Presidents Change Their Minds (and other shocking events) Part One

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No one likes war. Yet presidential history seems littered with tales of heroic battlefields, triumphant generals and American strength. Presidential contests have are historically about war too. Incumbents and challengers alike have won many elections on both pro- and anti-war tickets. So history shows us electing legendary generals like Washington and Grant (not to mention lesser knowns like Hayes and Pierce (are they presidents?!?!) ). Yet, America has not chosen a general since Dwight David Eisenhower was re-elected in 1956.

Conversely, opposition to war is not exactly new in the American physique. Despite what some boomers may say, war-protesting was not invented back in the 1960s. Also not new is young future presidents acting the role of pacifist “peacemongers.” These same men have on to wage military campaigns in the President’s chair. In 2008, Obama rode a wave of war opposition to the White House. Six years later, he stands on the verge of a military escalation. This change is seemingly shifty.  It is by no means unprecedented.

Let’s take a look at some examples…

Barack Obama

Our current chief magistrate wages war in the Oval Office today. However, he was not always gun-ho about intervening in Iraq. In fact, the clip below shows a young Barack Obama saying he opposes the Iraq War itself. Six years later he was president.

Bill Clinton

Much like Obama, President Bill Clinton never engaged in a full scale ground war but was no stranger to military conflict in the 1990s. Some examples include extended engagements in Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Sudan. Also much like his successor, Clinton’s early years were littered with opposition to war. In 1969, Clinton narrowly missed induction into war even though he was drafted. In an extended letter to Colonel Holmes we see a young Clinton clearly opposed war. He stated that he had been…

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“working every day against a war I opposed and despised with a depth of feeling I had reserved solely for racism in America before Vietnam.  I did not take the matter lightly but studied it carefully, and there was a time when not many people had more information about Vietnam at hand than I did.  I have written and spoken and marched against the war.”

Abraham Lincoln

The future 16th President came into the US Congress like a freight train. The nation was at war. He took a stand. It wasn’t what you would expect. In the 1846 midterm elections freshman Whig congressman Abraham Lincoln was elected on an anti-war ticket. Though Whig vitriol included former President John Quincy Adams, it was the young firebrand Lincoln who had some of the harshest protests against war. Among other remarks the future war wager remarked that President James K. Polk, “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun the war.” He compared Polk’s lies and deceits about waging war to…

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“…struggling for his client’s neck in a desperate case, employing every artifice to work round, befog, and cover up with many words some point arising in the case which he dare not admit and yet could not deny.” Yikes.

Whether you hold Obama in esteem or contempt for his escalating shift toward war just remember, he’s hardly original.

 

THE SIX YEAR ITCH

Thoughts on the Six Year Itch

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I am sure you have seen this. And this. Maybe you are thinking, “Wow! Obama is gonna go down the annals as the worst.” Maybe you aren’t. I can’t read your mind anymore.

But the most important question to ask is how come a two-term and at times wildly popular President can now suddenly poll well behind the challenger he defeated only two years prior. Did he and his party suddenly become unpopular? It might seem like Obama is headed for a date at the bottom of the presidential rankings with the likes of Buchanan and Fillmore, but is this historically unpopular here in year six? This is an interesting phenomenon that political scientists have deemed The Six Year Itch. Is it real? Let’s take a look…

Since the end of the failed Southern Independence Movement (Civil War) there have been ten instances of presidents reaching their sixth year in office. Some we remember fondly. Others we do not.

1. Ulysses S. Grant- 1874-

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The insanely popular victor of the previous decade’s war could not withstand the political realities. His Reconstruction plan was coming unhinged and his attempt to quell his corrupt cabinet yielded few results. There were no Gallop polls back then but his party lost 93 seats in the House, giving up the chamber, and still another in the Senate.

Surely that is the result of a failed administration and not the six year itch. Right?

2. Grover Cleveland- 1894-

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It would take twenty years for American to see another two-termer and this one came in the form of the first and only non-consecutive terms taboot. Amazingly, it happened again. And with more gusto. Cleveland’s party lost 107 House seats (purportedly the largest swing in American history) and four more in the Senate. The Democratic party limped into the 20th Century. Cleveland would be the last Democrat until WW1’s Wilson.

Speaking of Wilson…

3. Woodrow Wilson- 1918-

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The First World War was coming to a close and Wilson seemed to be on top of an ascendant nation. Unlike Grant and Cleveland before him, Wilson presided over a true world power. However, this was not enough to stop the itch from creeping up. Barely a week before the 11/11/18 Armistice ending the First World War, the American people scratched that nasty Wilson itch. The damage was light comparatively but definitive. 22 seats lost in the House. 5 more in the Senate. 

