JFK to Trump: The Good, Bad and Ugly
A strange duality in US presidencies can be observed since the second half of the last century, demonstrating that after every so-called “good” president, there has been a “bad” one; a counter-president if you will.
While good and bad are subjective and not necessarily based on quantifiable data, how a leader is perceived and remembered go a long way in shaping the history of things to come.
Pop culture also plays a critical role in emphasising how presidents are interpreted, a perspective already parodied on The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy.
For brevity's sake, let’s begin with John F. Kennedy, elected the 35th president in 1960. Notoriously famous for an inimitable charm, good nature and humanitarian disposition, Kennedy is undoubtedly one of the most popular leaders of the democratic world. Setting aside his personal life and going by average approval ratings alone, he topped in at 70.1 - certainly no small feat. Had he survived his first term or lived to see a second one, the future of the world, our present past, may have turned out quite differently.
His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, is remembered for leading the Unites States into a darker period of uncertainty. Civil rights issues dominated the homeland while increased US presence in Vietnam, the opposite of Kennedy’s desire, manifested through aggressive foreign policy. This led to a mix of approval and disapproval ratings by Johnson’s second term, culminating with an average of 55.1. Evidently not the most popular president, but not the most despised either, with one and half terms under his belt between 1963 and 1969.
Richard Nixon, elected in 1968 and assuming office in 1969, represented a new era of failed leadership, despite being instrumental in Vietnamisation and establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1971, Nixon began his pet project, the War on Drugs, to focus on criminalising substance trade and abuse. Instead of preventing nuclear proliferation, Nixon believed an attack on drugs was an ideal source of government funding. This “war” categorised users, peddlers and producers in the same spectrum of legal ramifications irrespective of the substance, hence a cannabis consumer could be tried and treated with similar consequences to a cocaine producer. Had he focussed on humanitarian aspects, such as rehabilitating drug abuse victims instead of criminalising them, a solution to substance addiction would be a realisable ideal instead of the militarisation of law enforcement that eventually followed. The man was re-elected for a second term but was forced to resign in 1974 following the infamous Watergate political scandal that brought him to near-certain impeachment. Yes, that is the snorting sound of Beavis and Butthead’s synchronised laughter playing in the background right about now. Not that it matters, mind you. Nixon walked away pardoned by his successor and won lucrative book deals, churning a multi-millionaire out of him. A true blue misuse of the American Dream - sigh.
Enter Gerald Ford from 1974 till 1977 and Jimmy Carter in 1977 till 1981. Both had uninspiring approval ratings of 47.2 and 45.5, respectively. Hard to blame them given an abysmal legacy inherited from Johnson and Nixon. The country was still recovering from foreign policy shackles and a bitter defeat against communism in South East Asia. The USSR was an ever more powerful adversary and space had become the final frontier for an icy expansion of the Cold War. Domestically, the US economy was at its weakest since the Great Depression. High inflation, recession, and unemployment continued their malignant effects. Ford was not elected to office but won the role of president following Nixon’s resignation. Pardoning Nixon demolished his already failing reputation as an accident-prone klutz.
Jimmy Carter’s soft leadership eroded his popularity faster than Road Runner’s velocity. While neither of these two men were “evil,” they delivered an indifferent leadership to produce a tasteless stuffing between a Nixon-Reagan sandwich. Interestingly, Carter won a Nobel Peace Price in 2002 for his post-presidency human rights work, demonstrating that official position may be an obstacle to noble work for those in high office. Good man, good.
Next up came a fella who took Star Wars a little too literally. Unsurprisingly, former Hollywood actor and cowboy Ronald Reagan, the 40th president, may have had little reference points outside of cinema. Eight years in office, between 1981 and 1989, saw him catapult the arms race by injecting steroids into NASA's space programme. America was not just meant to be a nation of a few united states, it was destined to be the United Space of America. A tough, mean and unrelenting Robocop America hardwired with money and technology. So unrelenting was he that Nixon’s War on Drugs continued and the ideology of the fall of the USSR evolved into a political contagion. Oh boy, Reagan must have danced that night away in December 1991 when the Soviet Union, sworn enemy of all things good and godly, was now a demolished map of broken states and worthless economy. Too bad he could not predict the rise of Putin, but that's a different story. Reagan walked away with an approval rating of 52.8 as he fought inflation and unemployment with Reaganomics, his supply-side approach to managing his giant economy. More than anything else, he will be remembered for bringing the curtain down on the Cold War and playing an instrumental role in knocking out the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Alas, a relatively good man is replaced by a man with an agenda. Pro-gun lobbyist George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988 and assumed the role of 41st president in 1989. Luckily, he served a single term, carving out more than he could chew through unnecessary foreign policy expansion in Panamá, Somalia and the Persian Gulf. In spite of a campaign promise that screamed “read my lips: no new taxes”, Bush Senior defaulted on his word amidst recessionary fears and budget deficits spawned from the Reagan years. Unemployment followed and Daddy Bush failed to deliver. Perhaps, if his focus was on domestic policies instead of international oil reserves, the man may have cruised into an easy re-election. On the flip side he did found the Points of Light Foundation, a voluntary service to solve America’s “serious” social and community-related problems. Even though Bush’s approval rating was a staggering 60.9 due to how American voters perceived his stance during the Gulf War in 1990, he lost to a man who's presence reignited the nostalgic leadership of JFK.
