ChrisWeigant.com

Rocky Starts In Presidential History

[ Posted Monday, February 20th, 2017 – 18:52 UTC ]

Since it is Presidents' Day (or whatever else you call today, apostrophized or not), I thought I'd take it easy on our current president, and take a break from the regular ridicule I've been heaping upon him since he was sworn in. Today's supposed to be a noble holiday, after all, so I thought I'd make an extra effort at evenhandedness, and take a look back through history at some of the rocky starts various American presidents have had on the job.

Donald Trump has unquestionably had a rocky start. But he certainly hasn't faced the worst rocky start of any president in history, not by a long shot. Abraham Lincoln wins this honor hands-down, since the crisis started before he was even sworn in. Between Lincoln's Election Day and his Inauguration Day, seven Southern states seceded from the Union. Lincoln was sworn in on March 4, 1861, and five weeks later Fort Sumter happened, officially kicking off the Civil War. One certainly hopes that no other United States president ever has such a rocky start to his or her term, that's for sure.

The worst presidential start in history (on a more personal level) is also a fate I'd wish on no other. William Henry Harrison, America's ninth president, died 31 days after being sworn into office. Harrison holds two notable records in the field of American presidential history, as his was not only the shortest term in office (unless you count the strange case of "President for a day" David Rice Atchison, which most do not), he also gave the longest inauguration speech in American history -- almost 8,500 words long -- which took him roughly two hours to orate. Also, Harrison delivered this monstrously-long speech wearing neither overcoat nor hat, even though it was a cold and wet day -- which might just have contributed to his death from pneumonia a month later.

Less-tragic (but still shocking), Ronald Reagan didn't die while in office, but he did survive an assassination attempt only 69 days after being sworn in -- which pushed his approval rating to a high point, as the country rallied around their wounded leader.

Other tragic deaths in office have led to vice presidents being thrust into the presidency unexpectedly, and some of them have had rather noteworthy beginnings to their presidencies. The most stressful new presidency of this type we've ever seen was quite likely Harry Truman's. The nation was in shock over the unexpected death of the beloved F.D.R. in April of 1945, and Truman got an early boost from the victory over the Nazis in Europe (V.E. Day happened on May 8, 1945). But by the beginning of August, Truman had to make one of the toughest decisions a president has ever had to -- whether to drop atomic bombs on Japan or not. Truman had been kept in the dark about even the existence of the Manhattan Project while he was vice president, it's also worth noting.

Sometimes the first days of a new president didn't hinge on external events, but from deliberate bold actions. Roughly a month after Teddy Roosevelt assumed office (after the assassination of William McKinley), he invited Booker T. Washington to the White House. This was the first time a sitting president had invited an African-American in such a fashion, so it was a provocative action to many. Roosevelt went on to grasp the reins of the presidency with vigor, and when he was done he had issued 1,081 executive orders -- almost matching the combined total (1,262) of every president who had come before him. The most prolific president previously had been Grover Cleveland, who issued 253 executive orders of his own.

Dwight D. Eisenhower spent much of the time during his early days in office ending the Korean War. He took a trip to the war zone in November of 1952, while still only president-elect. By July of 1953, an armistice was in place. When Ike left office, he also left a planned invasion of Cuba on the drawing board, which turned out to be a disaster for J.F.K.'s first days in office. The Bay of Pigs happened in April of Kennedy's first year in office.

Trump likes to compare himself to Andrew Jackson, who faced a personal tragedy of his own before assuming office. Between his election and his inauguration, Jackson's wife died. The election of 1828 was one of the most vicious in all of American history, complete with charges that Jackson married her before she was divorced from her previous husband. Jackson took such things personally, and he bitterly charged his political opponents with the responsibility for her death. As a result of Rachel Jackson's death, his extended family became very important to him while in office.

