It’s hard to be a good leader, and even harder to recognize good leaders. As a species we’re drawn by charisma and easily forget that many of the worst leaders throughout history have been charismatics. Our historians forget this too. Almost invariably, they tend to rate the U.S. presidents on the basis of their charisma and management style more than their actual policies. In his new book Ivan Eland focuses purely on policies. He assesses the presidents since World War I who either genuinely believed in, or claimed to be for, limiting the power of government — abroad (military restraint), at home (fiscal responsibility), and in upholding values of liberty. Of the seventeen presidents, eleven qualify for analysis:
The presidents who rate high or at least average are the following five:
(R) Warren Harding, 1921-1923
(R) Calvin Coolidge, 1923-1929
(R) Dwight Eisenhower, 1953-1961
(D) Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981
(D) Bill Clinton, 1993-2001
Those who rate poorly are the following three:
(R) Herbert Hoover, 1929-1933
(R) Richard Nixon, 1969-1974
(R) Gerald Ford, 1974-1977
Those who rate very badly are the following three:
(R) Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989
(R) George H.W. Bush, 1989-1993
(R) George W. Bush, 2001-2009
The following six are excluded from consideration. They rate very badly in Eland’s previous book. They are all Democrats, were blatantly for big government, and never seriously claimed as an objective to keep governmental power in check:
(D) Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1921
(D) Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933-1945
(D) Harry Truman, 1945-1953
(D) John F. Kennedy, 1961-1963
(D) Lyndon Johnson, 1963-1969
(D) Barack Obama, 2009-2017
However much you agree with Eland’s good/bad assessments of the presidents (I happen to agree largely with him, though with reservations, as I explained here), the point is whether or not a president’s record matches his reputation. Eland’s book, in other words, is about the myth of the Republican image, the hypocrisy of Republican executives, and the surprising record of two Democrats — Carter and Clinton — who outshone all the Republican presidents after Eisenhower. I’ll go through each of the eleven presidents (and also Obama) and summarize Eland’s analysis. In the end, we’ll see that the five good or average presidents should be our inspiration if we are to have any hope of making America great again.
(D) Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1921. Atrocious. Not analyzed, since he had neither interest nor pretensions in limiting government. I completely agree with Eland that Wilson was the worst president in U.S. history. All the graphic details are in his book Recarving Rushmore.
(R) Warren Harding, 1921-1923: Good. Everyone hates Harding, but our obsession with his sex life (which is irrelevant) and the minor greed of his underlings (which has been overblown) has completely overshadowed his tremendous impact on a war-ravaged economy, astute foreign policy, and sound liberty record. He returned the nation to peace, and negotiated one of the first multilateral arms limitation agreements (the Washington Naval Conference), aimed at reducing the number of battleships in the world. He put the federal government on a budget for the first time and set the conditions for the economic expansion of the Roaring Twenties. He established the Office of the Budget. He was an early advocate for civil rights, and addressed severe racial tensions fueled by World War I thanks to his racist predecessor Wilson. He supported anti-lynching laws. “Democracy is a lie,” he said, “without political equality for black citizens.” He freed hundreds of political prisoners, repairing the severe wounds wrought by the Espionage and Sedition acts of 1917 and 1918 under Woodrow Wilson which had been among the worst assaults on free speech. Harding does deserve censure for the behavior of his underlings in the Teapot affair, but not to the usual extent. Their bribes had to with venal greed, not the constitutional betrayals of Watergate in the Nixon years and the Iran-Contra scandal under Reagan. If not for the Teapot affair, the bad immigration law that he passed, and the fact that came out in favor of eugenics, he would have been an “excellent” president, not just a “good” one. But he was a damn good one, and the kind we sorely need today.
