In one retelling, the term “lame duck” first diffused into the American political lexicon with President Abraham Lincoln, who supposedly said that “[a] senator or representative out of business is a sort of lame duck.” Lincoln fared better than Calvin Coolidge, who was reportedly the first sitting president to have the epithet deployed against him. Though the term specifically refers to the period of drift that occasions the interval between Election Day and the swearing in of a politician’s successor, the “lame duck” mantra has come to infect the fears of outgoing presidents as they face down their final year in office. Can they overcome political stalemate and defy increasingly long odds to make good on one last campaign promise, or preserve another sliver of their legacy?
Thus far, President Barack Obama seems determined to make a mark in his final year—so central is the buzzer beater to the president’s political philosophy that he once reportedly distributed handwritten notes to his cabinet, which simply read, “[R]eally important things happen in the fourth quarter.” So in the spirit of fruitful fourth quarters, Politico Magazine put the question to 12 top historians: Which president had the best final year in office? Who has history rewarded? And which model should Obama follow for his own half-court shot?
Margaret O’Mara, associate professor of history at the University of Washington
So few modern presidents have had a good last year. There are the one-termers, of course—Carter’s 1980, George H.W. Bush’s 1992—but more remarkably the two-term presidents who faced final years of crisis, controversy and more losses than wins. Reagan had Iran-Contra, Truman had a rotten economy and Korea, Eisenhower had what he called that “stupid U-2 mess” when an American spy plane was shot down by the Soviets.
I’d have to go back to Teddy Roosevelt to find a final year that breaks that pattern. 1908 was a good one for Teddy. You have the launch of the Great White Fleet in January, announcing a new era of American naval dominance. You have landmark conservation measures like making the Grand Canyon a national monument. And TR gets to essentially hand over the keys to his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, intending for him to continue the Roosevelt legacy. (He didn’t meet those expectations, and Teddy later turned on and ran against his old friend for the 1912 nomination, but that’s another story.)
What should President Obama take from this? One is that, in the long term, the historical assessment of a presidency will take into account the accomplishments of all the years in office, not just the last, lame-duck months. But another is that a final-year president has a remarkable amount of freedom to say and do bold things and cement his legacy. Think about Ronald Reagan at the Moscow summit in May 1988, where he dispenses with talk of evil empires and instead speaks soaringly and hopefully about microchips, entrepreneurship and democracy. Even Bill Clinton moves past 1998-99’s mire of impeachment and scandal to focus on economic fundamentals and close out his presidency on a high note, with the largest budget surpluses and biggest debt reduction in history.
Jeremi Suri, professor of history and global affairs at the University of Texas
Every American president makes partisan choices in pursuing signature policies, but the greatest presidents leave office with lasting gestures above party. The most impressive model remains our first president, George Washington. His years as the new nation’s chief executive were filled with partisan debates over his national economic program (authored by Alexander Hamilton), his peace with England (negotiated by John Jay) and his enforcement of federal authority (by Washington personally commanding soldiers) against Western farmers who refused to pay a new whiskey tax. These were all Federalist policies that drew rising criticism from Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson.
Washington devoted his last year in office to healing partisan wounds and setting out principles that would strengthen what he described as the “sacred” bonds of Union. His resignation from office after two terms was a gesture of fairness designed to guarantee all parties a real chance of attaining power. Two months before the new presidential election, he published his Farewell Address, articulating a set of principles that would protect the nation and transcend the disputes of his time. The Farewell Address explained that despite their historical differences, Americans were best served by working together to create a democratic society of laws, open commerce, and separation from the recurring wars abroad. “If we remain one people under an efficient government,” Washington wrote, “the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”
Washington’s departing words have served our country well for more than two centuries. President Barack Obama has followed them in pursuing the rule of law, free trade, and restraint in foreign conflicts. He should devote his last year to inspiring renewed support for these wise and humane principles, rather than the hateful rhetoric of his opponents. Obama should deliver a Farewell Address (through our modern media) that will, like Washington’s, transcend the partisanship, superficiality and hubris of our troubled time.
