Obama’s Challenges Are Unprecedented in U.S. History
November 17, 2008
Few incoming presidents have been left by their predecessors with as many challenges as Barack Obama. In fact, with the daunting terrain facing the incoming president, one wonders why Obama and John McCain even wanted the office.
Other presidents facing an uphill task when taking office were:
—George Washington, who had to hold the 13 new states together long enough to get the republic firmly established.
—Martin Van Buren, who had to deal with the economic panic of 1837, which originated from the inflationary and excessive monetary and credit expansion by his predecessor Andrew Jackson.
—Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant, who faced a massive civil war and its aftermath caused, in part, by the policies of their predecessors, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan.
—Grover Cleveland, who faced the second worst depression in U.S. history caused by the high tariffs, profligate federal spending, and excessive monetary expansion of his predecessor, Benjamin Harrison.
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, who inherited the nation’s worst depression from Herbert Hoover.
—Gerald Ford, who inherited a nation disillusioned by the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal under the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations.
Of course, one might predict that the American people and media, as well as historians, might give Obama a break because he inherited such a mess from Bush. Such a benevolent public reaction occurred after FDR inherited a severe economic downturn from Herbert Hoover and proceeded to prolong it into an extended depression. Similarly, history has treated Lincoln excessively well for provoking a massive civil conflict—which killed more than 600,000 Americans and is still the worst U.S. war, but which provided only nominal freedom for African-Americans and might have been avoided by earlier offering the South compensated emancipation of slaves. On the other hand, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant haven’t fared as well, despite their efforts to clean up the Herculean mess left by Pierce, Buchanan, and Lincoln.
The episode in U.S. history most similar to the present circumstances may be Gerald Ford’s inheritance of stagflation (high unemployment plus inflation) and the aftermath of the Vietnam debacle from LBJ and Nixon. In one sense, Obama has it worse because he is inheriting two ongoing military quagmires, not just the national malaise caused by a lost brushfire war, and faces a financial meltdown that is worse than mere stagflation. On the other hand, Obama isn’t inheriting the after effects of a scandal that undermined the Constitution.
Economically, the episodes most similar to the present appear to be the severe downturns that Van Buren and Cleveland inherited from their predecessors. Astutely, both of these men—two of the best presidents in U.S. history—relied on tight money policies and free market principles to let wages and prices go down in order to reestablish equilibrium in the market. George W. Bush has aggravated the current economic crisis by bailing out and partially nationalizing financial institutions, artificially pumping up credit, and thus aggravating the inevitable and necessary market correction. Herbert Hoover and FDR enacted similar policies to artificially pump up the economy, only to convert a run-of-the-mill recession into the Great Depression. Unfortunately, it seems that Obama will also join Bush’s big government response to the crisis.
Historically, however, if the government doesn’t commit massive blunders in interventionist economic policy (on the scale of Hoover and FDR), the U.S. economy is usually resilient and will eventually right itself; more challenging for Obama may be ending the two overseas military bogs. Obama seems to have better inclinations toward the Iraq war than Bush. At least, he has pledged to withdraw more troops faster from Iraq than his predecessor. He may, however, transfer them to Afghanistan—the other nation-building and Islamist-rallying quagmire. Obama would do better to also end this conflict and concentrate on neutralizing the al Qaeda leadership, which is likely to be in Pakistan.
When entering office, no president has ever faced two losing wars and a severe economic meltdown, which also undermines the ability to successfully turn the wars around. Thus, the only solution to save badly needed funds and take the fire out of the anti-U.S. Islamist blowback is a rapid U.S. withdrawal from both countries. The nation is in peril; only time will tell if Obama can rise to the challenge.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books, Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty, The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.
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