chinese bases and supply lines in Manchuria, but Truman wouldn’t allow that. Truman then “fired” MacArthur because MacArthur spoke publicly about his disagreement with Truman’s decision. The Chinese Communists pushed allied forces back and the Korean War ended in a deadlock, just about where it had begun, near the 38th parallel.
In the meantime, Communist spies had stolen the secret plans for making atomic bombs. They were able to do that because Truman refused to hear the truth about Communist spies who were working inside the government. By the time Truman left office the Soviet Union had manufactured nuclear weapons, had strengthened its grip on Eastern Europe, and was beginning to expand its influence into the Third World (the nations of Africa and the Middle East).
Truman was very unpopular by 1952. As a result he chose not to run for re-election, even though he could have done so. (The “Lame Duck” amendment to the Constitution, which bars a person from serving as President for more than six years was adopted while Truman was President, but it didn’t apply to him.)
Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969), a Republican, served as President from January 20, 1953 to January 20, 1961. Eisenhower (also known by his nickname, “Ike”) received 55 percent of the popular vote in 1952 and 57 percent in 1956; his Democrat opponent in both elections was Adlai Stevenson. The Republican Party chose Eisenhower as a candidate mainly because he had become famous as a general during World War II. Republican leaders thought that by nominating Eisenhower they could end the Democrats’ twenty-year hold on the presidency. The Republican leaders were right about that, but in choosing Eisenhower as a candidate they rejected the Republican Party’s traditional stand in favor of small government.
Eisenhower was a “moderate” Republican. He was not a “big spender” but he did not try to undo all of the new government programs that had been started by FDR and Truman. Traditional Republicans eventually fought back and, in 1964, nominated a small-government candidate named Barry Goldwater. I will discuss him when I get to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Eisenhower was a popular President, and he was a good manager, but he gave the impression of being “laid back” and not “in charge” of things. The news media had led Americans to believe that “activist” Presidents are better than laissez-faire Presidents, and so there was by 1960 a lot of talk about “getting the country moving again” — as if it was the job of the President to “run” the country instead of execution laws duly enacted in accordance with the Constitution.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963), a Democrat, was elected in 1960 to succeed President Eisenhower. Kennedy, who became known as JFK, served from January 20, 1961, until November 22, 1963, when he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
One reason that Kennedy won the election of 1960 (with 50 percent of the popular vote) was his image of “vigorous youth” (he was 27 years younger than Eisenhower). In fact, JFK had been in bad health for most of his life. He seemed to be healthy only because he used a lot of medications. Those medications probably impaired his judgment and would have caused him to die at a relatively early age if he hadn’t been assassinated.
Late in Eisenhower’s administration a Communist named Fidel Castro had taken over Cuba, which is only 90 miles south of Florida. The Central Intelligence Agency then began to work with anti-Communist exiles from Cuba. The exiles were going to attempt an invasion of Cuba at a place called the Bay of Pigs. In addition to providing the necessary military equipment, the U.S. was also going to provide air support during the invasion.
JFK succeeded Eisenhower before the invasion took place, in April 1961. JFK approved changes in the invasion plan that resulted in the failure of the invasion. The most important change was to discontinue air support for the invading forces. The exiles were defeated, and Castro has remained firmly in control of Cuba.
The failed invasion caused Castro to turn to the USSR for military and economic assistance. In exchange for that assistance, Castro agreed to allow the USSR to install medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. That led to the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Many historians give Kennedy credit for resolving the crisis and avoiding a nuclear war with the USSR. The Russians withdrew their missiles from Cuba, but JFK had to agree to withdraw American missiles from bases in Turkey.
The myth that Kennedy had stood up to the Russians made him more popular in the U.S. His major accomplishment, which Democrats today like to ignore, was to initiate tax cuts, which became law after his assassination. The Kennedy tax cuts helped to make America more prosperous during the 1960s by giving people more money to spend, and by encouraging businesses to expand and create jobs.
The assassination of JFK on November 22, 1963, in Dallas was a shocking event. It also led many Americans to believe that JFK would have become a great President if he had lived and been re-elected to a second term. There is little evidence that JFK would have become a great President. His record in Cuba suggests that he would not have done a good job of defending the country.
Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973), also known as LBJ, was Kennedy’s Vice President and became President upon Kennedy’s assassination. LBJ was re-elected in 1964; he served as President from November 22, 1963 to January 20, 1969. LBJ’s Republican opponent in 1964 was Barry Goldwater, who was an old-style Republican conservative, in favor of limited government and a strong defense. LBJ portrayed Goldwater as a threat to America’s prosperity and safety, when it was LBJ who was the real threat. Americans were still in shock about JFK’s assassination, and so they rallied around LBJ, who won 61 percent of the popular vote.
LBJ is known mainly for two things: his “Great Society” program and the war in Vietnam. The Great Society program was an expansion of FDR’s New Deal. It included such things as the creation of Medicare, which is medical care for retired persons that is paid for by taxes. Medicare is an example of a “welfare” program. Welfare programs take money from people who earn it and give money to people who don’t earn it. The Great Society also included many other welfare programs, such as more benefits for persons who are unemployed. The stated purpose of the expansion of welfare programs under the Great Society was to end poverty in America, but that didn’t happen. The reason it didn’t happen is that when people receive welfare they don’t work as hard to take care of themselves and their families, and they don’t save enough money for their retirement. Welfare actually makes people worse off in the long run.
America’s involvement in Vietnam began in the 1950s, when Eisenhower was President. South Vietnam was under attack by Communist guerrillas, who were sponsored by North Vietnam. Small numbers of U.S. forces were sent to South Vietnam to train and advise South Vietnamese forces. More U.S. advisers were sent by JFK, but within a few years after LBJ became President he had turned the war into an American-led defense of South Vietnam against Communist guerrillas and regular North Vietnamese forces. LBJ decided that it was important for the U.S. to defeat a Communist country and stop Communism from spreading in Southeast Asia.
However, LBJ was never willing to commit enough forces in order to win the war. He allowed air attacks on North Vietnam, for example, but he wouldn’t invade North Vietnam because he was afraid that the Chinese Communists might enter the war. In other words, like Truman in Korea, LBJ was unwilling to do what it would take to win the war decisively. Progress was slow and there were a lot of American casualties from the fighting in South Vietnam. American newspapers and TV began to focus attention on the casualties and portray the war as a losing effort. That led a lot of Americans to turn against the war, and college students began to protest the war (because they didn’t want to be drafted). Attention shifted from the war to the protests, giving the world the impression that America had lost its resolve. And it had.
LBJ had become so unpopular because of the war in Vietnam that he decided not to run for President in 1968. Most of the candidates for President campaigned by saying that they would end the war. In effect, the United States had announced to North Vietnam that it would not fight the war to win. The inevitable outcome was the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, which finally happened in 1973, under LBJ’s successor, Richard Nixon. South Vietnam was left on its own, and it fell to North Vietnam in 1975.
Richard Milhous Nixon (1913-1994) was a Republican. He won the election of 1968 by beating the Democrat candidate, Hubert H. Humphrey (who had been LBJ’s Vice President), and a third-party candidate, George C. Wallace. Nixon and Humphrey each received 43 percent of the popular vote; Wallace received 14 percent. If Wallace had not been a candidate, most of the votes cast for him probably would have been cast for Nixon.
Even though Nixon received less than half of the popular vote, he won the election because he received a majority of electoral votes. Electoral votes are awarded to the winner of each State’s popular vote. Nixon won a lot more States than Humphrey and Wallace, so Nixon became President.
Nixon won re-election in 1972, with 61 percent of the popular vote, by beating a Democrat (George McGovern) who would have expanded LBJ’s Great Society and cut America’s armed forces even more than they were cut after the Vietnam War ended. Nixon’s victory was more a repudiation of McGovern than it was an endorsement of Nixon. His second term ended in disgrace when he resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974.
Nixon called himself a conservative, but he did nothing during his presidency to curb the power of government. He did not cut back on the Great Society. He spent a lot of time on foreign policy. But Nixon’s diplomatic efforts did nothing to make the USSR and Communist China friendlier to the United States. Nixon had shown that he was essentially a weak President by allowing U.S. forces to withdraw from Vietnam. Dictatorial rulers like do not respect countries that display weakness.