Jack Rakove, professor of history and political science at Stanford University
This might seem a surprising nomination, but as a longtime James Madison scholar, I will make a brief case for our fourth president, the “Father of the Constitution.” Ordinarily, scholars and other commentators have not rated his presidency all that highly. Karl Rove, who styles himself a Madison admirer, once described Madison as “a great constitutionalist, a halfway decent secretary of state, and a lousy president,” echoing the familiar disparaging reading of Madison’s leadership in the War of 1812.
Yet the fact remains, Madison left the presidency as a popular president. He carried the nation through the war without risking an open confrontation with his bitter opponents in New England and their provincial efforts to thwart national policy. In his final stretch in office (1815-17), he used his presidency to encourage a powerful revival of national patriotism. He promoted the successful chartering of the Second Bank of the United States and a program of internal improvements that would create the infrastructure for an expanding country (a policy President Obama should still encourage today). Taking the long view, he allowed his optimism about the meaning of the American constitutional experiment, rather than the doom-and-gloom of his Federalist critics, to guide his politics. There is a lot to be said for that constructive frame of mind, especially at a moment when much of our polity is wallowing in prejudice and fear.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Meg Jacobs, research scholar in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University
FDR serves as a useful guide as Obama looks to his final year. Given his four terms, Roosevelt had many “final years,” but 1945, the year he tragically died, was a great one. Though he did not survive to witness it, the allies defeated the Nazis and the Japanese. FDR as commander in chief led a united nation committed to its mission. He also mapped out a far-reaching agenda for the peace, promising Americans an economic bill of rights including a job, education and health care. With victory close at hand and the prosperity that the wartime economy brought, Roosevelt enjoyed much support even as the reconversion surely promised to bring the return of fierce partisan competition. When he died in April 1945, his approval rating was at 70 percent.
While Obama does not have the advantage of a major foreign policy success to build on, he can still look profitably to FDR in 1945. Specifically, he can champion the economic success that the country has experienced since the Great Recession. And, like Roosevelt, Obama can lay out an agenda of what is left to be done. He can invoke what measures the country should take—from minimum wage reform to college loans to climate change—as a way of teeing up a democratic successor to carry on and build on his legacy.
William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt
Saladin Ambar, associate professor of political science at Lehigh University
While the obvious choices for the most successful final year of a presidency loom large—think of FDR’s or Lincoln’s accomplishments in the final year of two epic, era-defining wars—they are nevertheless obvious outliers. Most presidents don’t get to command large armies and dictate terms to their political enemies. And so, thinking of whom President Barack Obama stacks up against entering his final year has to be seriously qualified—Obama won’t get to subdue Hitler or the Army of Northern Virginia. What are the realistic comparisons?
I think Obama’s unlikely models are two Republicans—William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. Both Taft and TR saw relatively scandal-free administrations in their last years in office. They each could lay claim to progressive legislation that if not earth-shattering, moved the country forward. Second terms are notoriously lousy—think of Katrina, the Lewinsky scandal, the Bush recession, Iran-Contra—and that is before we get to Carter and the Watergate scandal. Truman’s series of minor final-year scandals, in addition to his widely unpopular seizure of the nation’s steel mills (later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court), mounting casualties and stalemate in Korea and an economy marked by rapid inflation, left him with an approval rating of 30 percent—the worst in modern times. We could go on.
As of now, with all of the election-year sniping to be taken with a grain of salt, Obama is having the best second-term presidency at least since Eisenhower—maybe even in the past 100 years. He can claim good credit for the Iran nuclear deal, halving the unemployment rate (now at 5 percent) and for America’s leadership in hammering out a new international climate-change protocol. So, while there are legitimate concerns about the president’s Syria policy (mostly from the right), his use of drones to conduct warfare, and national surveillance system (mostly from the left), and while the country remains a cauldron (racial inequalities and injustices persist, the working wages of middle-class Americans remain stagnant and we remain embroiled in conflict in the Middle East), it is hard to argue that he hasn’t presided over one of the most successful end of terms in American history. If he has a very good final year in office, that distinction will likely be his, save for those wartime presidents who play on a different field altogether.
