Presidents Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, Joe Biden
Dissed by the People Who Elected Them
From most vantage points, the consensus on Joe Biden’s presidency is, at best, “meh.” Can we agree this is corrosive to the country’s dysfunctional morale and undermines a response to our many crises -- in the fullest sense of that overused term?
Biden’s enduring challenge is that he lacks qualities that enhance a president’s reputation and poll ratings with an electoral base. Inspiration -- which Barack Obama achieved even as his presidency was unable to deliver on so many of its objectives. Intimidation -- which Donald Trump was able to do to his political foes while stoking grievance among the millions who admired him.
Biden is an old white man of seventy-nine, two characteristics out of fashion in public figures these days, except, as it happens, to Trump’s core supporters.
Agreed. So what?
The midterm elections are only months away. Primaries and redistricting are setting the parameters of the outcome. And unless Democrats and independents get mobilized behind the president, his policies, and his political skills, the results will be Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker Kevin McCarthy and a lame duck Biden administration. How’s that for a future?
What do Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter have to do with this?
I recently read Jeffrey Frank’s excellent book The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953, along with two equally good biographies of Jimmy Carter: Kai Bird’s The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter and Jonathan Alter’s His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life. The books tell comparable stories. Men of modest origins far from the centers of political action, who served in the military, ascended to the presidency and left office with dismal popularity ratings: 32 percent for Truman, 34 percent for Carter. (Biden teeters in the same range.) Truman was an accidental president, following the death of a charismatic wartime leader in Franklin Roosevelt. And Carter rose from the debacle of Nixon’s downfall and was so unknown that the Atlanta Constitution’s headline on the day after he announced his campaign was “Jimmy Who?”
As these three books describe, the Truman and Carter presidencies were more eventful and more successful than was perceived at the time. Truman was considered too often irascible and stymied by what he called a “do-nothing” Congress. Carter was linked to the term national “malaise” which he didn’t actually use and the image of him fending off a “killer rabbit” from his rowboat.
“Good ol’ Joe” Biden has been in public life since 1972 and was about to end a third presidential campaign when he got the 2020 Democratic nomination – with a notable absence of enthusiasm among the party he led. There was Covid-19, severe economic stress, and just days before his inauguration an assault on Congress by supporters of his defeated opponent, who refused to concede.
Welcome to the White House, Joe!
So, Truman and Carter were dissed. What did that mean?
Frank’s book describes in detail Truman’s decision not to run again in 1952. He and his wife, Bess, wanted to go home to Independence, Missouri. He suspected that his Republican opponent would be General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the affable hero of World War II, and Truman had fired General Douglas MacArthur, another military icon, for insubordination during the Korean War.
Instead, the Democrats nominated Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, who had to be persuaded to run, a divorced “egghead” who was eloquent but offered no stemwinders on the stump. Eisenhower’s two terms gave us, among other things that lasted, the presidency of Richard Nixon.
In 1980 Carter was challenged within his own party by Senator Ted Kennedy but managed to secure the nomination despite the burdens of the Iran hostage saga and stagflation. Ronald Reagan then crushed Carter in the general election and by any measure set the Republican Party on a course that in time produced the fealty to MAGA, Trump, and the extreme right on social policy and guns.
Why are the Biden presidency and the Democrats in such trouble?
Two reasons: The Republicans – almost to a person – are obstructing most initiatives, aided by a useful Democratic senator or two. Don’t get me started!
But the deeper reason is that the majority of American voters who elected Biden with – lest we forget -- the largest number of votes in history don’t appreciate how damaging and dangerous the current attitude toward his leadership and administration is and will be.
Yes, the “imperial presidency” is an appealing target for the media and for Republicans. Everything is said to be Biden’s responsibility and his fault. Credit is less forthcoming. But -- and there is always a but -- the presidency is actually limited in bringing about the sweeping changes the country needs now. We are witnessing the effect of the constitutionally mandated “checks and balances” with Congress and the judiciary.
Is there a solution?
We can’t change who Joe Biden is any more than the Americans of earlier eras could reinvent Harry Truman or Jimmy Carter in the White House. Instead, let’s recognize that Biden is the president we have. He is a much better president than the credit he gets -- and a genuinely good man. That was also true, in retrospect, of Truman and Carter.
Politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Joe Manchin, and Kyrsten Sinema revel in the limelight. And by instinct and design, the media’s role is to examine and investigate flaws. Today that process moves so much faster than in the past. It took months for The Washington Post to galvanize attention for Watergate in 1972 and 1973. We live in almost daily scandal cycles – and I have the experience to make this assertion – that make Watergate seem paltry by comparison. The January 6 committee’s prime-time hearings should be stunning.
A majority of this country’s voters chose Joe Biden in 2020. A majority of the country favors his basic stances on policy – abortion, gun safety, financial support for families, etc. Decades from now, will biographers be writing about what happened when Biden’s (probable) one-term presidency was abandoned by his own constituency?