Feb 22 2011

Ten Influential Presidents

Happy President’s Day. Some of you have a day off and you are not quite sure why. I know why I have the day off — 9 percent unemployment. On a personal note, things are looking up for me. But that’s not today’s point.

This is a subjective list of the ten most influential presidents in US history. To be clear, a president doesn’t have to be a good person to be influential. Indeed, some presidents on this list will make the liberal blood boil. So be it. A measure of influence is how much we feel the effects of the administration.

Read on. You might learn something.

1. George Washington

Sure, it’s a bit of a cop out to list George at the top of a list like this.Consider this, though. The constitution is extremely vague on exactly what the president has the power to do. Washington shaped the presidency and set important precedents. While the Constitution allows the president to form a cabinet, it does not specify the secretaries. Washington appointed Secretaries of State (Thomas Jefferson), War (Henry Knox) and Treasury (Alexander Hamilton) as well as an attorney general (Edmund Jennings Randolph). We still have all of those positions, though Secretary of War is now Secretary of Defense.

Moreover, Washington exercised restraint in wielding power, largely allowing Congress to take the lead on most matters — a precedent that most presidents followed through the about the 1930s.

In the simplest terms, Washington had a chance to shape the presidency and fail miserably. Had he failed, the Constitution itself may have failed. The Constitution was the second attempt at a frame of government and one has to wonder if the early Americans would have tolerated a third attempt before breaking into 13 separate countries.

Washington also declined a third term, informally setting American precedent for presidents to only serve two terms.

2. Abraham Lincoln

Again, this is a huge cop out. Indeed, any course of action Lincoln had taken would have had effects lasting decades and perhaps centuries. The Civil War produced deep social, regional and racial divisions that the country still faces today. Had Mr. Lincoln not fought or had he lost the war, “America” might mean anything north of the Potomac and Ohio Rivers.

Even with the actual outcome, a significant number of right-wingers still yearn for the days of the old Confederacy and this forms the basis for 10thers, secessionist, and even lingering racism. Nixon and Reagan exploited these divisions with their “southern strategy” and this even affected the Democratic Party, which for decades thought they could only win the presidency with a Southern governor.

3. Chester A. Arthur

Finally, an obscure president with a legacy that long outlived him.

Arthur was appointed to Collector of the Port of New York in 1872 by Ulysses S. Grant and later removed by Rutherford B. Hayes. This was a political appointment and a potentially very personally lucrative position. This  spoils system has been a key part of politics since the beginnings of government, but entered the popular imagination with the election of Andrew Jackson. Jackson quite openly advocated rewarding his supporters with cushy government jobs ripe for corruption.

Arthur campaigned hard for the vice presidential nomination with James Garfield in 1880. Garfield was not particularly thrilled with his running mate. Indeed, after the election, there is evidence that Garfield would not allow his vice president in his home. At the time, the Republican party was caught up in the debate between spoils/cronyism/Stalwarts and civil service.

An assassin, extreme Stalwart Charles J. Guiteau, elevated Arthur to the presidency. His party lost seats in Congress to the Democrats in 1882, partly over the Stalwarts-civil service debates (and you thought it was a new thing that the GOP doled out favors to their campaign donors). Arthur signed the Democrat’s  Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, an early attempt to replace political appointments with merit hiring and promotion.

So the next time you take a civil service exam or apply for a government job, remember that it is better than the way we used to do it.

4. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Another obvious choice here. FDR gave us pulled us out of the Depression, created the social safety net, and led the nation most of the way through World War II. He also gave us Keynesian economics. Indeed, there is a reason why the “drown government in the bathtub” crowd hates FDR.

The Depression, WWII and social security should be enough of a legacy, but  Keynesian economics  deserves a brief discussion. In the briefest and most simplistic terms, Keynes argued for some government spending to addressed market “failures” — that is meeting public needs that the private sector cannot or will not meet. During recessions, Keynes suggests stimulus spending until the economy recovers. The right wing may not realize it, but when they argue for less spending, they are really arguing that the private market would better supply things like higher education, roads and bridges, space exploration, green energy research and development, and possibly national and homeland security.

Indeed, if you look at the stimulus spending, much of it is on critical infrastructure projects that one really would not the private market to provide. FDR gave us new state and national parks through CCC. Ike gave us the interstate highway system. Obama is fixing the roads.

Arguably, recessions are great news for infrastructure.

5. Ronald Reagan-George HW Bush

I think of this as one long administration since the two men had similar conservative policies and similar levels of cluelessness.

Click on this link then come back.

Reagan and Bush presided over the end of the Cold War. The very important right-wing pundits and even a lot of historians like to attribute the end of the Cold War to the increased defense spending and the build up of the nuclear stockpile. The argument goes that the free market could afford the build-up while the command economy could not. That’s a fine argument and has some merit, but it overlooks the Soviet war against  Afghanistan. Where Vietnam arguably made the United States stronger, Afghanistan hastened the demise of the USSR. And all for the price of a few surface-to-air missiles.

And then, just when it looked like the United States could cut the military, Bush got the country into Iraq for the first time. For an alternative take on the war, check out  this 22 minute video. With the costs of the second Iraq war, we will be feeling the effects here for a long time to come.

On the home front, Reagan ignored the scourge of AIDS for years. What did he care? It wasn’t his constituency dying. Mrs. Reagan rekindled the bogus war on drugs, which sent numerous young men and women — many of them black and Latino — to prison for long sentences. Mourning in America.

6. Lyndon B. Johnson

Here is a president who could have been ranked as one of the “great” presidents and perhaps even overshadowed his more famous predecessor, John F. Kennedy.

