In Part 3, we are finally getting to some presidents that did some real things. Unlike those in Part 1 and Part 2, the accomplishments in this group tend to be more good than bad. This group of ten can split into a couple of groups, with one outlier that doesn’t really fit. We have four “modern” Presidents, three “Founding Father” types, a couple of War of 1812 hero-types, and one guy that served around the turn of the 20th Century until he was assassinated.
Here, grouped by era, are presidents 11-20:
Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) – My dad’s favorite president, Reagan followed Jimmy Carter into the White House and immediately began to make a positive impression. The former actor and California governor was popular, and had been trying to be president since the ’70s. He told folks to tear down walls, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years later. He overhauled the tax code in 1986, reducing the tax burden for millions of Americans and left office with the nation feeling prosperous and peaceful. For all the good that Reagan did as president – and going toe to toe with the Soviets should be praised – he also failed to say anything about the AIDS crisis despite being a “compassionate conservative” and allowed for members of his National Security team to fund Contras in South America illegally.
George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) – George H.W. Bush was ultimately doomed by his promise of “no new taxes,” a statement that helped win the election in 1988 but hurt him against Bill Clinton four years later. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a successful president, despite only serving one term. He was the steward of our country when the USSR finally collapsed in 1991, and he was quick to react when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Unfortunately, record deficits inherited from his predecessor Ronald Reagan forced Bush to go back on his famous tax pledge and cost him the election in 1992.
Bill Clinton (1993-2001) – Bill Clinton rose to prominence as governor of Arkansas and defeated George H.W. Bush in the election of 1992. Though the last few years of his presidency was marred by his near impeachment, he led the country during a time of great prosperity by completely undoing the failed economic policies of Reagan and Bush. He raised taxes on the wealthy and submitted budgets that dramatically reduced the deficit, resulting in a budget surplus. He attempted – but failed – to reform the healthcare system, though his wife was instrumental in passing legislation providing health insurance for children. However, the impeachment – though acquitted – and his signature on the Defense of Marriage Act, were negatives of his tenure as president, though history seems to have judged Clinton much better than most of his contemporaries.
Barack Obama (2009-2017) – It is much too soon to judge the presidency of Barack Obama, and he will ultimately be judged based on how much of his legacy remains intact by current and future presidents. The Affordable Care Act, in spite of its numerous flaws, provided healthcare to millions of Americans that had previously fallen through the cracks. He negotiated a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, and generally restored the image of the U.S. abroad after the presidency of George W. Bush. Nevertheless, it’s hard to view Obama’s presidency in a completely positive light no matter how you might personally feel about him. From the use of drone strikes to eavesdropping on foreign allies and U.S. citizens, there were some things that Obama did that leave even me uncomfortable.
John Adams (1791-1801) – Adams had a lot to live up to, following George Washington as the second president of a new country. He was a capable captain of the new ship called America while president, managing to avoid getting entangled in the war between France and Britain. However, he famously clashed with the Jeffersonian Republicans, which led to his defeat in the election of 1800, and was ultimately defeated more by the politics of the time and not for any actual failures as president. A solid president whose legacy is partly defined by his appointment of John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
James Madison (1809-1817) – Madison, as president, continued the policies of his mentor and predecessor Thomas Jefferson. On the domestic front, he continued to wage war against the (First) Bank of the United States, vetoing a bill that would have renewed the charter, thus making the funding of the War of 1812 more difficult. Trade and diplomatic issues with the British led the U.S. into the War of 1812. This “second war of independence” was critical to the survival of the young country, but ultimately Madison’s legacy is graded more by what he did prior to ascending to the presidency, which is why he isn’t ranked a little higher.
James Monroe (1817-1825) – The last “Founding Father” president, Monroe followed Madison into the White House and continued many of the same Jeffersonian ideals about the presidency. Madison did a “victory tour” of sorts after winning the election in 1816, and was easily reelected in 1820 practically unopposed. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 – which stated that the admission of a free state must be matched by a slave state – was probably his lasting domestic legacy (at least until it was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act 34 years later), while his Monroe Doctrine – protecting Latin America from recolonization of Europe – became the standard bearer for foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere.
Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) – Andrew Jackson was one of the founders of the Democratic Party, and after losing the tightly contested election of 1824, he came back with a vengeance in defeating John Quincy Adams in 1828. He was beloved as a “people’s president” despite being a large plantation owner, and went away from the spoils system in appointing many executive branch offices. He fought against the Second National Bank, saying that he was defending “the people” from the bankers, and ultimately won reelection in 1832 because of it. Nevertheless, the Indian Removal Act and Trail of Tears should be his lasting legacy, where he took native people off of their lands simply because “white people” needed it more.
James K. Polk (1845-1849) – Polk was a strong president in a string of relatively weak pre-Civil War presidents (the fact that most of the presidents of his era show up in Part 1 of this series indicates that). He was responsible for the annexation of Texas from Mexico, as well as the expansion of the northern border to the Pacific Ocean. Also, after being rebuffed in his attempt to purchase California from Mexico for $20 million, he started the Mexican-American War and won the territory outright. He didn’t seek reelection due to ill health, and died shortly after his term ended, but Polk is lauded for his expansion of the United States beyond its borders while president.
William McKinley (1897-1901) – McKinley led America through the Spanish-American War, raised tariffs to allow for U.S.industry to thrive, and stuck doggedly to the gold standard to hedge off the risk of further panics. He was reelected in 1900 on a populist yet progressive ticket, but was unfortunately assassinated six months into his second term by Leon Czolgosz. He was a generally popular and successful president, though he is often overshadowed by his larger than life successor Theodore Roosevelt.
The next – and final – part of this series will cover the remaining ten presidents. I plan on actually ranking those presidents after not doing so through the first three posts in the series. Later this week, I plan on expanding a bit on Abraham Lincoln while trying to get to the reason why I deem him to be the best president, and also explore if Lincoln would be a Republican today.
Until next time…