a series of most unfortunate presidents

The Today Show on Monday had an interview with David Purdam about his Vanity Fair story on the Bush presidency.  One comment which struck me was his report that some in the Bush White House had concluded that the Bush presidency was “a wasted opportunity.”  They claimed that after 9/11 Bush had an opening to rally Americans for a noble cause, and instead he led us into two foreign wars, did little to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and did even less to halt our current economic crisis.

I remember that “wasted opportunity” was the same thing people were saying at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, for he had squandered his obvious political skills on not having sex with Monica Lewinsky.  “Wasted opportunity” was the same thing they said about George H. W. Bush.  His approval ratings were over 90% after the First Gulf War, and yet he was unable to use his popularity to promote programs that might lead us out of a recession (which opened the door for Ross Perot, whose giant “sucking sound” took enough of Bush’s votes to elect Clinton).

I don’t remember precisely (and sadly, neither did he), but they probably said the same thing after Ronald Reagan’s presidency, for the Iran-Contra affair and the possible onset of early dementia hampered his leadership near the end of his second term.  Jimmy Carter left office with the economy in a malaise and American hostages in Iran.  Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, who resigned from office because as it turns out, he actually was a crook.  Lyndon Johnson left office after bogging us down in Vietnam, and John Kennedy was assassinated.

All this leads me to a question and a challenge.  The question, for you who know American history:  when, if ever, did an American president finish his term(s) as a widely considered success?  Has every president left office as a disappointment to the majority of Americans? 

The challenge:  if a successful presidency is hard to come by, then let’s commit ourselves to pray for Barack Obama.  He appears to be bucking at least 50 years of bad endings, and we—and the world—desperately need him to succeed. 

12 Comments

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  1. When President Kennedy was assassinated, I believe he was still a popular president, as I believe FDR was when he passed in 1945 (having just been elected to a fourth term. Depending upon where you were from, Lincoln was also a popular President upon his assassination just after reelection to a second term. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were all popular throughout their terms in office. Washington, however, did not want the appearance of a king so decided to not run after two terms, and no one following him (until FDR) dared to break this tradition.

    Of all these, I think the only debate on success would be with Kennedy. There are many questions that loom as to what he would have done with Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement, though on the latter there are indications he was moving toward more active support of the movement.

    Charles Spurgeon, nearing his own death, prophesized that in the near future he would be eaten by dogs, but that the more distant future would vindicate him. Do you think any of these more recent presidents will be vindicated in the more distant future?

  2. Response to the Gettysburg Address…

    From the Chicago Times:
    “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat and dishwattery [sic] remarks of the man who has to be pointed out as the President of the United States. … Is Mr. Lincoln less refined than a savage? … It was a perversion of history so flagrant that the most extended charity cannot view it as otherwise than willful.”

    From the London Times:
    “The ceremony was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln. Anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce.”

    It’s not until they’re gone that most presidents are truly appreciated. I think history will vindicate W. I also think that Obama is getting all of his attaboys handed to him early and they’re going to be few and far between a couple of years from now.

  3. So FDR would be the one 20th century president who was considered a success at the time he left office (perhaps Kennedy, but that would have been different if his sexual dalliances had been aired in public).

    Time does heal some wounds–notice how Carter has made a comeback since his disastrous presidency, Ford is now praised for pardoning Nixon, Reagan is often spoken of as if he should be on Mt. Rushmore, and even Clinton is remembered fondly for the good economy of the nineties.

    I am guessing that W’s legacy may depend a lot upon what happens in the next few presidencies. If we are attacked by terrorists during Obama’s term(s), then W’s wars and Guatanamo will be remembered better than if we are not. But Katrina and the unregulated and collapsing economy are bound to stick, even if they weren’t entirely his fault.

    My point is that I fear for Obama and for us. If he fails, we all go down. If he succeeds, he may be the antichrist (that’s a joke).

  4. I have a hunch that, a generation or two from now, these presidents’ legacies will be most affected by how they impacted our national debt. Like you, I want to see Obama succeed–I voted for the guy–but I’ll take a hit now in the “success” department if it means getting back to responsibility and sustainability.

    Said another way, I think the most popular president 50 years from now will be the one who finally asks us to sacrifice something.

  5. I wonder how some of these critics would feel if someone were to judge the end of their life/career as a “wasted opportunity?”

