Thursday, July 26, 2007
George W. Bush: The Worst President in US History?
Of US presidents, influential progressive historian William Appleman Williams is reputed to have said, “it is not by rhetoric alone, but by their ability to recognize and resolve the central problems of their times that one should judge presidents.”
In judging who are the best or worst presidents, we should look at what they saw as the central problems of their times, what they did about those problems and whether or not their actions really contributed to a positive resolution of those problems. Whether or not the presidents were popular or won or lost great political battles is really beside the point. Whether their policies were “successful” in that they were implemented in terms of what they wanted to achieve is not the issue.
The content and positive effects of their policies in regard to real life are the basis on which they should be judged. Andrew Jackson, for example, was an enormously popular and influential president. He established the Democratic Party, the oldest ongoing political party in the world, popularized the concept of “democracy” which he linked to US nationalism, and appealed to the “common man” against the “wealthy and powerful.”
At the same time, he was a slaveholder whose policies advanced the interests of the slaveholder class. Following his early career as a military leader that led massacres and displacement of thousands of Native Americans, Jackson also implemented the “Indian removal” policy, that is forced the exile of whole nations of Native peoples to the “Indian territory” or national ghetto of Oklahoma.
Many historians, including myself, regard these actions and policies as genocidal. Jackson failed to recognize or in any way contribute to a resolution of the central problems of his times: the contradiction between the twin horrors of chattel slavery and racist, expansionist Manifest Destiny and “democracy” and “human rights,” which his supporters claimed to champion against “property rights.”
In fact, his policies made everything far worse and set the stage eventually for the Civil War. His successor and protégé, the slaveholder President James K. Polk, completed the “mission” of “Manifest Destiny” by launching a war of aggression against Mexico, annexed Texas and conquered the Mexican Northwest, including the “jewel in the crown” of Manifest Destiny, California. Jacksonian pro-slavery politics led to the Fugitive Slave Law (1850) and the repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) which limited the growth of slavery, violent clashes between pro- and anti-slavery armed groups in Kansas, and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (1857), which eliminated all restrictions on the slaveholders’ power and rejected any restrictions on slavery as an institution.
Many historians previously considered James Buchanan, the president who continued the Jackson-Polk policies in an inept and disastrous manner, to be the worst president in US history. Buchanan actively assisted the pro-slavery forces in their attempt to use terrorist violence against anti-slavery forces in the Kansas territory. But his policies failed to quell anti-slavery opposition, however, as the abolitionist John Brown and others led anti-slavery fighters into the territory and abolitionists raised funds to provide arms for these fighters. In Kansas, the Free State settlers prevailed. Buchanan also supported the Dred Scott decision, which alienated even those Northern Democrats who had supported the elimination of the restrictions on slavery in the territories in the name of “popular sovereignty.” In a twist on the Jacksonian definition of “democracy,” Northern Democrats favored allowing settlers, not the courts, to vote in “free elections” on whether to allow slavery in their state.
The anti-slavery pro-expansion Republican Party mobilized successfully against the Dred Scott decision and the other abuses of the slaveholders and won the 1858 Congressional elections. Buchanan did not stand for re-election in 1860. And in an atmosphere heated by John Brown’s failed attempt to launch an anti-slavery guerrilla war, the Democratic Party split into two factions – a Southern pro-slavery faction led by Buchanan’s Vice President John Breckenridge, which completely supported Dred Scott and all other pro-slaveholder policies, and a Northern faction, led by Stephen Douglas, which sought to continue the “coexistence” with the slaveholders under the banners of the Jackson-Polk definitions of democracy.
With both Breckenridge and Douglas running for president, anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln won the election, which then led directly to the secession of 11 of the 14 slave states. Aside from this record of supporting the slave power and inciting violence, most historians, including those ambivalent toward the abolitionists and not sympathetic to the left, have long considered Buchanan the worst president in US history. Buchanan earned this dubious honor because, in the period of the transition to the Lincoln presidency between November 1860 to March 1861, he did absolutely nothing to seek a solution to the secession crisis, leaving the crisis to Lincoln, whose anti-slavery ideas and policies Buchanan of course despised. For this reason, Buchanan shoots to the top of the list of worst presidents. So the big historical question of our times is, is Bush worse than Buchanan?