Nixon was the first (and only) President who resigned from office. He resigned because the House of Representatives was ready to impeach him. An impeachment is like a criminal indictment; it is a set of charges against the holder of a public office. If Nixon had been impeached by the House of Representatives, he would have been tried by the Senate. If two-thirds of the Senators had voted to convict him he would have been removed from office. Nixon knew that he would be impeached and convicted, so he resigned.
The main charge against Nixon was that he ordered his staff to cover up his involvement in a crime that happened in 1972, when Nixon was running for re-election. The crime was a break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic Party in Washington, D.C. Because the Democratic Party’s headquarters was located in the Watergate Building in Washington, D.C., this episode became known as the Watergate Scandal.
The purpose of the break-in was to obtain documents that might help Nixon’s re-election effort. The men who participated in the break-in were hired by aides to Nixon. Details about the break-in and Nixon’s involvement were revealed as a result of investigations by Congress, which were helped by reporters who were doing their own investigative work.
But there is good reason to believe that Nixon was unjustly forced from office by the concerted efforts of the news media (most of which had long been biased against Nixon), Democrats in Congress, and many Republicans who were anxious to rid themselves of Nixon, who was a magnet for controversy.
Gerald Rudolph Ford (born Leslie King Jr.) (1913 – 2007), who was Nixon’s Vice President at the time Nixon resigned, became President on August 9, 1974 and served until January 20, 1977. Ford succeeded Spiro T. Agnew, who had been Nixon’s Vice President until October 10, 1973, when he resigned because he had been taking bribes while he was Governor of Maryland (the job he had before becoming Vice President).
Ford became the first Vice President chosen in accordance with the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment spells out procedures for filling vacancies in the presidency and vice presidency. When Vice President Agnew resigned, President Nixon nominated Ford as Vice President, and the nomination was approved by a majority vote of the House and Senate. Then, when Ford became President, he nominated Nelson Rockefeller to fill the vice presidency, and Rockefeller was elected Vice President by the House and Senate.
Ford ran for re-election in 1976, but he was defeated by James Earl Carter, mainly because of the Watergate Scandal. Ford was not involved in the scandal, but voters often cast votes for silly reasons. Carter’s election was a rejection of Richard Nixon, who had left office two years earlier, not a vote of confidence in Carter.
James Earl (“Jimmy”) Carter Jr. (1924 – ), a Democrat who had been Governor of Georgia, received only 50 percent of the popular vote. He was defeated for re-election in 1980, so he served as President from January 20, 1977 to January 20, 1981.
Carter was an ineffective President who failed at the most important duty of a President, which is to protect Americans from foreign enemies. His failure came late in his term of office, during the Iran Hostage Crisis. The Shah of Iran had ruled the country for 38 years. He was overthrown in 1979 by a group of Muslim clerics (religious men) who disliked the Shah’s pro-American policies. In November 1979 a group of students loyal to the new Muslim government of Iran invaded the American embassy in Tehran (Iran’s capital city) and took 66 hostages. Carter approved rescue efforts, but they were poorly planned. The hostages were still captive by the time of the presidential election in 1980. Carter lost the election largely because of his feeble rescue efforts.
In recent years Carter has become an outspoken critic of America’s foreign policy. Carter is sympathetic to America’s enemies and he opposes strong military action in defense of America.
Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911-2004), a Republican, succeeded Jimmy Carter as President. Reagan won 51 percent of the popular vote in 1980. Reagan would have received more votes, but a former Republican (John Anderson) ran as a third-party candidate and took 7 percent of the popular vote. Reagan was re-elected in 1984 with 59 percent of the popular vote. He served as President from January 20, 1981, until January 20, 1989.
Reagan had two goals as President: to reduce the size of government and to increase America’s military strength. He was unable to reduce the size of government because, for most of his eight years in office, Democrats were in control of Congress. But Reagan was able to get Congress to approve large reductions in income-tax rates. Those reductions led to more spending on consumer goods and more investment in the creation of new businesses. As a result, Americans had more jobs and higher incomes.