Yikes. The Six Year Itch claimed a war hero, a man with two non-consecutive terms and a recent victor in a world war. All the same results.

4. FDR- 1938-

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The most unique cast of the SYI. Roosevelt would serve much longer than any President in American history, winning four terms and serving for an astounding 12 years. He served so long they changed the Constitution. Surely, this man with unprecedented umph could beat back the itch. Wrong. 1938 was awful to FDR. His pet projects were struck down by the Supreme Court, the nation reeled into the Recession in the Depression and Hitler began to look unstoppable halfway across the globe. The American people may have elected FDR four times, but not so much his party. FDR Year Six saw the Democrats enjoy 72 seats lost in the House, 8 in the Senate.

Four more years! Four more…

5. Harry S. Truman- 1950-

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The successor to FDR would serve eight more years and would continue 20 years of the Democrats in the White House. This re-affirmation every four years did not translate at all in the SYI. With the Korean War on the horizon and his popularity plummeting even after his famous Dewey Defeats Truman upset, Truman also saw his party turned away in Year Six. 28 seats lost in the House. 5 more in the Senate.

America was done with Democrats by 1952. They wanted a return to the GOP and more specifically a return to great war generals. Enter Ike…

6. Dwight D. Eisenhower- 1958-

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Starting with FDR, Americans spent 1933-1961 on just three presidents. An amazing 28 years that will never be seen again. Unless we change the Constitution! Ike was the first general since Grant to be elected president. They both served admirably. They both were Republicans. Most importantly for this piece, they both served two terms and reached Year Six. Their parties were both and walloped when the nation took out their itch at the ballots. Ike’s party lost 48 seats in the House and an incredible 13 seats in the Senate (another record swing). If you are keeping score at home, the SYI contributed to the greatest swing in both the House and Senate history of the USA.

If Ike can’t beat it, maybe Nixon can?

7. Richard Nixon-1974-

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Nixon is the only president on this list who doesn’t technically apply. This is because this SYI ended his presidency. Capping off perhaps the most dramatic political events in the American 20th, a string of events culminated in the resignation of otherwise popular Richard Nixon. 1974 took the nation through Watergate but also a 48 seat loss in the House and 8 seats in the Senate for the President’s party. Though it was technically Gerald Ford by the time for the ballots, the poor showing is clearly a result of Nixon’s fall from grace. And to think, his 1972 victory was the biggest on record.

Still believe this is just a coincidence?

8. Ronald Reagan- 1986-

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Surely the ol’ Ronnie Reagan can beat back the SYI. With the amount of popularity he enjoys today it is hard to imagine his administration reeling. Iran Contra. Russian talks fail. Pan Am 73 attacked by terrorists. Yikes. Oh and the Democrats took the House for the first time in six years winning five seats and taking the Senate in a 8 seat swing. A less than stellar year six from the Old Gipper.

9. Bill Clinton- 1998-

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The most ridiculous and inconceivable outlier on the list. Remember ’98? No? Monica Lewinsky? Impeachment? Ringing any bells? Of all on the list, the reader must assume that the biggest example of the SYI is Clinton. His sixth year was marked by the endless impeachment scandal and pop culture fiascos. The nation was consumed by a sex scandal that went straight to the Oval Office of our nation. Amazingly, he survived like the survivor he is. The Democrats GAINED five seats in the House and broke even in the Senate. 

From Clinton to Dubya…

10. George W. Bush- 2006-

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The most recent example for Obama to look to would be his immediate predecessor. Bush recovered decently from the negative reactions to Hurricane Katrina and things started looking up for Bush by his sixth year. However, the itch appeared in the form of years of endless war. The effects  came to the forefront in the American consciousness. The results were devastating to the GOP. The “Bush Fatigue” became fodder around the world and the GOP lost 30 seats in the House, 6 more in the Senate. Many may complain about the six year itch, but first female speaker Nancy Pelosi sure is not one of them.

Must we give you a final number? In the President’s sixth years since the Southern Independence Movement, his party has lost a balance of 447 seats in the House and 58 in the Senate. It certainly is lovely fodder for pollsters to ask Obama vs. Romney today. But does it really matter? Didn’t we already know this was going to happen?

Hey Democrats, good luck in November…

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*I am incredibly indebted to all of the information available through the United States Congress @ http://www.house.gov/ and http://www.senate.gov/. I also greatly credit Dr. Sharon Spray of Elon University for introducing this fascinating history back in 2009 and fostering my love for presidential history. Don’t forget the amazing study from the Atlantic Monthly “The Curse of the Six-Year Itch”; The Atlantic Monthly, March, 1986, issue. Volume 257, Number 3 (pages 22-28).*