Conservative Historian

Presidential Resets in American History

February 07, 2022 Bel Aves
Conservative Historian
Presidential Resets in American History
Show Notes Transcript

As Biden and his team contemplates a presidential reset, they would be in good company.  Lincoln, Wilson, Clinton and Van Buren all had to reset.  But can Biden do so? We explore the possibilities in this podcast.  

Presidential Resets in American History 

February 2022


“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” -Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism


During a two-hour-long press conference, President Joe Biden insisted the US was better positioned now than when he took office while acknowledging mistakes, such as not ordering more COVID tests earlier. He vowed the US would not go back to the earliest days of the pandemic when lockdowns and school closures were widespread.


“I didn’t overpromise,” he said. “I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen.”

Of course, presidents need to be optimistic. I am old enough to remember the response to Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech. He articulated the angst of the American people, and his speech did nothing to alleviate their concerns. Instead, Carter fanned them and set up Ronald Reagan’s victory in the next year, 1980. 

But in Biden’s case, there are reasons for a realistic assessment of his first year in office. According to a CBS New polls released on January 15, 2022, half of the respondents said they were “frustrated” and “disappointed” with President Biden’s presidency.


The poll, which came days before Biden marks his first full year in office, found 40 percent of respondents said Biden’s presidency made them feel “nervous,” and just 25 percent of respondents said it made them feel “calm” and “satisfied.” The survey revealed a bleak outlook among most respondents, with 75 percent saying they felt America was doing “somewhat” or “very” badly in a general sense.


Americans gave Biden poor scores on several issues. Most respondents disapproved of his handling of the economy, immigration, race relations, crime, inflation, policing, and Afghanistan. Respondents were split on Biden’s Covid-19 response, with 49 percent saying he was doing a good job and 51 percent saying he was doing poorly. Seventy percent of respondents said that improving inflation would make their president’s opinion more favorable. 


And despite the defeat of his Build Back Better initiative, Biden was not about to let the bloated boondoggle, mostly set up for public teachers’ unions with the public 3–4-year-old care initiative, die in the Senate. “Said he will likely have to break up his stalled plan to invest in social programs and climate policy and that he believes Congress can still pass parts of it. “I’m confident we can get pieces, big chunks of the Build Back Better law signed into law,” the president told reporters at that recent press conference. 

The fact that despite the host of issues in front of Biden listed above, he still is intent on issues that very few, aside from his core progressive constituents, such as subsidized daycare, or a Green New Deal, is odd. He also continues to cater to the left-wing of the party despite so many Americans having voted for him in the hopes of not just a moderate but moderation from the White House. For example, his nomination of Sarah Bloom Raskin.  


According to the Wall Street Journal editorial board, “Mr. Biden on Friday nominated former Treasury official Sarah Bloom Raskin as Fed vice chair for supervision, along with economists Lisa Cook and Philip Jefferson to vacancies on the Board of Governors. All three deserve scrutiny, especially Ms. Raskin, given what would be her regulatory power over banks and finance. Ms. Raskin previously served as a Fed governor from 2010 to 2014. But her recent public statements have focused on climate change, especially using financial regulation to steer capital from fossil fuels to green energy. Ms. Raskin wanted the Fed to exclude fossil-fuel companies from these facilities. “The Fed is ignoring clear warning signs about the economic repercussions of the impending climate crisis by taking action that will lead to increases in greenhouse gas emissions when even in the short term, fossil fuels are a terrible investment,” she wrote.” This is typical for Biden. He would nominate an anti-fossil fuel activist to the Fed on the dawn when Russia is planning on invading Ukraine. And Russia’s only economic advantage is fossil fuel.  


With such numbers and so many defeats in such a short period (Afghanistan, supply chain issues, inflation, the demise of Build Back Better, and his cynical ploy to invalidate the upcoming 2022 elections with false claims of voter suppression, one would think Biden would be thinking reset. If he were actually to change tack, this would be a piece with previous and better presidents.  


