By Michael J. Gerhardt
If you think that Barack Obama can only learn how to build a lasting legacy from our most revered presidents like Abraham Lincoln, you should think twice. I am sure that Obama knows what great presidents did that made them great. He can also learn, however, from some once popular presidents who are now forgotten because they made mistakes or circumstances that helped to bury their legacies.
Enduring presidential legacies require presidents to do things and express constitutional visions that stand the test of time. To be lasting, presidential legacies need to inspire subsequent presidents and generations to build on them. Without such inspiration and investment, legacies are lost and eventually forgotten.
Consider, for example, James Monroe who was the only man besides Obama to be the third president in a row to be reelected. Once wildly popular, he is now largely forgotten. His first term was known as the era of good feelings because it coincided with the demise of any viable opposition party. When he was reelected in 1820, he won every electoral vote but one. Yet, most Americans know nothing about his presidency except perhaps the “Monroe Doctrine” supporting American intervention to protect the Americas from European interference. The doctrine endures because subsequent presidents have adhered to it.
Monroe’s record is largely forgotten for three reasons: First, his legislative achievements eroded over time. He authorized two of the most significant laws enacted in the nineteenth century — the Missouri Compromise, restricting slavery in the Missouri territory, and the Tenure in Office Act, which restricted the terms of certain executive branch officials. But, subsequent presidents differed over both laws’ constitutionality and tried to repeal or amend them. Eventually, the Supreme Court struck them both down.
Second, Monroe had no distinctive vision of the presidency or Constitution. He entered office as the fourth and last member of the Virginia dynasty of presidents. He had nothing to offer that could match the vision and stature of his three predecessors from Virginia — Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. Even with no opposition party, he was unsure where to lead the country. His last two years in office were so fractious, they became known as the era of bad feelings.
Third, Monroe had no close political ally to follow him in office. While he had been his mentor Madison’s logical successor, Monroe had no natural heir. Subsequent presidents, including John Quincy Adams who had been his Secretary of State, felt little fidelity to his legacy.
If President Obama wants to avoid Monroe’s mistakes, he must plan for the future. He should consider whom he would like to follow him and which of his legislative initiatives Republicans might support. If Obama stands on the sidelines in the next election or fails to produce significant bipartisan achievements in his second term, he risks having his successor(s) bury his legacy.
Grover Cleveland, another two-term president, is more forgotten than Monroe. If he is remembered at all, it is as the only man to serve two, non-consecutive terms as president. He was the only Democrat elected in the second half of the nineteenth century and the only president other than Franklin Roosevelt to have won most of the popular vote in three consecutive presidential elections.
Yet, Cleveland’s record is forgotten because he blocked rather than built things. He devoted his first term to vetoing laws he thought favored special interests. He cast more vetoes than any president except for FDR, and in his second term the Senate retaliated against his efforts to remove executive officials to create vacancies to fill by stalling hundreds of his nominations.
Cleveland successfully appealed to the American people to break the impasse with the Senate, but his constant clashes with Congress took their toll. In his second term, his disdain for Congress, bullying its members to do what he wanted, and stubbornness prevented him from reaching any meaningful accord to deal with the worst economic downturn before the Great Depression of the 1930s. While Cleveland resisted building bridges to Republicans in Congress, Obama still has time to build some.
Finally, Calvin Coolidge had the vision and rhetoric required for an enduring legacy, but his results failed the test of time. He was virtually unknown when he became Republican Warren Harding’s Vice-President. But, when Harding died, Coolidge inherited a scandal-ridden administration. He worked methodically with Congress to root out the corruption in the administration, established regular press briefings, and easily won the 1924 presidential election Over the next four years, he signed the most significant federal disaster relief bill until Hurricane Katrina and the first federal regulations of broadcasting and aviation. He supported establishing the World Court and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed war.
Coolidge’s vision had wide appeal. His conviction that the business of America was business still resonates among many Republicans, but he quickly squandered his good will with the Republican-led Senate when, shortly after his inauguration in 1925, he insisted on re-nominating Charles Warren as Attorney General after it had rejected his nomination. Coolidge could have easily won reelection, but he lost interest in politics after his son died in 1924. He did not help his Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover win the presidency in 1928 and said nothing as the economy lapsed into the Great Depression. His penchant for silence, for which he was widely ridiculed, and the failures of his international initiatives and economic policies destroyed his legacy.
As Obama enters his second term, he cannot stand above the fray like Monroe and Coolidge. He must lead the nation through it. He must work with Congress rather than become mired in squabbles with it as did Cleveland, whose contempt for Congress and limited vision made grand bargains impossible. On many issues, including gay rights and solving the debt ceiling, President Obama’s detachment has allowed him to be perceived as having been led rather than leading. He still has a chance to lead through his words and actions and define his legacy as something more than his having been the first African-American elected president or the controversy over the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act. Unlike forgotten presidents, he still has the means to construct a legacy Americans will value and remember, but to avoid their fates he must use them — now.
Michael Gerhardt is Samuel Ashe Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. A nationally recognized authority on constitutional conflicts, he has testified in several Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and has published several books, including The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional Legacy.