Sunday, November 30, 2014

A thought for Sunday: the 10 most influential presidencies

 - by New Deal democrat

You know the drill.  It's Sunday, so I get to ruminate on whatever.  Regular economic blogging will resume tomorrow.

In the last couple of years, one of my conversation starters is to ask a fellow fossil:  Who has been the most influential president(s), for good or bad, in your lifetime?"  Almost always, at the top of the list is Lyndon Johnson, with Ronald Reagan second.  Now, Reagan seems like an obvious choice, but 40 years ago I doubt very much that those then-young Boomers would have thought that the Johnson's economic and immigration policies would define their America.

So, that got me to thinking of expanding the list to the entire line of presidents.  Who, whether for good or ill, defined the country for generations to come by actions or policies they undertook during their presidency?  Note that this eliminates some presidents, like Madison and Grant, who were crucial, but not for what they did during their presidency.

So, here's my list of the 10 most influential presidencies, in chronological order:

1.  George Washington.  He could have assumed the power of a dictator, or set himself up at the head of a monarchy, but unlike future Latin American heroes, he left office after two terms and returned to his farm, setting the precedent of a peaceful turnover of power after 8 years.

2. Thomas Jefferson.  He did many things during his life, but what gets him on this list is the Louisiana Purchase.  Nobody even knew if this was Constitutional or not - although the Congress subsequently ratified the purchase - but with this bold stroke he established the US as a continental empire.  Secondarily, his Democratic Republican Party was the first fully partisan electioneering engine, establishing dominance in the Congress as well as the Executive for a quarter century.

3.  Andrew Jackson.  Decisively and permanently shifted the balance of governing power from the Congress to the Presidency, by appointing partisan supporters to every office controlled by the Executive, and also via thorough use of the veto. The first 6 presidents used the veto power very sparingly, but Jackson vetoed every act passed by Congress that he did not 100% support, and almost always got his way. His spoils system strengthened Jefferson's party system, and his faction became the Democratic Party, which controlled the White House until 1860.

4.  James Polk. If the first three members of this list seem obvious, Polk shows the difference between "influential" and "good" or "great."  He gets on this list, quite simply, for the annexation of Texas, the definitive acquisition of the Oregon territory, and the Mexican War.  When Mexico wouldn't sell him California, he determined to take it by force, and obtained what is now the entire American southwest via that victory. After Polk, the US stretched all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

5. Abraham Lincoln. Preserved the Union after the South seceded.  Using the legal theory the groundwork of which was laid by John Quincy Adams (whose presidency was inconsequential, but whose lifetime achievements were great, and largely shamefully forgotten), Lincoln used his powers as Commander in Chief to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and secured the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. And secured the position of the Republican Party.

6. Rutherford B. Hayes.  "His Fraudulency," who like George W. Bush secured election even though he lost the popular vote, traded away Reconstruction and racial civil rights for his election.  Eighty years of segregation, Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, lynchings, and the KKK followed.  A thoroughly shameful, but decisive, presidency, the effects of which lasted an entire lifetime thereafter.

7.  Theodore Roosevelt.  The first great economic progressive President.  Developed the "Square Deal,"  pursuant to which he used the Sherman Antitrust Act 45 times to break up monopolies. established the FDA, and established the first National Parks.  And had the Panama Canal built as well.

8.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The New Deal.  Commander in Chief during the Second World War (which, unlike the First World War, ultimately was a war for survival).  His US Supreme Court appointments established the modern understanding of the Commerce Clause, giving the federal government wide scope to act regarding the economy.  His New Deal coalition was dominant for about 40 years.

9.  Lyndon Johnson.  In 1968, the Vietnam War overshadowed his entire presidency.  But 50 years later, the US remains the country of Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Immigration Act (which decisively shifted immigration permits away from Europe).  Public broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Clean Water Act, and a host of conservation laws are still with us as well.  Despite the best (or worst) efforts of the GOP ever since, these all still survive and define modern America.

10.  Ronald Reagan. In my opinion, the 20 most dangerous words ever uttered by a President were "The 10 most dangerous words in the english language are, 'Hi, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'"  Reagan successfully brought the GOP's "Southern Strategy" to fruition, established a generation or more of GOP dominance, and perhaps most decisively, caused a majority of Americans to think of their government not as providing for the general welfare, but as an alien entity. Getting a majority of Americans to turn their backs on the Square Deal and the New Deal was quite an accomplishment, and 35 years later, little of their economic reforms survive as viable policies.

That's my list of 10.  It's too soon to judge, but if the next president does not reverse George W. Bush's national security state and tax policies, he is probably going to join this list, for good or ill, as the first 21st century member.