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In tough times, presidents need to hit ground running

President Ronald Reagan points to a chart in a nationally televised message on his tax cut proposal on July 27, 1981. Cutting taxes and domestic spending were among his top priorities.

Associated Press

President Ronald Reagan points to a chart in a nationally televised message on his tax cut proposal on July 27, 1981. Cutting taxes and domestic spending were among his top priorities.

WASHINGTON — Would you want this job?

At home, the near collapse of the housing market, a crippled financial sector gasping for credit, and rising unemployment. Abroad, an intractable war in Iraq, a rising Taliban in Afghanistan, a prowling Russian bear, and a big, restive China — plus Iran and North Korea.

No president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took office during the heart of the Great Depression, will have taken office at a time of such difficulty as John McCain or Barack Obama.

And before Roosevelt, presidential scholars say, you have to look back to Abraham Lincoln, who was elected on the eve of the Civil War in 1860, to find a new president who faced problems of such depth and complexity.

"We have a humongous debt and deficit. There is very little trust anymore in government," said Stephen Wayne of Georgetown University, an expert on the presidency. "And even if the president, in McCain's case, tries to be bipartisan, or Obama tries to be postpartisan, they're still going to be dealing with a very partisan, divided Congress.

"That means there will be pressures from the party on the president, and there will be pressures to pursue the party's position rather than compromise." he said. "It's a mess. I can't think of a worse situation for a new president to begin."

Obama or McCain will face a veritable Rubik's Cube. He will have to negotiate the expiring agreement for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq, at a time when Americans and Iraqis alike are tiring of their presence. His commanders in Afghanistan say they need 20,000 more troops. He'll be under immense pressure to shore up the U.S. housing market, with more than 1-million Americans having lost their homes to foreclosure over the past two years, yet money is tight: For the fiscal year ending in September, the U.S. budget deficit hit a record $438-billion.

Fortunately, the winner can learn from the past. There's no clear blueprint for success, of course, but over the years, certain strategies have worked. And certain ones have not.

Beginnings matter

Ronald Reagan got off to a great start. So did John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did not. The difference? Planning and personnel.

Let's take Reagan and Clinton.

Within two days of his election, Reagan held a news conference to announce the men who would lead his transition and the White House — James Baker and Edwin Meese.

Then, as now, the economy was the chief concern, with double-digit inflation and high unemployment, and Reagan's first 87 appointments were related to economic policy, said Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the nonpartisan White House Transition Project, which works with the current administration and the president-elect to ease the takeover.

Reagan quickly began schmoozing congressional leaders — friendly Republicans in the Senate, hostile Democrats in the House — to lay the groundwork for his legislative agenda of cutting taxes, revamping the military and cutting other government spending.

The budget he submitted shortly after his inauguration reflected those priorities, and set the tone for his presidency.

Clinton, by contrast, didn't name some of his key people until just days before his inauguration in January.

His first major domestic initiative, health care reform, failed in part because the administration and its point-person, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, were essentially unprepared. They hadn't recruited enough congressional support or developed a strategy for getting it passed. Instead of an accomplishment, it served as a lesson.

"Once you come into the White House, there's no time to be looking backwards and thinking about what the job is," Kumar said.

"But if people are named right after an election, they have time to read, they have time to talk to people. And they have time to think. Once the inauguration happens, it's very hard to carve out that time. Because they are always standing there with a firehose."

Get smart

Aside from inheriting national disasters, Roosevelt and Lincoln had one thing in common: They knew what they didn't know.

Lincoln was a congressman from rural Illinois. Roosevelt was highly experienced, having been secretary of the Navy and governor of New York, but he wasn't an expert on the economy. Unlike some other presidents, he valued outside — and contrary — opinions and recruited a team of respected academics known as the Brain Trust to help him plan the New Deal.

Lincoln took the unusual step of appointing several Republican rivals to his Cabinet, including harsh critics like William Seward, his secretary of state, and, in 1862, Edward Stanton, his secretary of war.

Both later became close friends and supporters of Lincoln's. But when they were picked, Lincoln knew they would challenge his assumptions and ideas, as well as each other's. Members of Roosevelt's Brain Trust often disagreed with each other as well.

