Rocky Starts In Presidential History

Donald Trump has unquestionably had a rocky start. But he certainly hasn’t faced the worst rocky start of any president in history.
02/20/2017 09:00 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2017
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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 blogs at:

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