    The president is only one person, albeit a very powerful person in the world, who can make a limited impact. The american people have, I think, forgotten e pluribus unim–out of many, one. In some ways, we the american people, make or destroy a presidency.

    During W’s presidency the american people have demonstrated a greater lack of unity than their unity. The polarization of america is much more than what one person can handle. Almost every presidential candidate since the inception of the States has run on the claim that they can “unite” the United States. As if they have some magical formula to make this happen. The church may have a greater opportunity to help unify america (but that is a different story altogether) if it can get over its petty squabbles and not waste opportunities (but I digress) .

    It is the responsibility of all americans, including the president, to seize the opportunities that are before us to once again make this a great nation.

    Let’s pray for Obama and the american people. Also, let us commit to praying for the church in the United States that she can rise up and not waste the great opportunities that are before her.

  6. I have been thinking for some time that history will be kinder to to George W. then the hysterical ranting of the blatantly biased MSM eggheads. The other side of the coin is Churchill’s obserevation that history is written by the winners….

    The worst presidency of my life time has been that of Jimmy Carter. The best, that of Ronald Reagan. Jimmy may make a good humanitarian but he was a terrible president. It remains to be seen if Obama can or will do any worse.

    Of course in the greater Story it is the judgement of the all knowing Creator that will be accurate and true…. Come quickly Lord Jesus….

  7. Not so sure history will be as kind to W as some of the rest of you do, when you look at the state of things as he ends his term what exactly is supposed to vindicate him in the eyes of history?

    I’m hopeful about Obama, but realistic enough not to believe he will be all that people expect. I think that if, as ‘Just some guy’ said, Obama can actaully ask us to sacrifice to help our nation’s future, and move us through some major societal changes in economics and environmental issues, then he has a shot of being remembered well beyond the history of his election.

    We need a society wide change in politics, beyond the ‘change’ offered by either leading party (or third parties). Because for a great many reasons it does not seem to be working like it is supposed to anymore.

  8. Based on approval polls, Clinton, Reagan, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Bush I and Ford all had 50% or greater approval ratings when they left office based on Gallop polling.

    The success of a President all depends on who’s measuring, what criteria they are using and when they are making their determinations.

    History (despite being written by the winners) has a way of fleshing out the reality of the time.

  9. Dr. Wittmer, really interesting observation about a series of wasted opportunities! To my knowledge, Justin’s comments are accurate, and since most of the presidents famous for ‘finishing strong’ are from the 18th and 19th centuries, I wonder if Z. Bartels is right that presidents are only appreciated in extreme hindsight.

    An alternative view is held by an old Western Civ prof of mine, that America’s government is being overtaken by entropy. “Our government is running on fumes,” he would say (which is not without precedent in the history of western hegemonies).

    I have a question for you ladies and gentlemen about the legacy of FDR. A lawyer friend of mine argues that FDR’s New Deal, while certainly in service to Americans in need, was a sign of the long-time failure of American Christianity to care for the needy. The New Deal, my friend continues, is among the forces that shapes our government’s current understanding of the separation between church and state. “Can you imagine,” she says, “how differently the Christian religion would be viewed today if we had beat the government to providing welfare?” What do you guys think about her view? Is it realistic? Is it biblical? In the richest country in history, should the people of the Good News render the New Deal superfluous?

  10. Adam:

    Interesting post. I would think that your lawyer friend may be wrong on the history of the New Deal. From what I have read, FDR started it as a response to the Great Depression, which was a systemic problem. I gather that few Christians or churches had sufficient resources during the Great Depression to feed, house, and give a comfortable retirement to everyone, which is why the government had to step in and help. I’m not defending the western church’s use of its many riches, but just saying that FDR was attempting to fix a problem which was larger than all of us. And it may have worked too, if Al Gore’s lockbox had shown up sooner!

  11. The editorial in the Jan/Feb issue of Relevant Magazine points out the often-looked-over fact that President Bush has done more than any previous president, and probably any other world leader, to provide relief for the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Many of us, myself included, have been guilty of labeling Bush as an awful President because of the war, his environmental policies, the economy, etc… but I do wonder if this has caused us to overlook his strong qualities. Perhaps in 10 or 20 years we will look back on his presidency and see the good in it. Maybe in hindsight we’ll find that a lot of our criticisms were unjust?

  12. Not sure if you’ll even see this comment, but this chart supports your point: http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/info-presapp0605-31.html

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