By Lee Hamilton
One reason I consider myself fortunate to have led a life in politics is that, over time, I’ve had a chance to work with nine presidents. From Lyndon Johnson through Barack Obama, I’ve talked policy, politics and, sometimes, the trivial details of daily life with them.
Johnson was a deal-maker — always trying to figure out how to get your vote. He notched great domestic accomplishments, yet was brought down by a war he could neither win nor quit. Richard Nixon was one of the more complex personalities to inhabit the office: highly intelligent and brimming with energy, but he could be vindictive and had a flawed moral compass.
Few people were nicer in politics than Gerald Ford, whose great contribution was to help the country heal after Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. Jimmy Carter was a down-to-earth campaigner whose engineer’s mind led him to seek comprehensive solutions to the problems of the day. But his outsider approach led to difficulties, even with a Democratic Congress.
Ronald Reagan may be identified as the great conservative ideologue, but he was pragmatic. He criticized government — but signed the appropriations bills that came to his desk. He denounced Medicare — but made no effort to repeal it. George H.W. Bush, meanwhile, came from the “aristocracy” yet devoted his life to public service with decency, honor, and modesty. He deserves praise for his skill in handling the transition from the Cold War. Bill Clinton mastered policy detail and had superb political skills, but couldn’t get his major health care bill through, and was hobbled by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his impeachment. I often wonder how much more could have been accomplished had he not been distracted by personal problems.
George W. Bush was affable and likable, and right after the 9/11 attacks he effectively led the country. The course of his presidency, however, was downhill: from peace and prosperity to war and the Great Recession. Barack Obama was deliberative, smart, and took a compromise-ready approach. But he changed in the face of implacable Republican opposition, arriving with expansive goals and leaving with a far shorter, more incremental horizon.
Presidents are human, with qualities both fine and troubling. Each was different, and at least one tested our democracy. Yet our system of government showed considerable resilience — in part because Congress often played a crucial role as counterbalance, a role much needed with our current president.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.