(R) Calvin Coolidge, 1923-1929: Good. He was called “Silent Cal” for being a man of few words, and proof that being a good president doesn’t depend on charisma or oratory skills. He used restraint in foreign policy and stayed out of unneeded wars. He initiated a strategy of large tax and spending reductions to improve the economy. Harding had reduced the top income tax rate from 71% to 46%, but Coolidge’s three revenue acts in 1924, 1926 and 1928 brought it down to 25%. He continued Harding’s tight fiscal policy which kept the Roaring Twenties booming along, though he also pursued a liberal monetary policy (by expanding its supply) which contributed somewhat to the Great Depression after he left office. Quality of life improved hugely under Coolidge. As production costs declined for businesses and incomes rose for consumers, more people than ever were able to purchase goods that are common in households today — cars, indoor flush toilets, electricity. He is sometimes criticized by historians as a “do-nothing president”, yet it was precisely by making sure the government did less that Coolidge left room for citizens to do more. In this period, the rich, while paying at a lower rate, also paid a greater share of the income tax than they had under the higher rates. The middle class also prospered. He vocally opposed racism and supported anti-lynching legislation which led to the decline of the second KKK. He favored laws which limited the number of hours children could work. On whole, he was a very good president, and like Harding the kind we need in the 21st century.
- Critical to note here is that the Harding-Coolidge period was one of the few times in Republican presidential history that the GOP presidents matched their limited government rhetoric with actual deeds. (p 7) The result was Roaring Twenties prosperity, peace at home, and the American citizens (primarily white males, at this time) enjoying liberties that had been crushed under Wilson. In clueless irony, Ronald Reagan put a photo of Coolidge in the Oval Office. Eland skewers him for it: “Reagan was certainly no match for either Harding or Coolidge in creating a favorable presidential model for those appreciating limited government in all aspects. If conservatives want a model for the presidency, it should be these two traditional conservatives, not a big-government conservative like Reagan who waged war (overtly and covertly) and ballooned budget deficits by cutting taxes while increasing government spending, and dangerously expanded executive power by unconstitutionally funding a secret war against a congressional prohibition.” (p 51)
(R) Herbert Hoover, 1929-1933: Poor. Eland rates Hoover as poor, not bad, and what saves him from the bottom category is his foreign policy record, which is the best of any president in the 20th and 21st centuries. He restricted U.S. military intervention abroad, brought American troops home, and reached an agreement with other nations to limit the building of warships. It’s worth noting that Hoover did great things prior to becoming president, most notably the campaign he launched during World War I that was without precedent in the history of warfare: a large-scale humanitarian effort to rescue a country (Belgium) from starvation, long before the U.S. had even entered the war. He created the Committee for the Relief of Belgium, which consumed years of his life, and he succeeded in pressuring diplomats, heads of state, and thousands of American and European citizens to donate and distribute food to starving Belgians. This sheds a certain light on his presidential legacy during the Great Depression. On the one hand he is known as a Nero Caesar (say the liberals) who refused to offer any relief as more and more destitute Americans crowded into shantytowns; on the other he is called (by the conservatives) a government activist who pushed an already demolished economy over the cliff, by taking unprecedented activist measures, such as signing the Smoot-Hawley tariff. That act raised tariffs to their highest level in American history, triggering a worldwide economic retaliation. His liberty record leaves much to be desired, as he violated privacy by ordering the Treasury Department to publish the names of taxpayers who got large tax refunds. Even worse, he zealously enforced Prohibition against the production and sale of alcohol.
- Worth remembering is that prior to the Great Depression, American citizens didn’t expect their government to provide for their economic well being. (They expected their government to provide for their physical safety and freedoms.) Up until this time, the country had gotten along with little governmental interference in the economy; occasional recessions were overcome by allowing the market to naturally restore equilibrium as a matter of course (as Harding did after WWI). Hoover was the first president to try using governmental stimuli to spur the economy, but these Keynesian methods often make matters worse, as it did in this case. Contrary to the liberal wisdom today, Hoover did too much, rather than too little, and Eland is probably right that as a result, it was he who ended up turning a mundane business cycle recession into the Great Depression. (p 54)
(D) Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933-1945: Bad. Not analyzed, since he had neither interest nor pretensions in limiting government. I agree significantly with Eland’s assessment of FDR in Recarving Rushmore.