"He took these people who were smart and somewhat rivals and brought them inside the tent … and took what he could from them," said Michael Shaller, a history professor at the University of Arizona who has written about Reagan, FDR and others. "Roosevelt and Lincoln relished having these strong personalities around them."

Do something

As he campaigned across America during the Depression, Roosevelt told voters, "The country needs … (and) the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another. But above all, try something."

And he did. When he took office, in March 1933, unemployment was around 25 percent, 4,000 banks had collapsed in the past two months — with no federal insurance to protect deposits — and the financial system was literally collapsing.

The first thing he did was issue a proclamation briefly closing all banks, to give him and the Congress time to pass an emergency banking bill.

"The country had already been through three years of economic depression. It's been a long, hard road, and he's stepping into a situation where people are looking for answers," said Herman Eberhardt, the museum curator at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in New York.

Then Roosevelt, abetted by a Democratic Congress, got to work on passing his 100 Days agenda — 16 major bills in all, including regulatory reforms, creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps., and initiatives to help railroads, farmers and home­owners.

It is doubtful McCain or Obama would try, or need, to push so many sweeping measures next year, but the lesson is a valuable one for a president confronted by crisis.

"Some of what Roosevelt proposed worked. Some of what Roosevelt proposed didn't work. Some of the policies he advocated were contradictory," Eberhardt said. "But what mattered to most people at the time was he was coming in and taking decisive action.

"That in itself was inspiring to people, and raised hope — he was taking an active, aggressive stance that he was going to address this problem."

Pick your shots

More recent presidents who scored quickly have done so by limiting their goals. Think Lyndon B. Johnson's dogged approach to passing civil rights legislation after taking over for President Kennedy in late 1963, or Reagan's focus on just three things: cutting taxes, cutting domestic spending and rebuilding the military. He accomplished the first two in his first year, despite Democratic control of the House.

"Reagan did one thing that I really think presidents should do," said James T. Patterson, professor emeritus of history at Brown University and an author. "You decide, 'I'm going to do one or two things, here's what I really stand for and what I want to get done and what the people elected me to do.' And that's what he did."

Clinton quickly learned that the middle class tax cuts he had championed during the campaign weren't financially feasible, thanks to the deficits he inherited, and he struggled with where to start. Members of his inner circle disagreed over what they should do first — address social problems such as health care, or lasso the deficit.

Absent a driving narrative, lesser and less flattering issues filled the void — his policy on gays in the military, a botched attorney general appointment, a scandal over firing the White House travel office.

"He just wasn't ready," Patterson said.

Despite having only 37 days between Al Gore's concession and his inauguration, George W. Bush's transition went smoothly in part because his priorities for office had formed the backbone of his campaign: cut taxes, pay religious groups to provide social services, reform Social Security, and set federal standards for education.

He achieved three out of four before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks forever altered his place in history.

"He was not left in a position with a vacuum that other people could fill with discussions about the murky election," Kumar said. "He could talk about what he wanted to talk about. … The public was ready for it, too, because they had heard him discuss it."

Perception is reality

History teaches that even if things don't go that well for Obama or McCain over the next couple of years, he may not suffer for it. It's easy to forget this, but despite all he did, FDR never solved the Great Depression. By the end of his first year in office, in 1934, unemployment remained at nearly 22 percent. By his first re-election campaign in 1936, it was still at a staggering 17 percent.

Yet Roosevelt remained wildly popular, carrying all but two states and 60 percent of the popular vote, the biggest landslide in 80 years.

"There were a lot of poor people who had a picture of Jesus Christ on their wall, and a picture of Roosevelt nailed up on their wall, often cut out from the newspaper," Patterson said.

"Either of these guys gets elected, they're coming into power at a time where you've got really serious problems that are hung over from the past, that you've inherited. If you make a considerable dent in them — that is to say, if what you do seems to work out — you will have something like the approbation and enthusiasm among voters that Roosevelt had."

Wes Allison can be reached at or (202) 463-0577.

In tough times, presidents need to hit ground running 11/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 7:10pm]
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