Reagan succeeded in rebuilding America’s military strength. He knew that the only way to defeat the USSR, without going to war, was to show the USSR that the United States was stronger. A lot of people in the United States opposed spending more on military forces; they though that it would cause the USSR to spend more. They also thought that a war between the U.S. and USSR would result. Reagan knew better. He knew that the USSR could not afford to keep up with the United States. Reagan was right. Not long after the end of his presidency the countries of Eastern Europe saw that the USSR was really a weak country, and they began to break away from the USSR. Residents of Berlin demolished the Berlin Wall, which the USSR had erected in 1961 to keep East Berliners from crossing over into West Berlin. East Germany was freed from Communist rule, and it reunited with West Germany. The USSR collapsed, and many of the countries that had been part of the USSR became independent. We owe the end of the Soviet Union and its influence President Reagan’s determination to defeat the threat posed by the Soviet Union.
George Herbert Walker Bush (1924 – 2019), a Republican, was Reagan’s Vice President. He won 54 percent of the popular vote when he defeated his Democrat opponent, Michael Dukakis, in the election of 1988. Bush lost the election of 1992. He served as President from January 20, 1989 to January 20, 1993.
The main event of Bush’s presidency was the Gulf War of 1990-1991. Iraq, whose ruler was Saddam Hussein, invaded the small neighboring country of Kuwait. Kuwait produces and exports a lot of oil. The occupation of Kuwait by Iraq meant that Saddam Hussein might have been able to control the amount of oil shipped to other countries, including Europe and the United States. If Hussein had been allowed to control Kuwait, he might have moved on to Saudi Arabia, which produces much more oil than Kuwait. President Bush asked Congress to approve military action against Iraq. Congress approved the action, although most Democrats voted against giving President Bush authority to defend Kuwait. The war ended in a quick defeat for Iraq’s armed forces. But President Bush decided not to allow U.S. forces to finish the job and end Saddam Hussein’s reign as ruler of Iraq.
Bush’s other major blunder was to raise taxes, which helped to cause a recession. The country was recovering from the recession in 1992, when Bush ran for re-election, but his opponents were able to convince voters that Bush hadn’t done enough to end the recession. In spite of his quick (but incomplete) victory in the Persian Gulf War, Bush lost his bid for re-election because voters were concerned about the state of the economy.
William Jefferson Clinton (born William Jefferson Blythe III) (1946 – ), a Democrat, defeated George H.W. Bush in the 1992 election by gaining a majority of the electoral vote. But Clinton won only 43 percent of the popular vote. Bush won 37 percent, and 19 percent went to H. Ross Perot. Perot, a third-party candidate, who received many votes that probably would have been cast for Bush.
Clinton’s presidency got off to a bad start when he sent to Congress a proposal that would have put health care under government control. Congress rejected the plan, and a year later (in 1994) voters went to the polls in large number to elect Republican majorities to the House and Senate.
Clinton was able to win re-election in 1996, but he received only 49 percent of the popular vote. He was re-elected mainly because fewer Americans were out of work and incomes were rising. This economic “boom” was a continuation of the recovery that began under President Reagan. Clinton got credit for the “boom” of the 1990s, which occurred in spite of tax increases passed by Congress while it was still controlled by Democrats.
Clinton was perceived as a “moderate” Democrat because he tried to balance the government’s budget; that is, he tried not to spend more money than the government was receiving in taxes. He was eventually able to balance the budget, but only because he cut defense spending. In addition to that, Clinton made several bad decisions about defense issues. In 1993 he withdrew American troops from Somalia, instead of continuing with the military mission there after some troops were captured and killed by natives. In 1994 he signed an agreement with North Korea that was supposed to keep North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, but the North Koreans continued to work on building nuclear weapons because they had fooled Clinton. By 1998 Clinton knew that al Qaeda had become a major threat when terrorists bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa, but Clinton failed to go to war against al Qaeda. Only after terrorists struck a Navy ship, the USS Cole, in 2000 did Clinton declare terrorism to be a major threat. By then, his term of office was almost over.
Clinton was the second President to be impeached. The House of Representatives impeached him in 1998. He was charged with perjury (lying under oath) when he was the defendant (the person being charged with wrong-doing) in a law suit. The Senate didn’t convict Clinton because every Democrat senator refused to vote for conviction, in spite of overwhelming evidence that Clinton was guilty. The day before Clinton left office he acknowledged his guilt by agreeing to a five-year suspension of his law license. A federal judge later found Clinton guilty of contempt of court for his misleading testimony and fined him $90,000.