This isn't a direct parallel with Trump's son-in-law or his daughter, but the historical comparison is interesting. Andrew Jackson relied heavily upon the advice of an unofficial "kitchen cabinet" during his presidency, which included not only members of the partisan media (pro-Jackson newspaper editors), but also one of his closest and most-trusted advisors -- his adopted son Andrew Jackson Donelson, who was also his nephew by marriage (Donelson was Jackson's wife's sister's son -- who, after his father died and his mother remarried, moved in with and was adopted by the Jacksons). Donelson also moved into the White House when Jackson did, and Donelson's wife then served as the White House's hostess (since Rachel Jackson had died, there was no First Lady).

Jackson went on to fire his entire official cabinet, in what became known as the "Petticoat Affair," because their wives (led by John C. Calhoun's wife Floride) were socially snubbing the wife of his War Secretary -- the only time (so far) that an entire cabinet has been dismissed en masse by any president. Having the shortest National Security Advisor in history doesn't even really come close. Of course, I wouldn't put it past Trump to fire his whole cabinet at some point over some petty issue -- and I wouldn't even be surprised if it was because a member of his family was treated badly on the social scene; but then I'm supposed to be giving Trump a break today, so I'll just stop speculating about historical parallels altogether.

Presidents often stumble during their first few months in office, and a lot of these stumbles are later either forgiven or almost completely forgotten, especially if the rest of the president's term works out well. For instance, Bill Clinton had the "Travelgate" scandal in May, 1993 (during his first year in office), but few remember it now. Clinton had other stumbles right out of the gate as well. He had made a campaign promise to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military if elected, and did consider immediately implementing it but was counseled to take things much slower. By December of his first year in office, he unveiled "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue" (later shortened by one "don't," to make it easier to say). For the time it was a fairly bold move towards full acceptance, but it was also nothing short of a stop-gap compromise -- not what he had initially promised at all.

Barack Obama took office during the second-worst economic crisis in the last 100 years, and due to winning such large majorities in Congress, he was able to get both his stimulus bill and the Lily Ledbetter Act signed during his first month in office. The public's sense of panic and fear cannot be overstated before Obama took office, as America was losing 750,000 jobs per month. But by the end of his first year in office, the economic tide had begun to turn, although the recovery took much longer than anyone had anticipated. Obama's first six months in office were some of the most productive he'd ever see, though, as Republican resistance to his agenda began to solidify harder than cement. To give just one example, Obama boldly issued an order to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba during his first days in office, but he never actually achieved this goal in his two full terms. Not all of those early decisive moves work out all the time, in other words.

Of course, the whole notion that the "first 100 days" in office should be a new president's most meaningful comes from Franklin D. Roosevelt's first few months as president. This was the first time the "100 days" term was used in American politics -- it previously had referred to Napoleon's last days of glory, from the time he escaped exile on Elba to his ultimate defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

F.D.R. inherited the Great Depression, which had already dragged on for years. He also entered office with sky-high expectations from the public. Two days after being sworn in, he closed the entire U.S. banking system. Three days later, Congress acted to pass federal deposit insurance, to restore confidence in banks. The night before the banks would reopen, F.D.R. gave the first of his "fireside chat" radio addresses. Within two weeks, half the money people had been stuffing in their mattresses (to avoid their savings being wiped out in all the bank failures which had been happening) was re-deposited in the banking system, averting total collapse. Roosevelt went on to enact as much of his "New Deal" as fast as he possibly could. He created many of his "alphabet soup" of new federal agencies in his first 100 days, including the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Hopefully, no other president will ever match the frenetic pace of F.D.R.'s first 100 days. I say "hopefully" because I do sincerely hope no other president will ever have to. The only president to take office in a worse situation for the country was Lincoln, after all. Roosevelt certainly didn't solve all the nation's problems overnight (or as fast as the banking crisis), but he sure tried his hardest to do so, in as many ways as he could possibly think up.

I guess my conclusion here would be that while nobody's ever going to live up to F.D.R.'s first 100 days, a lot of the focus on the first days any president spends in office isn't really reflective of their overall performance. Sometimes it is, but oftentimes it just doesn't work out that way -- for better or for worse. Sometimes a president stumbles early, but then later recovers. Sometimes nothing much happens at the start, but then a president proves his mettle later on. I have no idea how the rest of the Trump presidency is going to play out, but it's something to keep in mind after his first month in office, at least.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

25 Comments on “Rocky Starts In Presidential History”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    my wife and i just finished watching four seasons of house of cards. i highly recommend it for interesting presidential issues, and am looking forward to the fifth season coming out in may. spacey and wright are outstanding, and the show's perspective on the functioning of government is very interesting.