There may be a few other contenders, using William Appleman Williams’ criteria. One is Calvin Coolidge, who won a huge victory in the 1924 presidential election after succeeding the deceased and scandal-ridden Warren G. Harding the year before. Coolidge had managed to avoid the great corruption scandals of the Harding administration. Coolidge triumphed over a divided and largely conservative Democratic Party and the Progressive Party, whose candidate, Senator Robert La Follette, achieved an impressive five million votes. As president, Coolidge pursued an aggressive policy of tax reduction, privatization of public assets and, as far as he could, deregulation of industry.
Coolidge failed to eliminate the Federal Trade Commission and even accepted the establishment of a Federal Communications Commission, but appointed individuals who saw their “mission” as protecting business from government, not enforcing laws against business abuses. Coolidge did not stand for re-election in 1928, but his policies contributed directly to the severity of the Great Depression. His successor, Herbert Hoover, became a prisoner of those policies as mass unemployment reached a peak of 25 percent by Hoover’s own administration’s statistics (38 percent by labor movement statistics). Millions lost their savings in a collapsing unregulated stock market where senior citizens, in a society with no Social Security, had been encouraged to invest in mutual funds as retirement annuities.
A lightly regulated banking system that allowed banks to invest recklessly in the stock market with uninsured depositors’ funds collapsed, evaporating billions in savings as well. The “popular” Coolidge died in 1933, and the enormously unpopular Hoover was crushed by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election. Although Hoover has his apologists among historians, both he and Coolidge failed to recognize the “central problems” confronting US capitalism in the 1920’s. Huge income disparities between rural and urban areas, among workers generally, the lack of any federal labor and social welfare protections for the working class, along with unrestrained speculative activities in the stock market and by the banks permitted by Coolidge’s deregulation worsened the Depression. For these reasons, Coolidge and Hoover are also contenders for the worst president in US history.
But I would put them on the list behind Buchanan. Another contender is Ronald Reagan. Upon his election, Reagan put Calvin Coolidge’s picture in the Oval Office and revived many of the Coolidge domestic policies of the 1920’s. He connected those policies with a revival of the cold war, after “détente” and strategic arms limitation treaties had tempered hostilities with the Soviet Union in the 1970’s.
(illustration by Chogrin) Ronald Reagan was, like Jackson and Coolidge, enormously popular. His policies were “successful” in that they devastated the labor movement, increased massively through unprecedented tax reductions the wealth of corporations and the rich (including domestic creditors who profited from the quadrupling of the national debt) and advanced counter-revolution by arming and aiding “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. At the federal level, Reagan rewrote formulas that passed much of the burden of supporting social services including education onto the states and communities. He froze the minimum wage. Reagan managed to revive Coolidge’s concept of “trickle down” economics, which had been seen as absurd in the 1930’s. The tripling of military expenditures interacted with the huge tax cuts to create the quadrupling of the federal debt. Like Andrew Jackson in the 1830’s, Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s had an enormous effect on US national policy, and his legacy is still very much with us, as Jackson’s legacy was with James Buchanan in the 1850. Did Reagan “recognize” and contribute to a resolution of the central problems of his times? If one is an ideologue of the ultra-right or wealthy beneficiary of Reagan’s policies, the answer is yes. If one is anything else, the answer would be a resounding no. The stagnation of real wages and real living standards has been a part of the Reagan “legacy.”
The expansion of poverty and the “revival” of mass homelessness, ended in a general sense by the New Deal policies, is part of that legacy. Right-wing conservatives would say that the destruction of the Soviet Union is Reagan’s “greatest achievement.” Like many others, I would contend that internal policies of the Soviet Union acted to destroy both the socialist system and the Soviet Union itself, rather than Reagan’s unprecedented military buildup and rhetorical and real provocations.
And the destruction of the Soviet Union has had disastrous consequences for the whole world, intensifying the worst imperialist policies, encouraging US and NATO military interventionism and strengthening reactionary forces everywhere. Like Andrew Jackson and his late life hero, Calvin Coolidge, Ronald Reagan, despite his great popularity, deserves to be on the short list of the worst presidents in US history, with Jackson, Polk and Coolidge, but still behind James Buchanan. Which gets us to George W. Bush. Bush is a president who combines the destructive policies of Jackson, Polk, Coolidge and Reagan, who from any perspective made the “central problems” of their times worse, with the ineptitude of Buchanan and Hoover, who brought the nation and, in Bush’s case, the world, to a precipice.