Mary Dudziak, professor of law at Emory University and chair in American law and governance at the Library of Congress
If the measure of a “best” last year in office is the enduring impact of the president’s final-year actions, it’s hard to beat George Washington’s last year and his decision not to seek a third term. By stepping down from office, Washington protected the democratic character of the American government. Rather than having a leader who amassed power and prolonged his rule, the new nation had a peaceful transition to another president. Later presidents followed Washington’s example, and when Franklin Delano Roosevelt broke the pattern in 1940, it was controversial. The 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1951, limits presidents to two four-year terms, making George Washington’s example a constitutional requirement.
The lesson for President Obama from this episode is that sometimes deciding not to act can have an enduring impact. In our day, a big issue is the role of Congress in authorizing armed conflict, which has atrophied over time—as evidenced by lawmakers’ seeking to avoid voting on the use of force against ISIS. Instead of bypassing Congress, if Obama refused to project American military force in Iraq, Syria or elsewhere without an authorization from Congress, it would set a striking example and serve as a powerful legacy for Obama.
Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University
Ronald Reagan had a pretty good year as final years go. After a turbulent period in 1986 and 1987 with Iran-Contra, in his last year he enjoyed the afterglow of the historic Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviet Union. Communism was collapsing. Many Americans still felt pretty good about the economy, so he left able to boast that the country was in much better shape than when he started. It’s a good reminder to Obama that even if the legislative playing field remains gridlocked in partisan warfare, overseas the president has considerable room to make progress on his long-term agenda.
Amity Shlaes, New York Times best-selling author and presidential scholar at King’s College
One great last year was Calvin Coolidge’s—1928. The reason the year was great was that Coolidge withstood the temptation to seek reelection. The year before, the 30th chief executive had announced the decision not to run. Because he had been elected only once, in 1924, Coolidge could run again, and easily, without provoking criticism. Many people thought Coolidge would flip and and decide to run. 1938 polls suggested Silent Cal was still popular and could win the election handily.
Yet Coolidge believed, like George Washington before him, that presidents should “return to the people.” Coolidge planned to set an example of modesty. He particularly disapproved of vain men: He considered the commerce secretary, Herbert Hoover, a self promoter and called Hoover “wonder boy.” “The chances of having a wise and faithful public servant are increased by a change in the Presidential office from time to time,” as Coolidge wrote later.
Sticking to that “no run” resolution proved tough. For over the course of the spring of 1928 came the growing national awareness that none other than Herbert Hoover would be the party candidate if Coolidge were not. As painful as restraint proved, Coolidge stayed the course and did not run, setting an example that lives on to this day. Coolidge was our Great Refrainer. Coolidge’s record suggests that modesty in a chief executive pays.
Elizabeth Cobbs, professor of American history at Texas A&M and research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution
George Washington’s presidency seemed to be going down in flames. In his second term, partisanship flared out of control, violent revolution gripped America’s chief ally, and foreign wars nipped. Thomas Jefferson had resigned as secretary of state and now spread rumors of the president’s senility. Defiance to federal authority in Washington’s first term was so extreme that he actually had to dispatch troops, as Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower later did. Unlike his successors, though, Washington personally donned a sword and swung onto his steed to lead the army against the rebellion. Despite all this, Washington used the last months of his presidency to establish a brilliant foreign policy that captured the imagination and tapped the emerging values of the young nation.
In his September 1796 “Farewell Address,” Washington (aided by his trusted editor, Alexander Hamilton) announced the “Great Rule.” The United States, he counseled, should maintain friendship and economic ties with all nations but agree to permanent military alliances with none. Although denounced as yet another example of partisanship by opponents who longed to aid the French Revolution, Washington’s Great Rule guided the nation through rough seas for the next 150 years. An outgoing president has a brief opportunity to crystallize lessons learned. Washington found and used his superbly. Obama would help his legacy and the country by articulating a new, reasoned approach to foreign affairs sustainable for the next 150 years.