    JL

  2. [2] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Among the rocky startish items, WhiteHouse.gov is spamming me with cheery propaganda claimg how productive Trump is. They have my E-mail from pervoius admin. Anybody else encounter this?

  3. [3] 
    TheStig wrote:

    NYpoet22 How many days did it take you to watch the first 4 years of Cards? I've binge watched each season in about 2 days. Can't help myself, it's like Oreos or pistachio nuts.

    Very accurate depiction of Washington DC and South Carolina.

  4. [4] 
    neilm wrote:

    Well it seems that all of the snooty condemnation about Milo Y. against the left's asinine attempts to take Milo Y. seriously and shut him down are being copied by the right now that he touched (sorry) one of their third rails (and mine, by the way, but I would still not interfere with his free speech rights).

    Will pathetic 45 threaten to defund CPAC? Or, like Quebec, will he continue to ignore right wing hate?

    Milo Y. is basically a provocateur who is following the Kardashian path to wealth. Falling for his schtick is dumb. Laughing at him and pointing out his attempt to con his right wing marks is far more effective than trying to stifle him - that is exactly what he wants.

    He was a right wing hero until today - he blew it and so he is suddenly issuing apologies and insisting he was taken out of context.

    Bye bye Milo.

  5. [5] 
    neilm wrote:

    McMaster is a good choice. His investigation into the role of political interference with the decisions of the military during the Vietnam era make me hope he will do what is right for America, not 45.

  6. [6] 
    Kick wrote:

    neilm [5]

    McMaster is a good choice. His investigation into the role of political interference with the decisions of the military during the Vietnam era make me hope he will do what is right for America, not 45.

    Speaking from personal experience, McMaster is an excellent choice. He does not suffer fools like 45, and he is an expert at human nature and knowing how to handle people. I've known him since he was commissioned to 2nd Armored Division, Fort Hood. You want to know anything about United States history (not the revisionist history but the actual history) ask McMaster. He taught history at West Point for a few years. You simply cannot go wrong with an M1A2 tank commander.

    Tom Cotton is a fanboy of McMaster and recommended him to PT, and credit where credit is due, he has chosen wisely. :)

  7. [7] 
    neilm wrote:

    Do you think that between Maddis and McMaster they can start to break the clown show that is Bannon and Miller?

    Somebody needs to get 45 to grow up fast.

    The moronic lying has to stop (crowd sizes, winning in a landslide, etc.).

    The lightweight ignorance needs to be trained out (e.g. watching Fox News tabloid journalism on Sweden and believing it).

    The childish relationship with the press has to end (they are going to keep telling the truth - they aren't suddenly going to accept unverified nonsense he wants the to print - except Breitbart and Fox News of course).

    Pence is hopeless - he believes his own ragtag of crazy, which is why Indiana Republicans were so happy when they thought they'd got rid of him.

    Tillerson is suspect - he is obviously an adult, but the whole Exxon/Russia multi-trillion dollar deal is undermining his credibility. Plus he is not meant to be hanging out in the White House, he is meant to be on the road.

  8. [8] 
    Kick wrote:

    neilm [8]

    Do you think that between Maddis and McMaster they can start to break the clown show that is Bannon and Miller?

    Yes. In fact, it would not surprise me in the least if McMaster has already set the wheels in motion for Bannon's "demotion." McMaster chews up guys like Bannon and Miller and spits them out. He does not suffer fools, and he doesn't have to because he is truly intelligent and will wipe the floor with the bozos and clowns. :)

    On the flip side, we will know just how hopeless Barnum and Bannon's 1-Ring Circus is if/when McMaster decides to resign. Seriously. If McMaster can't whip the animals into shape and cull the herd, he'll leave the tent before it implodes into itself.

  9. [9] 
    Kick wrote:

    EDIT

    neilm [7]

    Seriously. If McMaster can't whip the animals into shape and cull the herd, he'll leave the tent before it implodes into itself.