(D) Harry Truman, 1945-1953: Poor. Not analyzed, since he had neither interest nor pretensions in limiting government. I think Eland is too hard on Truman in Recarving Rushmore, which ranks him as one of the four worst presidents of all time. Truman was bad, but certainly not that bad. On my grading scale he is “poor”.
(R) Dwight Eisenhower, 1953-1961: Good. Thanks to his rigorous fiscal policies, he presided over two whole terms of prosperity and an economy with negligible inflation, which is something no 20th or 21st century president can boast for an eight year stretch. He limited government action abroad in foreign affairs. He realized that the price of winning the Korean War wasn’t worth it and thus ended it, saving many lives on both sides of a strategically unimportant conflict. Unlike Truman before him and the Cold War presidents after him, he did not overstate the Soviet threat. As a military man, he knew what the others did not: that the basis of military power is a thriving economy, which the Soviets never had. On six occasions, he rejected the unanimous opinion of his advisors to go to war: over the Korean armistice negotiations in 1953; Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in 1954; the Quemoy and Matsu islands in the Strait of Formosa in 1955; the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956; the Israeli, British, and French attack on Egypt in 1956; Berlin in 1959; and the downing of the U-2 spy plane in Sovet airspace in 1960. This needs massive underscoring, because presidents, absurdly, seldom get credit for avoiding wars. Eisenhower boasted that under his administration, not a single soldier had been lost, and for a military man that’s doubly impressive. Eisenhower was known for saying, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can.” He warned famously against a military industrial complex (a permanent peacetime military) that would threaten human liberty, and has been proven a prophet. He did, however, rely on a lot of CIA covert action, which set a bad precedent for future Cold War presidents. His liberty record isn’t bad, but is somewhat marred by his refusal to publicly support the 1954 Supreme Court decision which outlawed racial segregation in public schools. He favored slow progress, so as not to provoke riots and lynchings.
- Of all the post-Truman presidents to date, Eisenhower was one of only two presidents (the other being Bill Clinton) to reduce government spending as a proportion of U.S. economic output (called gross domestic product or GDP). He slashed the national debt down from 100% of GDP in 1953 to 60% of GDP in 1960. As Eland notes, this is the way to prosperity, not the federal stimulus plans of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. (p 81) Bailout strategies usually amount to band-aid measures at best, leading to worse results in the long run.
(D) John F. Kennedy, 1961-1963: Poor. Not analyzed, since he had neither interest nor pretensions in limiting government. Eland gives Kennedy a “bad” rating in Recarving Rushmore, but I say “poor”. For all his problems, Kennedy had redeeming moments.
(D) Lyndon Johnson, 1963-1969: Bad. Not analyzed, since he had neither interest nor pretensions in limiting government. I mostly agree with Eland’s assessment of Johnson in Recarving Rushmore.
(R) Richard Nixon, 1969-1974: Poor. Contrary to his Republican image, on the fiscal front Nixon was a flaming liberal — the last of this kind until Barack Obama. He gave elderly people an increase on social security benefits, and proposed universal medical insurance that provided even stronger coverage than Obama’s later Affordable Health Care Act. He created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the war on cancer, and a federal subsidization of the arts. He forced car makers to reduce emissions under the Clean Air Act, signed the Endangered Species Act, expanded national parks, and endorsed a self-determination plan for the Indian tribes, which changed the course that had driven Indians into poverty. In Eland’s view, these are all bad points, since he thinks they are actions which should be taken by the states rather than the federal government. I disagree and believe that Nixon isn’t as bad as his reputation suggests. But I do think Eland is right that some of Nixon’s federal spending was too unrestrained and ended up contributing to a problematic economy. Nixon’s actual record on foreign policy also runs counter to his war hawk image. Unlike the true Democratic war hawks Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, Nixon was much more dovish in easing tensions with communist powers. His visit to China not only resulted in improved relations with that country, but made the Soviets want friendly and peaceful relations with America. He tried to reduce the costs of the American empire by substituting U.S. assistance to countries battling communism instead of direct intervention with military forces. On the other hand, he should have ended the Vietnam War right away, but spent four years and 22,000 additional American lives (out of the 58,000 total between 1961-75) to get a peace settlement. And he escalated the war in other ways, by bombing Cambodia and supporting a Vietnamese invasion of Laos, each without Congressional approval. To his serious credit, he ended the draft, which had been in place since 1940, thereby removing the stain on a free society that forces people into a dangerous occupation for little pay. He also agreed to destroy U.S. biological and chemical weapons. Nixon’s legacy, of course, is Watergate: spying on his enemies (or perceived enemies) undermined American liberty through the use of illegal tricks, misuse of security agencies, and obstruction of justice in trying to cover up crimes. One of the worst things he did was launch the obscene war on drugs, which criminalizes non-violent addicts (who need help, not jail) while causing violent criminals to go on parole in order to make room in prison for the drug offenders.