James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at American University
Thanks to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan had a great last year in office. On December 7, 1988, Gorbachev went to the United Nations, where he announced, among other things, a unilateral reduction in Soviet armed forces and armaments. As Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz recognized at the time, the four-decade long Cold War was over. Although the incoming George H.W. Bush administration was skeptical that the world had changed, the events of 1989, culminating with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, finally convinced them. Reagan entered the White House determined to apply pressure until the Soviet Union gave up the Cold War competition. Democrats feared Reagan’s hawkishness at the start, and Republicans accused Reagan of dovishness at the end, but he accomplished a foreign policy goal in his last year in office that few ever imagined was possible.
Barack Obama just ended an enormously successful year in foreign policy that included the opening to Cuba, concluding the Iran nuclear deal, and reaching major agreements on trade and climate change. He’s getting little credit for it, both because the country is currently consumed by a fear of terrorism and because the president has failed to communicate an overarching vision. Reagan was known as “The Great Communicator,” and whereas Obama can give a great speech, he has had trouble connecting with the American people. If, in his final year, he can channel his inner Reagan, people will be more likely to acknowledge his domestic and international accomplishments.
Obama should look to his immediate predecessors
Barbara A. Perry, professor of ethics and institutions at the University of Virginia and director of presidential studies at UVA’s Miller Center
Of the nine modern presidents from Truman to George W. Bush who completed their terms, four left the White House with a majority of Americans approving of their performance: Ike, 59 percent; Reagan, 63 percent; Bush I and Clinton, 56 percent. As for the handful of chief executives who departed the Oval Office on the wrong side of approval ratings, one (Ford) faced a sour economy and a quartet were mired in stalemated wars/foreign crises (Truman-Korea, LBJ-Vietnam, Carter-American hostages in Iran, Bush II-Iraq/Afghanistan).
Currently a dozen points behind George H.W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s departing poll ratings, President Obama should take one lesson from each of these two predecessors as he approaches his final year:
1) Build a Gulf War-style international coalition, so effectively fashioned by Bush I, to fight ISIS;
2) Recalling the Clinton-era economic boom, emphasize the contrast between the collapsing financial system Obama inherited in 2009 and the resuscitated economy now in place.
Add the rhetorical flourish of Reagan’s farewell address, which Obama is fully capable of matching, and he will at least have the chance of creating a positive conclusion to his presidency that began with such hope two terms ago.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Vanessa Walker, assistant professor of history at Amherst College
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence … by the military-industrial complex.” With his Farewell Address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated a national conversation about the costs and complexities of the United States’ growing global role. What makes Eisenhower’s speech remarkable was not that it precipitated an immediate rollback in defense spending or curtailed the influence of private-sector forces in federal allocations—far from it. Rather, his warning was significant in that it revealed his inability to accomplish a central goal of his presidency: to meet both what he saw as the critical challenge posed by the Soviet Union to U.S. interests and global freedom, and also to reduce federal spending and deficits. Despite his continuous effort through eight years in office, reconciling these competing aims eluded Eisenhower. Rather than abandon either objective, Eisenhower took his final moments in office to give voice and legitimacy to the ongoing unease these competing aims generated and the difficulties of resolving them satisfactorily.
In his inaugural address to the nation, President Barack Obama stated: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” As the president looks to his final year in office, he can surely relate to Eisenhower’s plight of unfinished business as he reviews his 2008 campaign goals of closing Gitmo, reconciling the war on terror with domestic liberties, and reigning in domestic surveillance and foreign commitments. Hope. Change. Eisenhower’s final speech as president was a plea for nuance, for engagement with the complexities of policymaking, for the rejection of easy answers. He is remembered not for solving but rather defining the problem of the military-industrial complex, and in doing so, he fostered an ongoing awareness and civic debate around the challenges and imperfect choices that we face as a nation. President Obama should similarly confront, head on, his inability to accomplish some of his greatest priorities. As he continues to struggle with ISIL and terrorist threats to the nation during his last year in office, the president has the opportunity reaffirm his conviction that we cannot chose between our nation’s values and its security. With so much left undone, he should showcase the ongoing challenges of finding just, effective solutions to the threats the nation faces. Embracing the ambivalence of his legacy will not resolve the dilemmas of this generation, but it can define the problems for a change.
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