Saturday, February 23, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Eight, Tough Act to Follow

So what kind of President was Martin Van Buren?

An unlucky one, by all measures.

Going off on a tangent here.  But about the reason why Presidents should be thankful they're capped to just two terms of office.  Eight years is enough time to do the work you wanted to do when you became President... and usually just right at the time you need to clear out of the Oval Office before the consequences of all the things you've done as President come due.

If a President is lucky enough to get a second term, most often than not they live to regret it: a quick check of Two-Termers find a lot of scandals and bad breaks happening in a second term.  Washington, Jefferson, Madison (the War of 1812 was in his second term), Jackson (the Nullification Crisis), Grant (getting a little ahead of ourselves here, but yeah), Cleveland (the non-consecutive counts), McKinley, Wilson, FDR's second term wasn't a hoot, Truman, Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush the Lesser... yeah, second terms were a bit of downers for those guys.  We don't know what Lincoln's second term could have been (most likely fighting with Congress over Reconstruction), and Teddy Roosevelt's wasn't too bad.  (NOTE to Obama: it's NOT a given the second term is awful - Eisenhower's was weak but not too terrible, for example - so don't panic.  Not yet...).  It makes me wonder why a guy even wants to run for a second term, other than the obvious fact that Two-Termers get better ratings from historians than the One-Termers (or as Dana Carvey as Bush The Elder memorably whined "I'm a Jimmy Carter!").

So clearing out after two terms is usually a good idea.  Eight years of your agenda is more than likely going to create consequences you will be in no position to correct or fix (because it might mean conflicting with your ideology or legacy).  But what happens when you leave someone as a successor to your legacy, when you have one of your backers become President himself?

Harken to the case of Martin Van Buren, a vocal supporter of Andrew Jackson through thick and thin.  Van Buren was an ambitious sort, quickly rising in the Democratic ranks as the moral and political opposite of John C. Calhoun (considering how much of a bastard Calhoun was, that wasn't too hard).  When social scandal rocked Washington (the Eaton Affair), Van Buren sided with Jackson's faction and pretty much solidified himself as Jackson's heir to the office.  Being Vice President during Jackson's second term - to Calhoun's chagrin - didn't hurt.

But what happened to Van Buren's term of office should stand as a warning to any who seek to follow in a Two-Termer's footsteps. The bills of Jackson's tenure came due during Van Buren's, and given Van Buren's temperament in office he was incapable of moving past the restrictions of his predecessor's legacy, dooming his own term.

One thing Van Buren was NOT was an Active-Positive: Van Buren demonstrated no flexibility or skill in compromise in office to cope with the Panic of 1837, marking him with a clear Negative trait.  Given that he did pursue various actions, but without the political savvy to finesse them through a divided Congress, this leaves Van Buren as a decent candidate to be labeled an Active-Negative President.

When you look at Van Buren's response to the economic depression caused by the Panic, you'll see the Uncompromising belief system.  He did ask for Congress to form an independent Treasury office for government to handle its revenues rather than rely on the banks (the cause of the speculation and much of the Panic's origins), and he did argue for government to print paper money to counter some of the effects of the specie (over-reliance on gold and silver coinage) affecting the downturn.  But he argued against more pro-active measures to aid the individuals most affected by the depression: the Panic caused vast unemployment and personal debt that couldn't get paid, and there were thousands in dire need of direct aid.  Van Buren, sticking to the strict discipline of constitutional restraint, did not see any constitutional powers to create such relief for the citizenry.

The other problem was that Van Buren was no master of horse-trading or coercion, two of the more effective means of getting Congress to do anything a President wants.  Even with a Congress leaning Democratic during the early stages of the Panic, the proposals Van Buren offered went nowhere (it didn't help that Van Buren was not fully in control of the Democrats: Calhoun for example was still a player and like all bastards Calhoun was vengeful).  When the Whigs - the rising opposition to Jacksonian Democrats - gained elective power by 1838 it made things harder for Van Buren.

And so, Van Buren got the blame for the Panic and the prolonged depression that followed.  He ran for re-election but became a One-Termer President, and the model for any Chosen Successor President doomed to One-Term Infamy: Carvey, Bush the Elder was NOT a Jimmy Carter (who was more a John Adams).  Bush the Elder was a Van Buren.  Which is still not a good legacy to claim.  The one legacy Van Buren COULD claim with any happiness is that he's the popular origin of the American word "okay".

Next up: the President who most likely can't be listed in ANY Character category at all. For a very good reason...

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