(R) Gerald Ford, 1974-1977: Average. Eland rates him poor, but I think Ford is a classic average president. He had commendably restrained foreign policies. He engaged militarily overseas only a few times in minor ways, and for the most part resisted the counsel of his hawkish advisors. He maintained Nixon’s detente policy with China and the Soviet Union, and removed American support from the racist governments of South Africa and Rhodesia. On the downside, he increased defense spending, despite the end of the Vietnam War, and briefly attempted to get America re-involved in helping South Vietnam. He did about as much good as harm in trying to alleviate the bad economy in the war’s aftermath. He created government jobs to help the unemployment problem, arguably for better and worse. He kept most of Nixon’s programs going (for better and worse), but used his veto power to stop the creation of more given the bad economy (which is reasonable). Some of his vetoes were overridden, but on whole they did have the result of the lowest annual spending increases since Eisenhower.
- Perceptions of the Nixon-Ford period are astonishing. Despite the stain of Cambodia (which granted is a heavy strike against Nixon), it was far less hawkish than the Democratic eras of Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson. In terms of foreign policy, Nixon limited the role of government in significant ways, with detente policies and by ending the draft. Ford continued in the way of restraint, and this is to the credit of both men. On the other hand — and again against common perception of him as a Republican — in terms of fiscal policies, Nixon was a big-government liberal, and signed massive amounts of federal legislation which helped the oppressed: the elderly, the Indians, and endangered species. This is also largely to his credit (Eland disagrees), though admittedly Nixon’s spending got out of hand. Nixon was no friend of liberty, however, given the constitutional violation of Watergate and his war on drugs that remains with us today. No one is ever going to call Nixon a good president, but there is enough to earn him a rating of “poor” over “bad”. (If we could strike off either Cambodia or the drug war from his list of faults, and then also Watergate, I would call him “average”, as I do Ford. If we could strike off all three, and then pretend his fiscal spending was only half as libertine as it was, he would have been “good”.)
