WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 26: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the beginning of a new conference with members of the coronavirus task force, including Vice President Mike Pence in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House February 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump updated the American people about what his administration’s ‘whole of government’ response to the global coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
What does a president do when he – or everyone surrounding him – realizes his presidency has failed?
Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush experienced that sinking feeling while in office with re-election or most of the term pending.
To that list, we can add President Donald Trump.
For most of the unfortunate presidents, a particular time or event marked the end of their leadership projects.
LBJ knew it was over on January 30, 1968, when the North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam, known as the Tet Offensive, belied his administration’s claim that we were winning the war.
Challenged in the Democratic presidential primaries by two anti-war senators, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, Johnson announced on March 31, 1968 that he would not seek re-election.
Engulfed in Watergate soon after his re-election in 1972, Nixon attempted to prevent Congress and the courts from obtaining taped conversations that contained evidence of criminal activity. In October 1973, he fired the special prosecutor seeking the tapes.
However, when Congress confirmed Gerald Ford, the House Republican leader Nixon appointed to succeed the disgraced Spiro Agnew as Vice President, on December 6, 1973, Nixon disengaged.
Apparently, Nixon viewed Ford, whom he disparaged, as an insurance policy against impeachment. But the president miscalculated Ford’s support and concluded he was not going to survive.
Though Nixon maintained an active public schedule until his resignation on August 9, 1974, he retreated into isolation, rarely meeting with White House staff, Cabinet members, or Congressional leaders.
Carter faced an uphill battle to win re-election in 1980, dealing with high inflation and unemployment at home and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Iran hostage crisis abroad.
Despite months of diplomatic activity to bring home the 52 U.S. embassy employees, seized by Iranian militants in November 1979, Carter made no progress.
The president approved a rescue mission by Delta Force. On April 24, 1980, the attempt proved disastrous, as nine soldiers died from a helicopter crash.
Carter gambled and lost. The hostages did not return until Ronald Reagan was inaugurated president in January 1981.
In contrast to the circumstances of his predecessors’ demise, no single event signaled the end of George H.W. Bush’s presidency.
That is, unless you count Bush’s decision midway in his only term to raise taxes in order to deal with federal budget deficits.
This violated his “Read my lips – no new taxes” pledge at the 1988 Republican National Convention, precipitating an insurgent primary campaign by conservative commentator Pat Buchanan.
Falling behind third-party candidate Ross Perot and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, Bush repudiated his tax flip-flop and turned the 1992 RNC platform over to Buchanan and religious fundamentalists.
Once riding a 90 percent approval rating after the Persian Gulf War, Bush received only 38 percent of the popular vote when he lost to Clinton in the general election.
Looking at commonalities, all four presidents in crisis modified key policies. Johnson sought a political settlement in Vietnam. Nixon abandoned efforts to dismantle LBJ’s Great Society. Carter obsessed over the hostages. Bush promised to care about the economy.
Except Nixon, the presidents kept working despite their lame-duck status. LBJ and Carter tried but failed to produce October surprises prior to the election.
Importantly, all the doomed presidents accepted their fate when it was time to go, although Nixon resigned only when it was clear he was guilty of leading a criminal cover-up.
Trump is taking a different path.
Trump thinks it is unfair to him that the pandemic happened just at the time he beat impeachment and the unemployment rate was 3.5 percent.
He can’t say what he wants to do in the next four years.
Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @mcclelef.
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