Clinton was involved in other scandals during his presidency, but he remains popular with many people because he is good at giving the false impression that he is a nice, humble person.
Clinton’s scandals had more effect on his Vice President, Al Gore, who ran for President as the nominee of the Democrat Party in 2000. His main opponent was George W. Bush, a Republican. A third-party candidate named Ralph Nader also received a lot of votes. The election of 2000 was the closest presidential election since 1876. Bush and Gore each won about 48 percent of the popular vote (Gore’s percentage was slightly higher than Bush’s); Nader won 3 percent. The winner of the election was decided by outcome of the vote in Florida. That outcome was the subject of legal proceedings for six weeks. It had to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Initial returns in Florida gave that State’s electoral votes to Bush, which meant that he would become President. But the Supreme Court of Florida decided that election officials should violate Florida’s election laws and keep recounting the ballots in certain counties. Those counties were selected because they had more Democrats than Republicans, and so it was likely that recounts would favor Gore, the Democrat. The case finally went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided that the Florida Supreme Court was wrong. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered an end to the recounts, and Bush was declared the winner of Florida’s electoral votes.
George Walker Bush (1946 – ), a Republican, was the second son of a President to become President. (The first was John Quincy Adams, the sixth President, whose father, John Adams, was the second President. Also, Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President, was the grandson of William Henry Harrison, the ninth President.) Bush won re-election in 2004, with 51 percent of the popular vote. He served as President from January 20, 2001, to January 20, 2009.
President Bush’s major accomplishment before September 11, 2001, was to get Congress to cut taxes. The tax cuts were necessary because the economy had been in a recession since 2000. The tax cuts gave people more money to spend and encouraged businesses to expand and create new jobs.
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, caused President Bush to give most of his time and attention to the War on Terror. The invasion of Afghanistan, late in 2001, was part of a larger campaign to disrupt terrorist activities. Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban, a group that gave support and shelter to al Qaeda terrorists. The U.S. quickly defeated the Taliban and destroyed al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan.
The invasion of Iraq, which took place in 2003, was also intended to combat al Qaeda, but in a different way. Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, had been an enemy of the U.S. since the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991. Hussein was trying to acquire deadly weapons to use against the U.S. and its allies. Hussein was also giving money to terrorists and sheltering them in Iraq. The defeat of Hussein, which came quickly after the invasion of Iraq, was intended to establish a stable, friendly government in the Middle East.
The invasion of Iraq produced some of the intended results, but there was much unrest there because of long-standing animosity between Sunni Muslims and Shi’a Muslims. There was also much defeatist talk about Iraq — especially by Democrats and the media. That defeatist talk helped to encourage those who were creating unrest in Iraq. It gave them hope that the U.S. would abandon Iraq, just as it abandoned Vietnam more than 30 years earlier. The country had become almost uncontrollable until Bush authorized a military “surge” — enough additional troops to quell the unrest.
However, Bush, like his father, failed to take a strategically decisive course of action. He should have ended the pretense of “nation-building”, beefed up U.S. military presence, and installed a compliant Iraqi government. That would have created a U.S. stronghold in the Middle East and stifled Iran’s moves toward regional hegemony, just as the presence of U.S. forces in Europe for decades after World War II kept the USSR from seizing new territory and eventually wore it down.
With Iraq as a U.S. base of operations, it would have been easier to quell Afghanistan and to launch preemptive strikes on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program while it was still in its early stages.
But the early failures in Iraq — and the futility of the Afghan operation (also done on the cheap) — meant that Bush had no political backing for bolder military measures. Further, the end of his second term was blighted by a financial crisis that led a stock-market crash, the failure of some major financial firms, the bailout of some others, and thence to the Great Recession.
The election of 2008 coincided with the economic downturn, and it was no surprise that the Democrat candidate handily beat the feckless Republican (in-name-only) candidate, John Sidney McCain III.
Barack Hussein Obama II (1961 – ) was the Democrat who defeated McCain. Obama, like most of his predecessors, was a professional politician, but most of his political experience was as a “community organizer” (i.e., rabble-rouser and shakedown artist) in Chicago. He was still serving in his first major office (as U.S. Senator from Illinois) when he vaulted ahead of Hillary Rodham Clinton and seized the Democrat nomination for the presidency. He served as President from January 20, 2009, until January 20, 2017.
