We’ve had some good presidents, and we’ve had some not-so-good presidents. These days, unfortunately, our position on either side of the political aisle convinces us that we can tell the difference.
There’s little question that President Obama has courted controversy for most of his time in office so far, the most recent example being his executive order on immigration. While we’re still awaiting the verdict of history, and I myself am stuck somewhere between calling him a tyrant and naming him a groundbreaker, I thought it might be time to get a little bit of perspective.
Which past presidents became famous for their administration’s failures? I’m not talking about the occasional scandal here and there; no, I’m talking about the U.S. presidents who left the whole country reeling with their terrifically bad decisions.
Below are four U.S. presidents who could be considered the worst of the worst. My essential criteria for determining this are simple:
- Their damage affected multiple facets of American society.
- They helped to destabilize trust in the U.S. government.
- The effects of their decisions lasted into the next administration.
Let’s get started, shall we?
#1: Jimmy Carter
No matter your party affiliation, paying obscene gas prices (and waiting in quarter-mile, bumper-to-bumper lines to fill up your DeLorean) was probably not one of your top-five favorite things in the world if you had a set of wheels in the 80’s. Needless to say, this certainly didn’t do any favors for the U.S. economy–and things got bad. Very, very bad.
But how did we end up in a prolonged Oil Crisis in the first place? And how did the oil investment playbook change as a result? Well, price controls tend to lead to shortages, especially on commodities. Gasoline is one such commodity. Carter, apparently, was not very good with things like economics, which is probably why he implemented the Marx Method of fixing a capitalist economy.
Then again, he also had issues with things like foreign policy, too (which was another reason why OPEC wasn’t doing us any favors on oil). Essentially, the Iranian Revolution could not have happened without Carter’s facepalm-worthy decisions – and to make a long story short, the Iranians decided to take 52 American hostages.
Say what you will about Reagan; at least he managed to get those Americans back on our home turf.
#2: James Buchanan
With some presidents, you have to wonder if they were just bad at their jobs or they were implementing the Joker method of fixing the world by watching it burn. With James Buchanan, I’m thinking he just ran for the presidency because he wanted to live in a white house. Either way, the U.S. Civil War began on his watch: When Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter, his reply went something like this: “Do what you want.” Then he promptly abandoned the fort.
He also reacted largely the same way when an economic depression hit the country, called the Panic of 1857. Did he blunder by making some bad decisions in an attempt to fix it? Actually, no. In fact, he took virtually no action at all (or maybe he played a round of golf in Wheatland). Basically, the entire U.S. was going broke; and half the country was ready to split.
And Buchanan just did not want to be bothered by those things. He did, however, want to buy Cuba – and he was willing to mug Spain for it if they weren’t in the mood to sell.
Lucky for us, he practically gave his job to the next guy.
#3: Richard Nixon
Was he a crook?
According to him, the answer was no. As for the rest of the country, the answer was a clear and resounding: Yes, you’re a crook, Mr. Nixon. In fact, whenever you hear about any modern political scandal with the suffix -gate, it’s because of Nixon.
The Watergate office complex was the Democratic National Committee headquarters, and Nixon wasn’t fond of the Dems because, well, he was a Republican. So he decided to bug them, NSA-style, and then lie about it to the American people. Well, it didn’t take long for us to find out; but he quit before we could fire him. If only we had an Edward Snowden back then.
Basically, Richard Nixon might have single-handedly caused an entire generation of Americans to become politically complacent and completely distrustful of government. It even galvanized Congress into amending the Freedom of Information Act. The Watergate scandal is basically why we don’t have much faith in our fearless leaders anymore — and I can’t say I blame us, after realizing that the president was up to his neck in corruption.
#4: Lyndon B. Johnson
Johnson apologists may sometimes claim that his only true failure was the unrealistic scope of his ambitions. The truth is much simpler: Johnson was a failure because he had no idea how to follow through on his vision.
In 1964, Johnson delivered a speech about what he liked to call the “Great Society.” It laid out his plans for turning America into a place where we were free from poverty, racial injustice, and even boredom. It sounded like a fine plan, to be sure; but like those of too many politicians, it had little basis in reality – and was ultimately a failure.
His very obvious lack of direction also informed his disastrous handling of the Vietnam War; his plan began and ended with a vacuous mission statement about defeating the communists, but commenced without any obvious endgame in mind.
Arguably his worst failing, though, was his outright corruption. Johnson and his wife, thanks to close ties with then-FCC chairman Clifford Durr, managed to amass a personal fortune thanks to their television monopoly in Austin, Texas. What began as a simple purchase of station KTBC by Lady Bird Johnson in 1943 became instead one of the most egregious examples of an American politician using his position for financial gain.
With the U.S. still reeling from some seriously stressful mid-term elections, it might be time to readdress the role of the average American citizen in government. It’s never been clearer that many of us don’t see past the red or blue or campaign banners when we pull the lever in the voting booth; we vote with our hearts instead of our heads, and we end up getting losers like these four gentlemen above for no other reason than because they’re not the other guy.
Barack Obama’s place in presidential history remains uncertain; but one has to admire his pioneering spirit, even if it’s legally ambiguous and perhaps ill-timed. To revisit the immigration issue for a moment, I do mourn for a country where the president takes action on his own; but considering how many other immigration bills have been in a holding pattern for years, it’s time something was done.
No matter what you have to say about our president, one thing is clear: for examples of truly failed presidencies, we need only look backward in history – and sometimes it’s not that far back at all.
Photo credit: House Divided Project (Flickr)
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This post originally appeared on Western Journalism – Informing And Equipping Americans Who Love Freedom