Twenty-four years ago, William Jefferson Clinton promised change.
“Thomas Jefferson believed that to preserve the very foundations of our nation, we would need dramatic change from time to time,” the 42nd president said in his first inaugural address. “Well, my fellow Americans, this is our time.”
He had been echoing Jefferson promiscuously for days. Jefferson had won the first “change election” in American history, in 1800 — federalists out, “republicans” in — and now Clinton had ended 12 years of Republican occupation of the White House. He had journeyed to Washington from Monticello, recreating Jefferson’s trip 191 years earlier, this time in a bus with a license plate reading “Hope 1.”
His predecessor had been a heroic World War II pilot, part of the Greatest Generation. Clinton was a boomer. The Cold War was over, and Clinton vowed to focus on domestic issues, boost the economy, help the middle class, reinvent government and provide universal health care while balancing the budget and just in general being transformational.
Then came reality. “Dramatic change” in Washington is hard to come by — as Clinton and just about every other “change” candidate has learned.
Donald Trump vowed to drain the swamp of Washington, but here’s a different metaphor: It’s a fortress, with moats, drawbridges, hidden passageways, secret tunnels, dungeons. Outsiders struggle to master the place. Among the impediments to change is the Constitution. It fetishizes the distribution of power. Members of Congress take seriously the notion that they’re part of an equal branch of government. Supreme Court justices and federal judges have life tenure. The president’s own turf, the executive branch, is a bureaucracy staffed by civil servants who do not always jump on command.
And so, although the president of the United States may be the most powerful figure in the world, we recall what Harry Truman said when Dwight Eisenhower was about to succeed him: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won’t be a bit like the Army.”
The job of a president today is something that Jefferson could not have recognized when he took the oath in 1801. At the time, the federal government was tiny, and Jefferson vowed to downsize it further, including reductions in the Army and Navy. He wound up nearly doubling the size of the nation, via the Louisiana Purchase, and he pushed a trade embargo that set the stage for the War of 1812. Sometimes presidents change things in ways they don’t intend.
Andrew Jackson was the most prominent change candidate of the first half of the 19th century. He was a populist who ran against the Eastern bankers and ended the grip on the presidency of the Adams family and the Virginia planters. His 1829 inauguration was marked by a wild White House party in which inebriated supporters — a drunken mob, as some saw it — drank whiskey-laden punch and broke china and furniture. Jacksonian democracy had arrived, though for Native Americans it led to the Trail of Tears, and Jackson’s battle against the banks led to economic chaos and eventually, soon after he left office, the depression known as the Panic of ’37.
Nothing brought change to America so dramatically as the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, which triggered secession, civil war, emancipation, the Constitutional prohibition of slavery, and a new beginning for the nation in which the words “the United States” would generally be treated as a singular rather than a plural. Some 750,000 Americans died in the war, and Lincoln was fated to be the final casualty.
Change didn’t always require an election. Teddy Roosevelt, just 42 years old, took the oath after William McKinley died from gunshot wounds. The energetic young president co-opted the press corps and used the presidency’s “bully pulpit” to do battle with monopolists and robber barons and push a progressive agenda.
Every modern change-agent president labors in the long shadow cast by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his first hundred days in office. But the conditions that enabled the passage of FDR’s New Deal were unique. He took the oath of office at the nadir of the Great Depression. Banks were locking their doors. Unemployment stood at 25 percent. Communism and fascism had taken hold in Europe, and the survival of democracy was in doubt. Some pundits called for FDR to assume dictatorial powers. Stasis was not an option.
“FDR was able to accomplish what he did in the first hundred days only because the Great Depression was rewriting the rules of the game,” says Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington.
The Democrats won five straight presidential elections until Dwight Eisenhower captured the White House in 1952. Ike never proclaimed himself a change agent. The New Deal survived.
“What Eisenhower was most brilliant at was bureaucracy. He knew when to threaten, he knew when to pull out, he knew when to bring in outsiders,” said Heather Cox Richardson, a historian at Boston College.
Then came John F. Kennedy and a generational change. In his inaugural address, he offered a chilling vision of a nation and a civilization on the eve of destruction. Nuclear holocaust now seemed a plausible fate.
“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life,” Kennedy said. He spoke of “the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science,” and “mankind’s final war,” and the “hour of maximum danger.” It was scary stuff.
His point, says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, was that he would be just as tough on communism as any Republican. Kennedy flexed his muscles as a Cold Warrior and, just a few months into his term, approved the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba — a complete fiasco. The young president had to learn on the job.
Kennedy’s assassination put Lyndon Johnson in the White House. Johnson’s mastery of the Washington political machinery is unmatched in modern times, and after his landslide 1964 victory he succeeded in advancing his Great Society agenda of social programs and civil rights laws. LBJ showed what an aggressive president coupled with a friendly Congress can do. “The presidency is a battering ram,” writes historian Stephen Skowronek in his book “The Politics Presidents Make.”