On the positive side, Johnson declared war on poverty and signed the  Civil Rights Act  and the  Voting Rights Act. These acts finally fulfilled the promises of Lincoln. Obviously, laws don’t kill racism. That takes a changes in hearts and minds. What laws can do is take a step toward erase institutionalized racism. LBJ used his overwhelming presence and Legislative experience to get these laws passed over the objections of the Dixie-crats and in the process, “lost the South for a Generation.”

On the negative side, Johnson was itching for a fight with the Reds. Vietnam seemed like a fight that would not get us nuked. He lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident just as surely as George W. Bush lied about WMDs and got us into the fight. The war would kill 58,000 Americans, physically and mentally damage many more, kill untold millions of Vietnamese and Cambodian citizens and fundamentally change the country.

7. James Monroe

The Doctrine  is In!

On one hand, the Monroe Doctrine was incredible. It warned Europe not to colonize the Americas. Indeed, other than French Guiana and a few small islands, Europe has been out of the Western Hemisphere since the early 19th century.

On the other hand, the doctrine has been a convenient excuse for  dozens of American “interventions” in Latin America. You won’t learn about most of these events in high school history. They have not been the country’s proudest moments. Of course, some positives like the Panama Canal have come from US hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. But for every canal, there are dozens of low points like the 1954 coup in Guatemala and the 1973 coup in Chile.

8. Harry S. Truman

Truman is an under-appreciated president for several reasons. First, he dropped The Bomb. The Soviets were both intrigued and frightened and arguably this accelerated the nuclear arms race by decades. Arguably, had he not demonstrated the power of the bomb, the Soviets may not have taken the idea seriously.

Second he desegregated the military, setting the precedent for eliminating Jim Crow.

Third he rebuilt Europe via the  Marshall Plan . Without the Marshall Plan, Western Europe may have been seduced by the command economy and subsequent political repression that Moscow offered. The Marshall plan also served as the groundwork for a number of  regional treaties  that later became the European Union.

Finally, he got the country into the Korean War, setting the policy of containment of communism by force if necessary. The United States still maintains a military presence on the peninsula, costing the country millions of dollars a year. If North Korea invades again before the regime falls apart, Truman could rocket up this list.

9. Richard Nixon

The president we love to hate.

Between the Pentagon Papers affair and the Watergate scandal, Nixon managed to destroy public trust in the government. Nixon was paranoid in the extreme. Perhaps he would have been less paranoid had Dwight Eisenhower not doomed Nixon’s 1960 run at the presidency  with the quip, “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.” A healthy does of skepticism in government is good for democracy. A complete lack of trust is dangerous. (see: Obama’s birth certificate.)

There’s also the old Vulcan proverb, “Only Nixon could go to China.” Nixon’s visit to China opened trade with China, for better or worse — usually worse when you can easily get articles on how to outsource your business operations to China. However, China has also been a key partner in reigning in North Korea’s more egregious sabre rattling.

However, Nixon also gave us Medicare and the  Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA. For these things, he was a dirty, dirty hippie and possibly a rotten socialist in addition to being a prick.

And there was also Nixon’s profound influence on Hunter S. Thompson, FWIW.

10. Barack Obama

President Obama could either solidify his position on such a list or drop off entirely. Since a list of influential presidents necessarily requires hindsight, this is a very preliminary ranking and requires some speculation.

Obama broke the race barrier in the presidency as surely as Kennedy broke the religion barrier and Hillary Clinton could have broken the gender barrier. Of course, we have yet to have another Catholic president or any female presidents. But these three people have proven that one does not have to be a white, male Protestant to be president.

Obama’s other legacy will be the health insurance reform. The actual reform is not the critical part. Certainly making sure poor people can see a doctor is important, but the debate revealed the very real wealth divide in the United States. People have been going bankrupt over illnesses for decades, but the health care debate put that reality squarely on the national agenda. One has to wonder if the super-wealthy will be shamed into actually letting some of that wealth trickle down or if we really are heading for a class war. Remember, it’s only class warfare when we fight back.

And that doesn’t even include any future initiatives a second-term Obama could make.

Honorable mentions:

Teddy Roosevelt: National Parks, creating the bully pulpit

Woodrow Wilson: Perfecting the bully pulpit, giving the state of the union as a speech rather than a report

John F. Kennedy: Bringing the presidency to television, inspiring a nation

James Madison: Saving the country from re-colonization, writing many of the Federalist Papers long before his inauguration

George W. Bush: Running the debt to unsustainable levels, destroying American standing in the world

That’s my list. Your thoughts?


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  1. Casual Wednesday


  2. TMC

    to include Obama. Yes, he broke a really important barrier but at what cost? The health care bill has more holes than a sieve and is a major give away to the health care insurance and pharmaceutical industries. There are some pieces that are good but those could have been easily passed without the back-room deals Obama swore he would not do. I am incredibly “miffed” at his selling out women.

    Don’t let me get started on the justice Department, the rule of law, wars and war crimes. My strong opposition to war crimes, torture and the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are pretty well known.  Washington’s stand on torture and the the decent treatment of those captured on the battlefield were well know.

    As too the economy, Obama is just more of the same, piled higher and deeper. No change. This country is so screwed and I can say that as someone in the top top 1%.

    I would have been more inclined to include Madison for the reasons you stated.

    I also have a great admiration for Jefferson and Jon Adams, especially Adams.

    For their great negative effect on democracy and our economy Reagan or GWB because they were just that bad.

    Maybe there should be a “best” and “worst” list?

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