(D) Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981: Good. Fiscally speaking, Nixon was the last liberal president until Obama, and Carter was the first conservative president since Coolidge. This despite the fact that Nixon has the conservative image, and Carter the liberal one. Carter was a monetary tight-ass in a climate of concern. He promoted individuals taking responsibility for themselves, pushed for reducing the federal deficit, and believed that welfare was bad for the family and work ethic. Ford left him a rather stagnate economy; Carter’s conservative policies led to the prosperity of the Reagan years (not Reagan’s policies, on which see below), and they would set the precedent for later tight-money policies that led to prosperity in the Clinton years. Carter was also the first president to take serious steps in limiting government in foreign policy since Eisenhower. He insisted that America shouldn’t police the globe, showing rare wisdom for a president of the post-World War II era. He avoided war in the Horn of Africa; he refused to support Somali aggression against the Soviets, thus avoiding confrontation with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union; he got Congress to ratify an end to the neocolonial U.S. occupation of the Canal Zone in Panama; he criticized both sides in the Nicaraguan civil war and stopped U.S. aid to the right-wing dictatorship; he scaled back involvement in this region (unlike Reagan who would zealously support a covert war favoring the right-wingers against the left); he finished normalizing relations with China, and terminated the U.S.-Taiwanese defense alliance (unlike George W. Bush who would later recklessly pledge to defend Taiwan from a nuclear attack, thereby putting American cities at risk). On the downside, Carter failed to successfully negotiate for the release of American hostages in Iran, though without negative long-term effects (U.S. policy in Iran was doomed to failure before Carter took office). His biggest blunder was overreacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and allowing his National Security Advisor to initiate the campaign which supported the mujaheddin in both Afghanistan and Pakistan — promoting, in other words, Islamism to fight Communist forces. Reagan would increase support for these jihadists on an insane level, but it began with Carter, and these U.S. funded Islamists would go on to spawn al-Qaeda. On whole, this record is extremely impressive. He also created the Departments of Energy and Education, which are minuses for Eland, but solid pluses for me. For the cause of liberty, he supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which ensured that women were treated equally (though the amendment failed), pardoned those who avoided the draft during Vietnam, spoke out against apartheid in South Africa, and avoided the post-World War II tendency of presidents to support anti-Communist dictatorships that committed human rights violations. Carter was in fact the best president of the 20th and 21st centuries, in my opinion. He gets high scores in all categories pertaining to the limits of governmental power — fiscal management, foreign policy, and liberty.
- Carter’s most important act, as Eland says, was appointing Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve. (p 155) Carter’s advisors warned him that this appointment would cost him the re-election, but Carter courageously did so anyway, saying that he would rather lose it because of Volcker’s tight money policies than carry inflation to the next generation. Carter’s principled stand as a budget-hawk — his priority was lowering inflation, not reducing unemployment — indeed cost him the support of many Democrats, and in this sense he was like the tenth president John Tyler, who had the integrity to oppose his own Whig party which also lost him the second term.
(R) Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989: Bad. Eland’s chapter on Reagan should be required reading for all those who idolize him. Like the Democrats’ hero FDR, Reagan was a charismatic who masked his policies with rhetoric. Rhetoric is what people tend to believe, and so when he talked the talk of small government, his conservative constituency believed him. But his conservative fiscal image is a myth. He was more fiscally liberal than Carter and Clinton, and spent loads, not least on defense and his Star Wars program. He gave the largest tax cut in American history, but his tax cuts were fake since they weren’t accompanied by spending cuts. Tax cuts without spending reductions mean nothing, because either the taxes have to be raised at a later date (which they were), government borrowing has to increase, or the government has to print money to cause inflation. Also, because of bracket creep and inflation, Reagan’s tax reductions ended up benefiting only the rich. The ones responsible for ’80s prosperity were the heads of the Federal Reserve System — Paul Volcker under Carter, and Alan Greenspan under Reagan — who sucked inflation out of the system with tight-ass money policies. Greenspan was appointed by Reagan but didn’t follow his lead; he followed the tight policies of Volcker his predecessor. In foreign affairs Reagan was a complete hawk. He reversed Nixon’s friendly detente policy with the Soviets, with his anti-Soviet policies and massive defense buildup. He raised the specter of nuclear war. The idea that he won the Cold War is another myth. The reason the Soviet empire collapsed was because of its poor economic performance and over-extending itself in other countries. Reagan launched needless and harmful missions elsewhere, sending forces to Lebanon, invading Grenada, and attacking Libya — all without congressional approval. He then went to Grenada in a silly “rescue” of medical students from a supposed Cuban takeover, when there was in fact no viable threat in that region at all. Then he picked the fight with Gaddafi in Libya, creating a new enemy for no good reason. Gaddafi was a tyrant, to be sure, but not nearly as bad as the Islamic jihadists whom Reagan zealously supported so that they would fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Out of that manipulative mess would step a very pissed-off Osama Bin Laden. The Iran-Contra scandal was even worse than Watergate. Reagan sold heavy weapons at high prices to a state sponsor of Islamic terrorism, Iran, in order to ransom hostages held in Lebanon. This was not only criminal but stupid — since it just led to the taking of more hostages — and it also made Reagan a hypocrite since he had said he never negotiated with terrorists. Reagan then used the profits to fund the Contras in Nicaragua in their war against the Marxist Sandinista government. All of this was in criminal violation of the arms embargo against Iran and the Arms Export Control Act, and only Congress can appropriate money for government activities in any case. Reagan usurped Congress’ power of the purse in order to continue a secret war even after he was told by Congress to end it. He escalated the war on drugs even worse than Nixon. The one good thing he did has been swept under the rug by his fans: signing the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to almost 3 million illegal aliens — the largest amnesty ever granted to hard working immigrants who spur economic growth. In sum, Reagan was an incompetent, leftist-hating, war-hungry failure, fiscally irresponsible, with pseudo concerns about liberty. And he was the first of a new dynasty of Republicans that began a long slide to where the GOP is today: in shambles.
