CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The debate about whether President Barack Obama should seek congressional authorization to make limited strikes against Syria is part of his larger struggle to build a lasting legacy. Obama has studied the extraordinary achievements of Abraham Lincoln and other widely revered presidents.
But he can also learn from presidents who are forgotten because their mistakes or circumstances helped to bury their legacies. While many forgotten presidents served for one term or less, some served longer and enjoyed great electoral success.
Enduring presidential legacies require presidents to do things that will withstand the test of time. To build lasting legacies, presidents need successors to build on and invest in their visions, and they must forge critical alliances across party lines.
Consider, for example, James Monroe, the only man besides Obama to be the third president in a row to be re-elected. Once wildly popular, Monroe is now largely forgotten. His first term was known as the “era of good feelings” because there was no viable opposition party. When he was re-elected in 1820, he won every electoral vote but one.
After he had the executive mansion painted white to cover damage from fires the British set in 1817, it became popularly known as the White House. Most Americans don’t know this. They remember little about his presidency except the “Monroe Doctrine” that supports 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 19th century: the Missouri Compromise, which had restricted slavery in the Missouri territory, and the Tenure in Office Act, which restricted the president’s ability to remove certain executive branch officials without Senate approval. Subsequent presidents differed over these 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 last member of the Virginia dynasty of presidents. But he had nothing to offer that could match the vision and stature of the three other members — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James 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. Whereas 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 no fidelity to his legacy.
It is not too soon for Obama to consider whom he wants to follow him and which of his legislative initiatives Republicans might support. If the presidency does not fall into friendly hands or he does not produce significant bipartisan achievements in his second term, he risks having his successor(s) bury his legacy.
The next president from Virginia elected to the White House after Monroe — John Tyler — is also largely forgotten. Yet, he has one of the richest constitutional legacies of any American president. He was the first vice president to be elevated to the presidency by the death of his predecessor. In spite of the opposition of his Cabinet, he established the critical precedent that regards the vice president as automatically becoming president upon the death of the incumbent. He established other enduring precedents as he pushed back successfully against congressional encroachments on the president’s authority to independently exercise his nominating and veto powers.
But, Tyler is largely forgotten because he was almost always working against Congress, and both parties hated him.
Democrats never forgave him for leaving their party to run with William Henry Harrison, the Whig Party candidate who won the 1840 presidential election, and Whigs never trusted him, particularly because he rejected their fundamental belief that a president should be subservient to Congress. No one felt allegiance to his presidency, much less his legacy.
Grover Cleveland, another two-term president is only remembered, if at all, as the only man to have served two nonconsecutive terms as president. He was the only Democrat elected in the second half of the 19th century and the only president other than Franklin Roosevelt to have won at least the plurality of the popular vote in three consecutive presidential elections.
Yet, Cleveland’s actual record is forgotten. He devoted his entire first term to vetoing laws he thought favored special interests, ultimately casting more vetoes than any president besides FDR. And he rallied the American people to side with him when the Senate retaliated against his efforts to remove executive officials to create vacancies to fill by stalling hundreds of his nominations.
Cleveland’s constant clashes with Congress took their toll. In his second term, his disdain for Congress and stubbornness prevented him from reaching any meaningful accord to deal with the worst economic downturn in between the first and second great depressions. 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 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 helped to create 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, and he could have easily won re-election in 1928. But he lost interest in politics after his son died shortly before the 1924 election. He did not help his Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, win the presidency in 1928 and silently watched as the economy lapsed into the Great Depression. His silence and the failures of his international initiatives and economic policies destroyed his legacy.
As Obama winds his way through the first year of his second term, he cannot stand above, or apart from, the fray like Monroe and Coolidge. He must lead the nation through it. He must work with Congress rather than battle 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, 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 his actions and define his legacy as something more than his having been the first African-American elected president or the controversy associated with 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 a chaired professor in constitutional law at UNC-Chapel Hill.