Obama’s ascendancy was owed in large part to the perception of him as youthful and energetic. He was careful to seem moderate in his campaign rhetoric, though those in the know (party leaders and activists) were well aware of his strong left-wing leanings, which were revealed in his Senate votes and positions. Clinton, by contrast, was perceived as middle-of the-road, but only because the road had shifted well to the left over the years. It was she, for example, who propounded the health-care nationalization scheme known as HillaryCare. The scheme was defeated in Congress, but it was responsible in large part for massive swing of House seats in 1994, which returned the House to GOP control for the first time in 42 years.
Obama’s election was due also to a health dose of white “guilt”. Here was an opportunity for many voters to “prove” (and to brag about) their lack of racism. And so, given the experience of Iraq, the onset of the Great Recession, and a me-too Republican candidate, they did the easy thing by voting for Obama, and enjoyed the feel-good sensation that went with it.
At any rate, Obama served two terms (the second was secured by defeating Willard Mitt Romney, another feckless RINO). His presidency throughout both terms was marked by disastrous policies; for example:
- Obamacare, which drastically raised health-care costs and insurance premiums and added millions of freeloaders to Medicaid
- encouragement of illegal immigration, which imposes heavy burdens on middle-class taxpayers and is intended to swell the rolls of Democrat voters through amnesty schemes
- increases in marginal tax rates for individuals and businesses
- issuance of economically stultifying regulations at an unprecedented page
- nomination of dozens of left-wing judges and two left-wing Supreme Court Justices, partly to ensure “empathic” (leftist) rulings rather than rulings in accordance with the Constitution
- sharp reductions in defense spending
- meddling in Libya, which through Hillary Clinton’s negligence cost the lives of American diplomats
- Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server, in which Obama was complicit, and which resulted in the compromise of sensitive, classified information.
- a drastic military draw-down in Iraq, with immediately dire consequences (and a just-in-time reversal by Obama)
- persistent anti-white and anti-American rhetoric (the latter especially on foreign soil and at the UN)
- persistent anti-business rhetoric that, together with tax increases and regulatory excesses, killed the recovery from the Great Recession and put the U.S. firmly on the road to economic stagnation.
It should therefore have been a simple matter for voters to reject Obama’s inevitable successor: Hillary Clinton. But the American public has been indoctrinated in leftism for decades by public schools, the mainstream media, and a plethora TV shows and movies, with the result that Clinton acquired 5 million more popular votes, nationwide, than did her Republican opponent. The foresight of the Framers of the Constitution proved providential because her opponent carefully chose his battlegrounds and was handily won in the electoral college. Thus …
Donald John Trump (1946 – ) succeeded Obama and was inaugurated as President on January 20, 2017. He is only in the third year of his presidency, but has accomplished much despite a “resistance” movement that began as soon as his election was assured in the early-morning hours of November 9, 2016. (The “resistance”, which I discuss here, is a continuation of political and social trends that are rooted in the 1960s.)
These are among Trump’s accomplishments, many of them the result of a successful collaboration with both houses of Congress, which Republicans controlled for the first two years of Trump’s presidency, and the Senate, which remains under GOP control:
- the end of Obamacare’s requirement to buy some form of health-insurance or pay a “tax”, which penalized the healthy and forced many to do something that would otherwise not do
- discouragement of illegal immigration through tougher enforcement (against a huge, left-wing financed influx of illegals)
- decreases in marginal tax rates for individuals and businesses
- the repeal of many economically stultifying regulations and a drastic slowdown in the issuance of regulations
- nomination of dozens of conservative judges and two conservative Supreme Court Justices
- sharp increases in defense spending
- the beginning of the end of foreign adventures that are unrelated to the interests of Americans (e.g., the drawdown in Syria)
- relative stability in Iraq
- pro-American rhetoric on foreign soil and at the UN
- persistent pro-business rhetoric that, together with tax-rate cuts and regulatory reform, is helping to buoy the U.S. economy despite slowdowns elsewhere and Trump’s “trade war”, which is really aimed at creating a level playing field for American companies and workers.
This story will be continued.
2 thoughts on “The Modern Presidency: From TR to DJT”
A great primer, but then, I share your biases… In any event, well done.
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