That aggression proved LBJ’s undoing, however. He fully owned America’s escalation in Vietnam, and as the war revealed itself to be a tragic quagmire, he lost public support and went on prime-time television to say he would not seek reelection.
That led to a change in party control of the White House. Richard Nixon had vowed that he, personally, had changed since his younger days. He was “the new Nixon.” In his first inaugural address he called for political harmony.
“To lower our voices would be a simple thing,” Nixon said.
Voices, however, were not lowered, and not simply because the Vietnam War dragged on for years. Nixon had a deep flaw in his temperament: insecurity, which expressed itself as resentment and paranoia. His White House became a dark place of dirty tricks, slush funds, an enemies list and “plumbers” to plug news leaks.
William Safire, a Nixon aide, later wrote a book that described Nixon as a layer cake. Formal on top. Below that a progressive. Below that a poker player. “Under that is the hater, the impugner of motives, the man who claims he is not angry with the press because he cannot be angry with somebody he does not respect.”
Watergate destroyed Nixon’s presidency and serves as an enduring lesson that character matters.
When Jimmy Carter ran for president in 1976, he embraced his status as outsider: “The insiders have had their chance and they have not delivered. And their time has run out.”
His inaugural message was high-minded, bordering on moralizing. He talked of “the spiritual strength” and the “moral strength” of the nation, and the obligation to take on “moral duties.” In his inaugural parade, he and the first lady surprised everyone by getting out of their armored limousine and walking on Pennsylvania Avenue. He was just Jimmy, a peanut farmer from Georgia — a dramatic change in presidential style.
But as soon as he entered the White House, he alienated Democrats in Congress by going after their pork-barrel projects. He didn’t think he needed a chief of staff, and so day-to-day, Carter micromanaged, overconfident in his ability to study every issue, read every report. Things went south in the coming years: gas lines, soaring inflation, the Iran hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Carter beat back a Democratic primary challenge from liberal hero Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, but on election night 1980 Carter was buried in the Ronald Reagan landslide.
Historians say Reagan came closest among modern presidents to matching FDR’s success in changing Washington. Though vowing revolution, Reagan was also a pragmatist. He picked his rival George H.W. Bush (who was ultra-establishment) as his running mate, and installed as his first chief of staff Bush’s campaign chairman, James A. Baker III.
Reagan was, as historian Richard Reeves put it, a “clean-desk man,” sticking to a 9-to-6 work schedule with a lunch break upstairs with the first lady and, often, a nap. He ran Cabinet meetings that often ended with the directive, “You fellas work it out.”
In his first inaugural address Reagan had decried deficit spending: “For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children’s future for the temporary convenience of the present.”
And then he proved to be the biggest deficit spender since FDR. Reagan pushed through a large tax cut and a huge boost in military spending. Deficits soared to levels not seen since World War II. But he didn’t pay a political price for that and won reelection in another landslide.
After Reagan, the word “liberal” became a pejorative. When Bill Clinton won the presidency, he did so by running as a “New Democrat,” a triangulator, renouncing old-school Democratic tax-and-spend policies. Clinton’s goal of “dramatic change” fell victim to Republican intransigence and his own lack of professional and personal discipline. And a more subtle change was also afoot: The political parties had become more ideologically consistent and, thus, more polarized.
Clinton took office with an economic stimulus plan, but he could never get it through the Senate. His push for universal health care failed spectacularly. His successful proposals skewed conservative, and he lamented to his staff that they had become Eisenhower Republicans. After learning early on that Congress had put limitations on new spending, he exploded with frustration.
“I won’t have a goddamn Democratic budget until 1996!” Clinton fumed, according to a memoir by his labor secretary, Robert Reich. “Education, job training — none of the things I campaigned on. What’ll I be able to tell the average working person I did for him?”
The Democrats were clobbered in the midterm election, losing the House for the first time in 40 years. For Clinton, that was the wrong kind of change.
Barack Obama made change the central theme of his 2008 presidential bid, saying in his convention speech, “Change happens — change happens because the American people demand it, because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time. America, this is one of those moments.”
And change did happen, as he became the first African American in the White House, coming into office with high approval ratings in the midst of the Great Recession. Republican leaders in Congress chose the path of obstruction. Obama’s successful legislative efforts relied almost exclusively on Democratic votes, and as Democrats lost power on the Hill, he resorted to executive orders — actions that can be wiped out with the stroke of a pen. Some of Obama’s signature achievements could prove to be ephemeral.
Every presidency is unique and unscripted, except for the oath of office, unchanged since it was written in 1787 — Article II, Section One of the Constitution. Obama in 2009 had to take the oath twice because both he and the chief justice flubbed it the first time.
History isn’t predictive, but it’s a guide. One broad lesson is something Obama said he learned only after he arrived in the White House:
“The federal government and our democracy is not a speedboat,” Obama said. “It’s an ocean liner.”