    This, of course, will ultimately depend on 45 and whether or not PT insists on cultivating the type of chaos in which cons like him thrive.

  10. [10] 
    michale wrote:

    Speaking from personal experience, McMaster is an excellent choice. He does not suffer fools like 45, and he is an expert at human nature and knowing how to handle people.

    Given this, there is only one of 2 possible conclusions..

    1. McMaster DOES suffer fools like President Trump...

    OR...

    B. President Trump is not the fool ya'all claim..

    Given the afore mentioned FACTS (Trump's success in business and in politics) and given Occam's Razor, it's likely that B is the correct answer...

    "Simple logic"
    Admiral James T Kirk

  11. [11] 
    John M wrote:

    Trump seems to be ALL showmanship and NOTHING of substance, at least so far, in both campaign and presidential governance.

    Only time will tell if someone like McMaster can help to change that.

  12. [12] 
    John M wrote:

    Michale wrote:

    "President Trump is not the fool ya'all claim.."

    Even an Earth clock on Vulcan can be right at least two times out of every day.

    "When my wife first came to Vulcan she adjusted the clock until midnight and noon corresponded to Vulcan midnight and midday. The other times are meaningless."

    Ambassador Sarek, from the novel The Vulcan Academy Murders.

    (Kirk, McCoy, Spock and Sarek discussing Amanda's antique grandfather clock brought from Earth and now located in Sarek's and Amanda's home on Vulcan.)

  13. [13] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    So, is the Trump administration intending not to pass any new legislation regarding immigration. He's just going to enforce the laws as they currently stand, without any apparent regard for humanitarian concerns or for how this will change the essence of America?

    Will he next dismantle the statue of Liberty?

  14. [14] 
    altohone wrote:

    Don
    delayed response to comment 275 in FTP

    Thank you.
    The delusion that entrenched Big Money and progressive policies can work together is a nasty one.

    Big Money expends tremendous resources to perpetuate that delusion, and to counter the massive amounts of evidence that show the delusion to be false.

    The second delusion that socially progressive Dems like Hillary and Obama and Biden and Pelosi and Schumer and and and who pursue right wing economic and foreign policies still qualify as progressive is the crux of the problem the Democrats face.

    Hillary's reluctant embrace of an actually progressive agenda for the campaign while maintaining her loyalty to Big Money wasn't convincing... at least for crucial voting blocs.

    The irony is that single payer health care, investment in green energy, spending on infrastructure, policies that support or maintain good jobs, regulation of banks to prevent exploitation and fraud, ending or reducing the misallocation of resources on unnecessary wars, and investment in education are all progressive policies that would be great for businesses too.

    Eliminating the burden of health care costs alone would be a financial boon that would make most US businesses more competitive too... but the Big Money interests who currently profit have sufficient control over both parties to prevent it... harming Americans and most businesses at the same time.

    To be fair, specific or just accurate, Listen isn't wrong in theory... it's the practice where entrenched Big Money stands in the way of progressive policies where it goes wrong.

    Green energy interests would just be different Big Money from the oil companies... doctors and hospitals would still make Big Money even if we cut out the insurance middlemen who provide no health care... the construction companies who build roads, bridges and modernized water and waste systems would still make Big Money if we spent money on infrastructure instead of war.

    Big Money as the problem should be defined more accurately to help voters distinguish between the crony capitalism problem we face and the corrupted politicians who serve it and actual capitalism.

    It's not the accumulation of wealth that is the problem, it's how that wealth is currently being used to the detriment of most American citizens by preventing progress.

    That said, Listen and others here and elsewhere need to recognize that Big Money is a metaphor, and stop defending it. The overwhelming majority of people who use the metaphor aren't anti-business or far-left socialists... just sick of the corruption of everything from our elections to foreign policy and everything in between.

    A

  15. [15] 
    neilm wrote:

    Big Money is a metaphor

    Let's call it what it is - corruption.

    i.e. Politicians selling power for their own gain.