- To reiterate, Eland’s chapter on Reagan should be read by all his followers. It debunks all the myths which have enshrined Reagan as a near demigod in the minds of those who think he was actually anything like Harding or Coolidge. Nothing could be further from the truth. The point on taxes needs special underscoring. Harding, Coolidge, and Reagan all cut taxes, but only Harding and Coolidge also cut federal spending, without which tax cuts are meaningless and fraudulent. Of all post-World War II Republican presidents, Reagan ended up having the least annual net tax cuts as a percentage of U.S. economic output (called gross domestic product or GDP). He simply raised taxes in less conspicuous portions of the government revenue stream, giving major tax increases in all but two years of an eight-year presidency. (p 257) I marvel at “conservatives” who make taxes their single-voting issue, but are then very easily duped by sly, unobtrusive tax increases and government spending as a portion of GDP.
(R) George H.W. Bush, 1989-1993: Bad. Because of Reagan’s unruly spending as a percentage of GDP, federal budget deficits ballooned to ungodly levels that would be superseded only under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It was left to the elder Bush to clean up Reagan’s mess, which he didn’t do very well (though to be fair, like Obama who was left with George W.’s mess, it was impossible for him to work wonders overnight), and ended up presiding over the recession of 1990-91. Setting a horrible precedent for both his son and Obama, he approved the largest federal bailout in American history, costing the government $300 billion over ten years. He should have followed the free market approach, at least to a degree, of letting savings and loans banks to go broke and allow the economy to right itself as a matter of course. But the elder Bush’s greatest failure of all was refusing to return America to a policy of military restraint when the opportunity presented itself (as Ford did considerably after Vietnam, and as Carter did especially after him). There was no great power to take the place of the communist threat (when the Berlin Wall fell in ’89 and the Soviet Union dissolved in ’91), yet Bush kept on with aggressive overseas policies. He invaded Panama for little reason, and most reprehensibly went to war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, worried that Saddam might invade Saudi Arabia (and threaten the oil supply), even though there was no evidence indicating Saddam had such designs. After the Gulf War, he left behind an unneeded military presence in the Persian Gulf, which infuriated Osama Bin Laden on his return home to Saudi Arabia after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. We are still today reaping the consequences of Bush’s pointless excursions in the Middle-East.