Jeff Shesol, writing for the New Yorker, talks of resets, “In the annals of misbegotten diplomacy, though a far cry from Donald Rumsfeld’s handshake with Saddam Hussein in 1983, Hillary Clinton would probably like to take back the moment, in March 2009, when she handed a big, red plastic button to her Russian counterpart, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, and invited him to join her in pressing “reset.” As it turned out, someone at the State Department had botched the translation, and the gag gift read, in Cyrillic, “overloaded” or “overcharged.” Cue the forced smiles. But can one actually reboot a Presidency? All Administrations have their ups and downs, their oscillations of fortune, but can the ups be engineered? And, if so, by what means?”


Arguably the greatest reset in American history occurred during the administration of Abraham Lincoln. Upon assuming the oval office, his primary mission was to keep the union intact at all costs. Citing war powers, necessary to maintain his legal oath as the preserver of the Constitution and thus the Union, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and jailed reporters. Again, in the name of preservation of the union, he also gave extra latitude to three slave states, Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland. But as the war wound on (and on), Lincoln’s attitude changed. The person who once considered sending the enslaved people to a new state in Africa or Central America became an advocate for slave rights within the union. According to NPR, “In 1854, Sen. Stephen Douglas forced the Kansas-Nebraska Act through Congress. The bill, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, also opened up a good portion of the Midwest to the possible expansion of slavery. 


Douglas’ political rival, former Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln, was enraged by the bill. He scheduled three public speeches in the fall of 1854 in response. The Peoria Speech took three hours to deliver, the longest of those speeches. In it, Lincoln aired his grievances over Douglas’ bill and outlined his moral, economic, political, and legal arguments against slavery.


But like many Americans, Lincoln was unsure what to do once slavery ended. “Lincoln said during the Civil War that he had always seen slavery as unjust. He said he couldn’t remember when he didn’t think that way — and there’s no reason to doubt the accuracy or sincerity of that statement,” explains historian Eric Foner. “The problem arises with the next question: What do you do with slavery, given that it’s unjust? It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared the freedom of all enslaved people and then named ten specific states where the law would take effect, that Lincoln publicly rejected his earlier views. “The Emancipation Proclamation completely repudiates all of those previous ideas for Lincoln,” says Foner. “[The abolishment of slavery is] immediate, not gradual. There is no mention of compensation and there is nothing in it about colonization. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln says nothing publicly about colonization.”


The proclamation conflicted with Lincoln’s original aim of preserving the union and did not directly free slaves within the border states. Yet after his reelection in 1864, Lincoln moved to have all enslaved people freed with the passage of the 13th amendment. The reset from focusing on the union to the exclusion of the slave issue to the removal of slavery itself.  


Lincoln was not the only 19th-century president to face a reset due to a crisis. The architect of the Jacksonian-era coalition, Martin Van Buren, had intended to govern in the model of his hero on his terms. Still, the panic of 1837 changed the trajectory of his own presidency. Van Buren’s proposal of an independent treasury was not something top of mind during his inauguration but something that came to define his one term in office. As the Miller Center biography on Van Buren notes, “Van Buren and his advisers hoped that an independent treasury would stabilize the American financial system by refusing poorly managed state banks access to government funds, which they might use recklessly. The independent treasury proposal actually reversed President Jackson’s decision to deposit federal funds in state banks. 

Unsurprisingly, Van Buren’s critics howled. Some of these voices even came from his own party.”


There was one reset occurred at the beginning of an administration that of Chester A Arthur’s shortened term. According to a former English professor at Michael Austin, “When Arthur became president in 1881, the US government employed nearly one hundred thousand of the nation’s fifty million people. Since the time of Andrew Jackson, the vast majority of these positions had been subject to the “spoils system,” through which the winner of each presidential election distributed patronage appointments to loyal supporters.” 


To provide the influential New York contingent with representation, Ohioan James Garfield added Chester A. Arthur to the ticket in the election of 1880. He had never held an elected office in his life. As the popular Garfield won, Arthur became the vice president. Four months into his term of office, Garfield was shot, and Arthur was as astonished as everyone else in the country to find himself president two and a half months later when Garfield died.