  16. [16] 
    neilm wrote:

    There was a great podcast - I think it was Freakonomics - on money in politics. They took an interesting approach - how much money business spend on politics and thus estimated it's impact vs. the whole economy and profit margins.

    I'll try to find a link.

  17. [17] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Al: That said, Listen and others here and elsewhere need to recognize that Big Money is a metaphor, and stop defending it. The overwhelming majority of people who use the metaphor aren't anti-business or far-left socialists... just sick of the corruption of everything from our elections to foreign policy and everything in between.

    So "big money" is a metaphor! Thank goodness!

    Because, if I might use a metaphor, I'd been under the impression that the left would have us go into battle without tanks, because tanks require far too many petroleum products in great quantity, and profligate use of petroleum products is counter to all that we stand for and believe in. Besides, our enemy has a great number of tanks and lots of oil, and we don't want to be anything like our adversary. Speaking metaphorically, of course.

    Or to use another metaphor: they would have us bring books to a knife fight.

    The overwhelming majority of people who use the metaphor aren't anti-business or far-left socialists... just sick of the corruption of everything from our elections to foreign policy and everything in between.

    Agreed. And those are issues that concern everyone, myself included. Alas, the process by which a society roots out corruption is a necessarily time-consuming one, if it is to be done correctly. Simply 'throwing the bums out', as they say, rarely works, as you haven't changed at all the dynamic that produced the corruption in the first place. This has been noted by a wide variety of commentators, from Orwell (Animal Farm) to the Who (Won't Get Fooled Again).

    Hear that, Michale? The incremental shift of Trump toward the policies of his predecessors has already begun. Note how many times he begins to say, 'we already have laws that cover that..' in the future.

    Recently I saw a video of a bacterium in a petri dish which had one half filled with a substance that nourished it - enough that no bacterium would ever lack nourish. The other half of the dish was filled with a substance that was toxic to bacteria, right at the point of contact. The nourishing side filled very quickly with bacteria, and when that side had filled, some few tried to venture into the toxic side, and predictably died. But the bacteria kept trying, probing, mostly dying. So many died initially that a crust built up at the border, impeding further progress. But eventually, by using every strategy available, including changing its own DNA, that bacterium was eventually able to colonize that entire petri dish. I imagine they had a little celebration afteward, and downed some serious amino acids.

    The moral of the story? Well, perhaps that, if you are really serious about taking on a huge task like changing half your world, you need to realize that it could take a very long time, involve many losses, and eventually require that you fundamentally change yourself.

    I don't know at all how this relates to solving our political differences, but I really do like the metaphor.

  18. [18] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Trump is now busy shedding crocodile platitudes about antisemitism. No concrete actions to date. How about firing his "Assistant to the President" Steve (Racist) Bannon, a self-documented anti-semite AND general bigot with a mouthpiece. Trump's idea of tolerance seems to be mostly about tolerance for bigots that form a big part of his coalition. Sick.
    Twisted alt right Sick.

  19. [19] 
    neilm wrote:

    OK, so looking for the "money in politics" podcast, I came across a blog that was very interesting. You can read the whole thing here ( http://freakonomics.com/2008/01/15/how-to-rig-an-election-ask-the-author/ ), but here is a key part:

    Q: You discuss the “spinning of truth” that’s common practice in modern politics. What are the most frequent tactics employed?

    A: Instead of tactics, how about a lesson from the master of spin himself, President William Jefferson Clinton? As a graduate student in 1992, I marveled when then-Governor Clinton spun a potential candidacy-killing story and outmaneuvered 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft during an interview about Clinton’s alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers. The masterstroke wasn’t when he blamed it on checkbook journalism, saying, “It was only when money came out, when the tabloids went down there offering people money to say they had been involved with me, that she changed her story.” No, it was when he immediately added, “There’s a recession going on.”

    In ten seconds, Clinton went from denying a sordid sex scandal to bashing President George H. W. Bush on the economy. But more than that, he was actually pointing at Bush’s recession as the reason poor Ms. Flowers had to debase herself in the press. In this way, Clinton did all of the following simultaneously: got back to the message, “It’s the economy, stupid;” dismissed Flowers as a gold digger; and delivered it all with an air of compassion for his accuser that would satisfy the liberal female voters he needed to win the Democratic nomination. That kind of unparalleled spin talent deserves respect.