- Eland astutely observes that while the elder Bush had the reputation for being a wimp, he was actually even more aggressive in using the military than Reagan and landed consequences more calamitous. His war against Iraq was an overnight success, but a long-term disaster: it led to a permanent U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, a jihad campaign against America by Osama bin Laden, a second (and even more outrageous) war in Iraq by Bush’s son, and the resulting creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq which morphed into the even worse Islamic State. “Historians always give presidents credit for winning wars but never ask if the conflicts could have been avoided, or whether a long line of horrible consequences is worth the mesmerizing short-term military triumph.” (p 242)
(D) Bill Clinton, 1993-2001: Average. Clinton is one of two Democrats in the 20th and 21st centuries (the other being Carter) who aimed for small government, and he delivered on this better than any Republicans save Harding and Coolidge. He even beat Eisenhower in this regard. He cut per capita federal spending, and turned a budget deficit from the Reagan/Bush era into surplus. If this trend of budget surpluses had continued, all national debt would have been liquidated by 2013; but the Bush and Obama administrations killed this streak with their nation-building wars in the Middle-East. Like Harding (continued by Coolidge) and Eisenhower, Clinton spurred a decade of economic growth with a policy of governmental austerity, which confounded the Keynesian advocates. Keynesian strategies of governmental spending (used later by Bush and Obama) are always artificial and yield short-term prosperity at best. Clinton worked with Republicans to curb welfare and converted a permanent underclass into temporary aid recipients who had to work while getting assistance. He expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, which lowered taxes for people just above poverty line which encouraged them to keep working instead of going on welfare. Unemployment was the lowest in thirty years. He created AmeriCorps, a domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps involving young people in community service across the nation. For all of this, Clinton would be classified a “good” or even “excellent” president, but his record on foreign policy was a mixed bag. He usually kept military efforts under control and was reluctant to use ground troops after the deaths of American soldiers in Somalia. (The case of Somalia was probably the one legitimately humanitarian U.S. military intervention in the last century, so Clinton can actually be forgiven for that endeavor.) He needlessly intervened in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Haiti. He got lucky with North Korea, when he threatened war against Kim Il Sung, and former president Jimmy Carter had to smooth things over and get Kim to freeze his nuclear program. He pounded al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and Sudan, taking steps to kill Osama Bin Laden but not persisting enough, though certainly doing more than George W. Bush later did. His liberty record wasn’t always the best. He wanted to lift the ban on gays in the military, but had to compromise with the silly “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prevented the military from rooting out gays but required gays to stay in the closet. Worse was his signing the Defense of Marriage Act, which stalled progress on gay marriage.
- Clinton defies easy categorization because he was excellent in some ways, okay in other ways, and leaving much to be desired in still others. He could be astonishingly ass-backwards, for example in his scheme to give the tobacco industry some immunity from class action lawsuits in exchange for more strict anti-smoking regulation. Smoking is an individual decision (though a stupid one), and thus the government should minimize regulating it. Tobacco companies, on the other hand, are businesses which should face liability for damage their product does to people. But for his small-government reign of prosperity, he deserves the immense credit that Eland gives him.
(R) George W. Bush, 2001-2009: Atrocious. During his 2000 campaign, the younger Bush claimed to be for small government by — wait for it — criticizing Clinton’s nation-building wars. His own wars ended up making Clinton look like a pacifist. Bush invaded Iraq for no legitimate reason at all, and bogged America down in a new Vietnam. Scholars are in wide agreement that the Iraq War was one of the hugest foreign policy disasters in U.S. history. Not only was it a distraction from the critical task of focusing on the 9/11 attackers, it was based purely on Bush’s need to settle old family scores with Saddam, and justified by manufactured evidence. He demanded that his advisors come up with proof that Saddam and al Qaeda were linked in cause, and that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — neither of which was remotely true — and when they couldn’t, he sent them back to the drawing board, saying “Wrong answer.” The biggest anti-war protests in history broke out across the globe. Eland’s indictment of George W. is a zinger: “If Bush had been president when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the U.S., he probably would have gone to war against Argentina instead of Japan or Germany.” By removing Saddam, moreover, Bush empowered Islamists and jihadists to fill the power void, who are far worse than Saddam. (In Saddam’s Iraq you were at least mostly safe if you stayed out of politics and played by Saddam’s rules.) As for his economic and spending policies, they were hideous (opposite those of Clinton) and the cause of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Like Reagan he gave fake tax cuts while letting federal spending spiral out of control. He used the 9/11 attacks to dramatically escalate the defense budget, and most of this money didn’t even go towards fighting terrorism. On top of that, he used a bailout which made the economy even worse in the longer run. His liberty record is downright obscene. He tried expanding the powers of the presidency in the mold of Caesar presidents like Lincoln, McKinley, Wilson, and Truman. He (and Dick Cheney) disdained Congressional checks on his authority, believing that as war commander in chief he was not subject to the constraints of the Constitution’s separation of powers. Like Lincoln (and no other president), Bush claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer. Also like Lincoln, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. According to the Constitution only Congress can suspend this right, and only in times of invasion or rebellion. For the first time in U.S. history, Bush declared that the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war don’t apply to terror suspects, and it took years for the Supreme Court to overrule him on this. Most notoriously, he and Cheney sanctioned the use of torture in overseas detention centers. Meanwhile on the domestic front, Bush signed three bills that restricted abortions. He was an atrocious president in every way, and in my opinion the second worst in U.S. history after Woodrow Wilson.