The circumstances of Garfield’s assassination changed the conversation about the civil service. The assassin, a frustrated office-seeker named Charles Guiteau, believed that his service to the Republican Party during the election merited a high-level appointment. After months of trying unsuccessfully to see Garfield (who had no idea who he was), Guiteau determined that Garfield was destroying the spoils system. The only way to save it was to make Chester Arthur, a creature of the spoils system, president. A voluminous writer, Guiteau spelled all this out in great detail in letters published after the assassination, leading to a massive groundswell of support for civil service reform. To the horror of his allies and the shock of the entire nation, Arthur, a key beneficiary of the spoils system, embraced civil service reform, and what followed was the Pendleton Act, which provided that Federal Government jobs be awarded based on merit and that Government employees be selected through competitive exams. The act also made it unlawful to fire or demote a civil servant for political reasons employees who were covered by the law.


Another great reset, conducted in less than 18 months, was that of Woodrow Wilson. In 1916 he was the only Democrat between 1892 and 1936 to win reelection with the isolationist positioning of “He kept us out of war.” But the Zimmerman Telegraph forced the reset. A stupid plot hatched by German foreign operatives in which Mexico would receive the US Southwest (back) if they would open a southern war front on the US Border if the US declared war on Germany. And why would the US do so? Because in 1917, an increasingly desperate Germany was considering unfettered submarine attacks on all shipping to Britain and France, including US ships. 

This was not to be borne even by the wily, isolationist Wilson. So, Wilson, progenitor of the progressive, behemoth state, became a wartime president with predictable Wilsonian violations of German American rights.  


One of the more famous resets in recent history was that of Bill Clinton after 1994. He went from trying to impose an Affordable Care Act, Obamacare-like publicly subsidized Rube Goldberg scheme upon the American people to a position of limited government. 

His wife, Hillary, was in charge of the healthcare plan, and after the scheme went down to defeat, her operational role within the White House diminished.  


Susan Cornwall, writing for Reuters, states, “In the end, Hillarycare failed, and never even received a floor vote in the House or Senate, although both chambers had Democratic majorities. Aided by the backlash that followed against “big government” Democrats, the Republicans in 1994 won a majority in the House for the first time since the 1950s. Even Clinton supporters acknowledged that the size and scope of Hillarycare unsettled some Americans. “She has learned that excessive disruption in this country creates great angst. And also division,” said Chris Jennings, the first lady’s congressional liaison during the 1993-94 battle.”


All these factors - plus a virulent anti-incumbent feeling across the country - led to the massacre of November 8, 1994. Bill Clinton took the Democrats’ defeat personally, and he publicly accepted blame. However, Clinton had already begun to retool his White House in specific ways. In June 1993, after a rocky first 100 days, Clinton brought in old friend David Gergen - a veteran of three Republican administrations - to improve White House communications and relations with the press.


But it was the appointment a year later of Leon Panetta, once a powerful California congressman and Clinton’s budget czar, as chief of staff that made the White House begin to tick, say Clinton aides. Affable but tough, Mr. Panetta “doesn’t tolerate these open-ended, on-going, never-coming-to-a-close meetings,” says Mr. Ickes, one of his deputies. “Meetings with the president are ‘manifested’ now. Your name isn’t on the list; you don’t get in.”


Another key White House player who took the stage midterm is Dick Morris. He urged Clinton to distance himself from both Republicans and congressional Democrats and propose a steady diet of small, family-oriented initiatives. As a result, Clinton, the man who would take over 1/6 of the economy with Hillarycare, declared in 1996 that the “era of big government was over.”  


Barack Obama had a few reset periods himself. As Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, Elvin Lim wrote, “Just weeks after his electoral “shellacking,” this could be Obama at the nadir of his presidency, and yet he dares call the Republican’s bluff on START. This is the audacity of the executive pride because when the president talks about foreign policy, he gets an automatic pass. Since Washington, the deference he enjoys is practically monarchical, and chief executives have known its power. That is how George Bush managed to get the Democrats on board with him to go to war in Iraq, and this is how Barack Obama will attempt his presidential reset. Quietly, without fanfare, we have pivoted from butter to guns, from jobs to security. Coincidence? For better or worse, the executive pride will not be humbled.”