At the moment, Bush is running neck and neck with Buchanan. Bush has advanced the interests of the most reactionary sectors of the capitalist class in the US, the energy and military industrial complex corporations and their finance capitalist backers, in similar ways. Bush used the September 11th attacks, which were perpetuated by the very forces that the Reagan administration had armed and funded and hailed as “freedom fighters” in its counter-revolutionary war in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, to first launch an invasion of Afghanistan, to remove the Taliban regime and then launch a much bigger war against Iraq.
Iraq by all serious analysis had absolutely nothing to do with the forces of “international terrorism” which carried out the September 11th attacks. Bush, through his appointments of Samuel Alito and John Roberts to the Supreme Court, has crafted a court that is more than capable of coming up with its own 21st century version of the “Dred Scott” decision in reversing labor legislation, civil rights legislation and reproductive rights.
Bush has packed the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary with appointees who, unless the present judicial system is changed structurally, will be around to protect the interests of corporations, the rich, and the opponents of the separation of church and state, among other nasty people and things, for decades. Like Buchanan, Bush’s Iraq war policy has led to significant splits among Republicans. While I doubt that the Republicans will divide into factions and run rival candidates for the presidency in 2008, it would be a pleasant surprise. Also like Buchanan’s campaign against anti-slavery groups, Bush has used the PATRIOT Act to crack down on civil liberties and has used torture at Guantánamo and other prison camps in violation of the Geneva Conventions and other international agreements, declaring the “war on terror” as an all purpose explanation for its disastrous policies. Like Buchanan’s administration, Bush lacks any credibility and is despised not only by the left but by most people. Many Americans are filled with intense anger at this administration, which has made the contradictions within US state policy clearer than they have been to more people than at any time since the Hoover administration. Let me conclude by giving Bush a “break.” At this point, I would still put James Buchanan slightly ahead of him as the “worst” president, using the criteria that a president should be judged by his ability to recognize and help resolve the “central problems” of his times, but with two important caveats.
If you look at the Bush administration policies effects on the people of the world, its military interventionism, support for the most reactionary global economic policies that have intensified world poverty, hunger and disease, and opposition to sane global environmental policies, Bush leaps far ahead of Buchanan. But because of the fact that in the 1850’s, the US role in world affairs gave Buchanan many fewer problems to fail at, I have to put him ahead of Bush on the list of worst presidents.
It is purely from an “American Centric” position that Buchanan maintains a slight lead over Bush. And of course (the second caveat), the Bush administration still has around 20 months left to overtake Buchanan. Let’s do Bush a favor. The broad left, the labor movement, the anti-Iraq war movement, all progressive movements and the Democratic Party should act now to prevent a discredited administration from extending its disastrous policies. By using constitutional means to get rid of the Bush administration and the “Reagan legacy” in terms of policy, we can keep Bush below James Buchanan on the list of “worst presidents” in American history. To conclude this article on an explicitly Marxist note, which asked a conventional question and used a presidential comparison model to answer it, we should remember that a revolutionary civil war followed the Buchanan administration.
This was largely because of the class conflict between slaveholders and industrial capitalists over the control of the state. I don’t expect the Bush administration to be followed by a revolutionary class conflict between present day monopoly capitalists and the working class over control of the state. But we can reasonably expect a struggle to repudiate not only Bush but also the policies that stem from the Reagan era, to defeat the most reactionary sectors of the capitalist class, revive the labor movement, rebuild the infrastructure of our cities, narrow significantly the income gap, and begin to establish a national health policy and sustainable environmental policies that are decades overdue.
Those policies in themselves are not revolutionary in the sense of the Civil War, but they are, as were the New Deal policies, stepping stones toward greater power for the working class and greater democracy for the whole people. And the broad left, led by abolitionists in the 1850’s and 1860’s and Communist Party USA in the 1930’s and 1940’s, will have to play a leading role in 2008 and afterwards if such policies are to be implemented successfully. --
Norman Markowitz teaches US history at Rutgers University and is a contributing editor of Political Affairs. Send your letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org