(D) Barack Obama, 2009-2017: Bad. As one of the six Democrats who had neither interest nor pretensions to small government, Obama is not analyzed in Eleven Presidents. I am going to cover him anyway, because he was so close to George W. Bush in many of the relevant policies, that it’s instructive to see how the Democratic and Republican parties have become virtually indistinguishable in the 21st century. People loved Obama because he was a charismatic, but his actual policies were very bad. In Recarving Rushmore, Eland rightly calls him a barely improved version of George W. Bush in matters of foreign affairs. Both presidents attacked countries for no good reason, escalated needless wars, and got vast numbers of American soldiers and indigenous peoples killed for little gain. Like Bush, Obama waged these wars under the illusion that America could bring democracy to the Middle East by removing dictators and encouraging their opponents to work for elections and peaceful change. Bush thought this in toppling Saddam, and Obama thought it when he helped bring down Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Libya. The result was anarchy in Libya, instability in Egypt, and the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups who are much worse than the supplanted dictators. Obama was even worse than Bush on the subject of Islamism, for he ordered the removal of all mention of Islam from counter-terror training, and refused to allow high-ranking law enforcement and intelligence officials to study the religious ideology of the terrorists, which is necessary to understand and counter them. He also expanded, rather than reduced, Bush’s 9/11 drone wars, ramping them up in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. On the plus side he succeeded in killing Osama Bin Laden, but what he should have done at that point was declare the war on terror over, end the drone wars, and return America to a long-overdue policy of restraint. Obama did none of these things. He deserves credit, however, for resisting strong pressures from American war hawks, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to pursue aggressive policies with Iran and Syria. The Affordable Health Care Act was his huge positive achievement (Eland disagrees), and it goes some way in redressing Obama’s complete failure over two terms to address the plight of the middle class, for which reason Donald Trump was elected. His stimulus package was a mixed bag. On the one hand, it was a fiscal monster like all Keynesian packages, but it did reduce unemployment in the short term. Basically Obama was stuck with cleaning up Dubya’s fiscal mess, like the elder Bush had to do after Reagan; a torpedoed economy can’t be cured overnight. Obama’s liberty record isn’t good. He continued Bush’s policies of indefinite detentions without trial, and watered-down kangaroo military commissions. He was just as bad as Bush in killing people overseas without Congressional approval of hostilities, and in using domestic surveillance of American citizens without warrants. He deserves credit, however, for stopping the use of torture and overseas detention centers run by the CIA. He also got the military to stop the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, just as he ordered Justice Department lawyers to stop supporting the Defense of Marriage Act in courts, both of which had treated gays as second-class citizens. On the other hand, he did nothing against the drug war, which is beyond reprehensible for an African American president, especially given the increased demands at this time for legalization.
- In sum, the presidencies of Bush and Obama show a dire need for chief executives in the mold of Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower, Carter, and (the fiscal, not foreign policy) Clinton. If we’re ever again going to enjoy eras of prosperity at home, peace with our neighbors abroad, and a climate where individual liberties and freedoms are valued, then these five presidents who severely limited government should be our inspiration. We now have Donald Trump, who believes the government should serve his every narcissistic whim. He may yet do the impossible — by supplanting Woodrow Wilson as the worst president of all time. Let’s hope there’s even a mess left to clean up.