Even the great Reagan needed a bit of a reset later on in his presidency. On his appointment as chief of staff in 1987, Howard Baker was hailed as a specific “savior” of the ailing Reagan Administration, hobbled by the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan’s long convalescence after abdominal surgery, and a perp-walk parade of senior officials facing ethics charges. But the timing of this reset was different. 1987 was the final full year of the Reagan presidency. Whatever hay that progressive historians like to make about Iran Contra, the reality was that economy was roaring at home, and the Soviet Union was crumbling abroad. That is why Reagan was the only president since Franklin Roosevelt to be succeeded, through election by a member of his party after two terms.  


One of the standard reset tools noted by Shesol is the same one employed by sports teams. You cannot fire the owner (Biden), and it is tough to fire the players (AOC?), but you can fire the manager/coach/GM. “The staff reshuffle is a frequent resort. Despite generally poor results, hope persists that new blood cures all.” Adds Shesol. This is not the hyperbolic shuffling of the Trump administration based on Trump’s personal feelings or all-out war in the oval. I am talking of removing once erstwhile ally Jeff Sessions to the urgent dismissals of Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, or John Bolton of foreign affairs fame. Or the 10-day reign of communications czar Anthony (the mooch) Scaramucci.  


Shesol refers to the wholesale shuffle of the team after a bad patch and often starts with the chief of staff. For example, early in his tenure Clinton got rid of Mack McClarty for more seasoned Washington hands. However, there is no evidence that Biden’s Chief, Ron Klain, is going anywhere.  


The challenge for Joe Biden is one I noted in the spring of 2021. At that time, there was a clear pattern. An initiative would be announced, with Biden taking about 10-15 minutes to make remarks. The details would come out later, and any questions on the issue would be handled by staff, particularly by Klain or press secretary Jen Psaki. One Point on Psaki.  Consider how many times one saw Trump or Obama on their screens. Then quick, name their press secretaries. Then think about how often news programs or political reporters cite not Biden but Psaki. Biden would do lids for entire afternoons. Forget meeting the press: no briefings, no calls to foreign leaders, no cabinet meetings.  


This was the pattern for the first 200 days, but then the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan occurred, and the rest noted above. So it was one thing for Biden to come out and announce that he was sending Congress a Covid relief bill and let Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer pick up the ball. 

But another for crime to have risen 76% in LA, or gas prices rise 100% and have a press secretary answer for all of it. I wondered early in his tenure what would happen if Biden had to spend energy and focus on an issue. After Afghanistan, the wait was over what we saw a tired, irritable older man out of his depth. 


Jennifer Rubin, the once conservative, current never Trumper, and aspiring shill for the Democratic Party, wrote this about Biden, “Be prepared to hear a lot about a “reboot” or “reset.” It’s happened before after Democrats suffered big losses. In 1994, Democrats lost a net 54 House seats; President Bill Clinton championed values and mastered triangulation to come back in 1996, winning 379 electoral votes. In 2010, Democrats lost 63 House seats and a net 6 Senate seats; President Barack Obama rebounded to win in 2012 with 332 electoral votes. (For Obama, the answer was a series of executive actions and some bold, albeit controversial foreign policy moves.) The question for Democrats now is whether Biden can reset his presidency before the midterms to help stave off disaster. With the prospect of a lawless, authoritarian GOP in control of one or both chambers of Congress, Democrats cannot risk big losses in 2022. Democrats need Biden to correct course — promptly.”


For those with a long enough memory, thinking of events such as Biden’s flirtations with Southern Democratic segregationists in the 1970s, his 1988 election campaign, his presiding over the Clarence Thomas hearings, or his time as Obama’s VP, know there is no intellectual depth or wisdom to fall back on. Biden was nominated because he was not Bernie Sanders. He was elected because he was not Donald Trump. So, he spends the first nine months of his presidency governing like Bernie Sanders. And December and January question the legitimacy of our electoral system, question his enemies’ morality, and sow divisiveness throughout the nation. 

As The Who used to sing, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. 


In many regards, previous presidents were not like their successors, which is natural. 

What is odd is that many were not like their earlier versions of themselves. But then those presidents understood the exigencies and necessities to change. Biden quickly forgot why he was nominated, and why he was elected.  Biden has always lacked a deft touch, an ability to read events, and intellectual heft.  What he did have was energy and a certain bloviating charm. The problem is that this Biden lacks that energy and charm.  He cannot reset those lacking attributes.  Pr