At the heart of a young Bill Clinton’s campaign was the slogan, “It's time to change America.” The 42nd president lasted two terms, from 1993 till 2001. He survived the economic wreckage inherited from his predecessors as well as an impeachment trial in 1999 from which he was acquitted by the Senate. Outside of personal controversies that would make Peter Griffith chuckle, Clinton came to define an optimistic new world where positive change, at last, looked inevitable. As a protestor of the Vietnam War, Clinton’s middle-class roots and humble beginnings positioned him as a champion for underdogs. The issues facing America were not international warfare but foreign and domestic economics. Not that Clinton was weak when it came to rogue nations or the eternal Israel-Palestinian conflict, but America was clearly focusing on expansionary policies and economics once again. Unemployment and deficits dropped, NAFTA was born and his approval rating stood at 55.1.
If the antiquated electoral college had been abolished and Al Gore won the next election based on popular votes, it would have saved the world from an avoidable catastrophe that followed for the next eight years. A cosmic anomaly in the form of George W. Bush arrived into our lives as the 43rd president to mock us between 2001 and 2009. He inherited a good economy and a world much more at peace with itself. By the time Bush Jr. had finished frying our brains with bad English and a stoner face that escaped his predecessors’ War on Drugs, several jolts to the planet had occurred. 9-11, the invasion of Afghanistan and destruction of Iraq, collapse of the financial system, the worst recession since the Great Depression in 2008, and civil unrest in Syria. He brought with him his father’s arsenal of genocidal clowns: trigger-happy Dick Cheney, known-unknown Donald Rumsfeld and perpetually-certain Condoleezza Rice, flanked by Britain’s wannabe-sidekick Tony Blair. If “evil” had a face you could laugh at, Dubya was the man of the hour. Yet one of the richest presidents, with an estimated net worth of $39m, walked away with an unbelievable 49.4 in average approval ratings. Some day, these five shady and furious individuals may dance to the tune of a war crimes tribunal for a blatantly unnecessary and unlawful invasion of Iraq and the burgeoning of ISIS - a terrorist organisation that makes Al Qaida look like Cesar Romero's bumbling Joker from the Batman TV show (1966).
The candidate who followed next shocked the world and sent ripples across political systems everywhere for entirely different reasons. An African-American with an uncommon, non-Western name assumed office in 2009. Barack Obama, America’s 44th president, presides over the Oval Office until January 2017. In spite of a relatively low average approval rating of 48.0, Obama is popular as the people’s president, proving that approval rates are not the best way to assess a president’s worth. His focus on key issues were charged by apt campaign slogans such as “Yes we can,” “Hope,” “Change we can believe in,” and “Forward”. In addition to winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, Obama successfully introduced tax relief and unemployment-reducing schemes, as well as the controversial but incredibly essential Obamacare healthcare act. He also sought an end to US military involvement in Iraq, brokered a nuclear deal with Iran, established new ties with Cuba, ordered the deathly strike that killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, and lobbied to shut down the torture hell hole known as Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Phew. But to scientists and climatologists everywhere, Obama will be remembered as the president who supported the Paris Agreement to combat the real threat facing our volatile planet - human induced climate change. If the 22nd Amendment was repealed, allowing a commander-in-chief to serve a third term, it is fair to speculate that Barack Obama would stand a great chance at re-election.
As if the world had not experienced enough weak or dangerous presidents and dictators, the American people once again proved their appetite for destruction by choosing to elect a lunatic fully capable of undoing all the good work effected by Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and John F. Kennedy. As president-elect and full-time drama queen Donald Trump marches into the White House in January 2017 with a chaotic transition team, the world holds its breath to see if Stephen Hawking’s prophecy that the human race may not survive the next one thousand years holds water. The physicist’s reference is to humans’ immaturity to protect the only planet we presently call home. Given Trump’s paranoid claim that climate change is a Chinese hoax, it is impossible to deny his role in either sealing the fate of our planet or in taking Obama’s promotion of environmental responsibility to the next level. And then there are more rants on international trade and threats on mutating foreign policy, clearing out immigrants and open support of whitewashing. As Trump’s transition team is shaped, a growing swell in the world’s plumbing is taking place. Whether the big T’s laxative effect on a fragile global economy proves to weed out the worms or promotes indigestion remains to be seen. So far, no educated policies have been proposed by the new commander-in-chief and unless an actual impeachment is emblazoned on Trump’s golden locks, the next four years of human history may be the bleakest period since the dark ages of barbarianism.
So here’s to peace. May it rest in pieces until the next “good” president, hopefully Michelle Obama - or heck even Tom Hanks will do - brings an all-inclusive humanity into the forefront of what it means to make a nation truly great.