Remarkable US Presidents

For the last 223 years, the United States Constitution has been the supreme law of the land, and according to Article II of the Constitution, the President is to be elected by a vote of the Electoral College to a term of four years. Since the ratification of the document in 1788, 43 different men have been elected to this high office, and all have made one impact on shaping our nation or another. George Washington set the standard of holding no more than two terms, a trend that was only broken when Franklin Roosevelt was elected four consecutive times during the Great Depression and World War II. One president, Grover Cleveland, lost his bid for a second term, but then ran again four years later and won another non consecutive term, the only president to do so. The individual state legislatures appoint a slate of electors equal in number to their senators and representatives, and the legislatures have all chosen that the electors will be appointed through popular vote. Also, the District of Columbia is granted three electors.

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president was elected in 1860 and was inaugurated on March 4, 1861. His election was contentious and the country’s major party, the Democratic Party, was split with three candidates running. This led to Abraham Lincoln winning the election by 28 votes, and subsequently, seven southern states voted to secede from the Union before the inauguration. The focus of Lincoln’s presidency was the restoration of the Union. He did not feel that the states had a constitutional right to secede and he viewed the Confederate States of America as prodigal sons and his job to bring them home again. Revisionist historians have described Lincoln as a vastly popular, highly honest president whose reason for becoming elected was to remove the scourge of slavery from the face of our nation. In fact, he was derided by his contemporaries as a “country bumpkin” who was unable to win an honest election (the election of 1864 was very much in doubt as well), and he stated himself that freeing slaves would only be used as a strategic tool in the war. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862 freeing slaves in the Confederate States only (no slaves were freed in the non-rebellious slave states, Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, or the District of Columbia) thereby hoping to incite a slave rebellion in the Confederacy and further assist the Union army. On April 9, 1865, Robert Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant effectively ending the Civil War and Lincoln then started to initiate his plans for reconstruction following his belief of “malice towards none; charity for all; and firmness in the right”. However, on April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot and died the next day, leaving reconstruction attempts to his former vice president Andrew Johnson. It would be another ten years before the states were fully restored to the union.

In 1960, a young senator from Massachusetts, John F Kennedy was elected against a popular vice president, Richard Nixon. Despite accusations of voter fraud in Texas and Chicago, Illinois, Kennedy carried both states and was elected 303-219 thereby becoming the youngest person elected president. Kennedy faced a number of problems during his administration, namely related to the cold war with the Soviet Union. Relations had turned cold after a U2 spy plane was shot down over the USSR during the Eisenhower administration, and Premier Khrushchev thought Kennedy to be a weak president. Kennedy acted on a plan by the CIA to use Cuban insurgents to overthrow the government of that country by invading the Bay of Pigs. When this failed, Kennedy personally took the blame for the failure but this event cooled relations between the US and Cuba. In 1962 the US discovered ballistic missile sites being constructed in Cuba and Kennedy decided to blockade the island until the USSR chose to dismantle the sites if the US promised not to invade Cuba. This was the closest the world has come to nuclear war. A strong supporter of civil rights, Kennedy vigorously enforced integration demanded by the Supreme Court. In 1962, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, brother of the president, sent US Marshals to help integrate the University of Mississippi, and John F Kennedy federalized 3000 National Guard troops to assist.

While on a campaign tour of Texas in 1963, the president was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald who was then killed by Jack Ruby a couple of days later. Lyndon B Johnson became the 36th President of the United States.

Riding the anti-establishment backlash following the Watergate Scandal and resignation of Richard Nixon, in 1976 political outsider Jimmy Carter was elected over President Ford 297-240 in the closest election since 1916. Carter presided over the worst recession since the Great Depression and was unable to restore confidence in the American economy. He encouraged energy conservation going so far as to install solar panels on the White House roof and turning down the heat in the building. His foreign policy produced mixed results, he opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics in the process, and he poorly handled the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the subsequent capture of the US Embassy staff which contributed to his loss in 1980. Despite this, Jimmy Carter was able to reduce strategic nuclear arms with the SALT II treaty, and his most lasting foreign policy success was the Camp David Accords in 1978 leading to peace and mutual recognition between the nations of Israel and Egypt, a situation that exists to this day. Due to the severe recession and the Iran Hostage Crisis Carter faced heavy opposition for the 1980 election, both within his party and in the general election. He lost the election to Ronald Reagan 489-49, and after Reagan was inaugurated, on the same day, the hostages were released from Iran.

Ronald Wilson Reagan was 71 years old when inaugurated president, becoming the oldest president at inauguration. His terms in office were focused on restoring the economy and on returning America to its position as the world’s premier superpower. Economically, he drastically reduced taxes and simplified the tax code to stimulate growth. He also pushed through sweeping industrial deregulation and broke the will of governmental unions, mainly the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). The economic philosophy he believed in was best summed up in his first inaugural address where he said “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” The dramatic and lasting recovery from the recession of the 1970s is a testament to the validity of this solution.

Two months into his first term, Reagan was critically injured in an assassination attempt in DC but fully recovered, becoming the first serving US President to survive being shot. Support for the president blossomed following this event, and after his recovery was rated to be around 73%.

In 1983, Regan invaded Grenada in response to a coup d’état and the US decisively defeated the Marxist government and remained until a new government was popularly elected. This was the first major military operation since the Vietnam War and the victory restored American pride and confidence.

In 1984, Reagan ran against Walter Mondale and due to his strong showing in the debates, the general good mood of the nation as well as his overall high approval ratings, he won 525-13, the widest margin since FDR won 523-8 in 1936. He used this popularity to further increase defense spending and to further reform the tax code.

Reagan was one of the few people in government to recognize how fragile both the government and the economy of the Soviet Union were, and he worked to exploit that weakness. He pushed for a massive buildup of the armed forces and defensive programs knowing that the USSR would break their economy to keep up. He also lobbied for increase social reforms within the Eastern Bloc, especially in Poland and also supporting the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan also aided any anti-government movement in a Communist country. Ronald Reagan left office in 1989 after serving two terms and his vice president, George Bush was elected president, being the first sitting vice president since Martin Van Buren was elected President in 1836. He was also the first president since 1840 to survive the office while winning in a year ending with zero.

In 2000, the son of former George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush ran against Albert Gore and won 271-266 following accusations of voter irregularity and confusing ballots in Florida. The Supreme Court ruled that the slate of popular votes in Florida could not be recounted in time and therefore the certified results should hold. George Bush presided over the first foreign attack on American soil since 1815 during the War of 1812. After the terrorist attack against the US, Bush sent troops against the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq toppling both governments and disturbing the terror networks situated there. He also prevented a significant economic downturn by cutting taxes; however he did increase legislation and greatly increased the size of the federal government.

In 2008 Barack Obama was elected president, the first sitting senator since Kennedy in 1960, when he defeated John McCain 365-173. He is presiding over what has become the worst recession since the Great Depression, and in response he signed legislation to stimulate the economy by increasing Federal spending by a margin greater than the previous 43 presidents combined. He is working on ending the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan by withdrawing troops. He also signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known in the press as Obamacare, which if is fully implemented will nationalize one sixth of the economy.

The legacy of Barack Obama is a work in progress and only history will tell if he is a success or failure, but he is one of only 44 people to have had the honor to be the President of the United States. The various people to hold that high office have viewed the position in different ways, they have had different backgrounds, and different goals, but they all have had the chance to lead our nation as well as their party.