  20. [20] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    Altohone, Neil, Balthasar-
    As I said to John in FTP comment 288, I am glad that we agree in principle, even if we don't necessarily or completely agree on how to achieve the goal of getting Big Money out.
    I hope you will consider the questions in comment 289 which I just posted (this discussion seems to be still active on both threads) before seeing your comments here.
    Altohone-
    You made a good point that most people aren't against Big Money being made. It's when Big Money throws our political system out of balance and results of an out of balance system that is what bothers people.
    Neil- How about Big Money Corruption so they can't try to claim that taking Big Money hasn't corrupted them? We don't want to provide any wiggle room for clever spin doctors like Bill Clinton.
    I don't know if respect is the right word for Bill Clinton's spin abilities. Recognizing it's effectiveness is more accurate, though it is more than one word. Respect carries with it somewhat of an indication that the behavior is acceptable or admirable.
    Balthasar- More good stuff. As for your bacteria story, it probably won't surprise anyone if I say it means you should register with VV and vote for small contribution candidates even if they can't win in one election cycle to make it possible for them to win in a future election cycle.

  21. [21] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    In the wake of the rocky presidential start at hand, has the promise of America died or is it just on ice, no pun intended?

  22. [22] 
    altohone wrote:

    Balthy
    17

    The "unilateral disarmament" excuse only maintains its effectiveness when you win.

    In any case, "Dems have to be corrupt because Repubs are corrupt" is an immoral justification... continuing a disturbing pattern.

    A

  23. [23] 
    altohone wrote:

    neil
    15

    Corruption is of course accurate, but noting the source is necessary when it is being defended.

    https://theintercept.com/2017/02/22/dnc-chair-candidate-tom-perezs-bank-friendly-record-could-kneecap-the-democratic-party/

    That article is a perfect example of the future of the Democratic party if the Obama/Hillary Big Money defenders get their way...

    ... just like Republicans.

    A

  24. [24] 
    altohone wrote:

    Don
    20

    Balthy isn't agreeing with you in principle even.

    He is paying lip service to the problem while defending it as necessary, and his bacteria "argument" ends with a suggestion that those who see the problem with corruption are the ones who need to evolve because he and his ilk will not... despite the massive evidence of their repeated failure... which I believe he referred to as a "crust build up".

    Unwarranted optimism about the defenders of the corrupt status quo actually supporting efforts to address the corruption is not a path to success... see Obama, Barack.

    A

  25. [25] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    To be fair, specific or just accurate, Listen isn't wrong in theory... it's the practice where entrenched Big Money stands in the way of progressive policies where it goes wrong.

    Wow! I like how this is starting out...

    That said, Listen and others here and elsewhere need to recognize that Big Money is a metaphor, and stop defending it. The overwhelming majority of people who use the metaphor aren't anti-business or far-left socialists... just sick of the corruption of everything from our elections to foreign policy and everything in between.

    Yep, spoke too soon!

    And if we use Neil's definition:

    Let's call it what it is - corruption.

    i.e. Politicians selling power for their own gain.

    When have I ever defended corruption? I took issue with people calling Hillary Clinton a "'Big Money' candidate" because that translates to "CORRUPT candidate" and I haven't seen enough evidence presented to support believing that everything associated with her is corrupted.

    When in the Senate, Hillary represented NY, which made Wall St. one of her constituents. People claim that she isn't truly a "liberal" or that she is more "Republican-lite" than Democrat, but the fact is that she and Bernie voted the same way 93% of the time. She had a better progressive voting record than 80% of her fellow senators.

    There are those on the left that have been just as intent on damaging Hillary Clinton's reputation as those on the right have. It wasn't until 2010 that I bothered to investigate whether the image of Hillary that I had formed over the years was based on rhetoric or facts. If you want to point out when we see signs that she has sold her soul with the legislation that she introduced in Congress, I would gladly consider it.

    But don't blame me when you go beyond your own definition for Big Money and label someone that way and I ask you to defend your characterization.

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