Whenever America faced a great crisis, the voters have turned to men capable of meeting problems head on. Generally, these crises followed lackluster leadership from the presidency. Sometimes, the incumbent worsened events sealing their own electoral demise. The crisis strikes, the president is paralyzed by events and uncertain as to how to proceed, he loses re-election, and the successor solves the crisis. This series of events played itself out in 1860, 1932, and 1980. The 2012 political cycle is shaping up to be a repeat of these seminal elections.
James Buchanan’s presidency oversaw one crisis after another. The Supreme Court declared slavery inviolable. Proslavery forces engaged abolitionists in a low-grade civil war in Kansas Territory. The Panic of 1857 wrecked havoc on the Northern economy for two years. Most ominously, the Deep South seceded from the Union upon Abraham Lincoln’s election. In most cases, Buchanan sided with Southern interests. With secession, he did nothing to prevent the Union’s disintegration. Although he believed secession illegal, Buchanan felt powerless to stop it. His incompetence in the face of sectionalism played a factor in the Civil War.
Secession occurred after Lincoln’s election. However, most observers recognized the tinderbox going into 1860. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry to foment a servile insurrection left the South in no mood to compromise. The people elected Lincoln to keep the Union together in the midst of Buchanan’s incompetence and fire-eater rhetoric. Lincoln’s views were clear, at least to Northerners. He revered the Constitution and the Founding Fathers and wished to continue their work. Upon taking office, he assumed their mantle, led the country through the Civil War, and reunited the two sections while ending America’s original sin, slavery.
Seventy-two years after Lincoln’s election, the country faced another traumatic situation. The Great Depression struck with ferocity in 1929. By 1932, industrial production dropped 45%, unemployment encroached upon 25%, foreign trade collapsed, farm prices went into a free fall, GDP decreased 30%, and the stock market lost 90% of its value. On top of this, over a million families lost their farms, corporate profits dropped from $10 billion to $1 billion, nearly half the country’s banks failed, and 60% of the country was classified poor. Herbert Hoover attempted some fixes, but they failed. His dour personality further complicated his administration as people felt he did not care or was incapable of helping them.
Franklin Roosevelt’s personality and image provided a direct contrast to Hoover. The New York governor was upbeat and optimistic about the country despite the depression. Upon assuming office, Roosevelt instituted the New Deal to attempt to pull the country out of the economic downturn. The New Deal itself failed, but it did modernize government and provide hope to the hopeless. Roosevelt continued the optimism and his programs parlaying them into four terms. FDR’s real success came with World War II. While the conflict ended the depression, Roosevelt’s leadership helped save the world from totalitarianism.
In 1980, totalitarianism began its expansion once more. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and waged proxy wars globally. Additionally, Islamic militants captured Iran and kidnapped American embassy workers. Meanwhile, the American economy collapsed. Unemployment neared 8% on its way to 10.5% and inflation topped 15% while interest rates raced over 20%. By 1981, banks offered a 30-year mortgage for 18.5%. President Carter’s response was to blame Americans for a “crisis of confidence.” The press dubbed it Carter’s “malaise.” The president had no answers for the economy or for the hostage crisis.
The country turned to Ronald Reagan to free the hostages, fix the economy, and blunt the Soviet advance. Reagan cut taxes and built up America’s defenses in the hopes of overheating the Soviet economy. He knew Soviet industrial capacity lacked the ability to compete with the U.S. at wartime production levels. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev knew this as well and tried desperately to tinker with his country’s economy. The Soviet Empire collapsed in 1989 and the U.S.S.R. itself disintegrated two years later. Meanwhile, the American economy boomed. Unemployment and inflation each dropped to 5% while banks offered 30-year mortgages for about 10%.
Twenty years after Reagan left office, the economy suffered another collapse. Shoddy policies dating the mid-1990s resulted in the Panic of 2008. The economy dipped into recession in December 2007 and emerged in June 2009. By the end of the recession, the country elected Barack Obama president. President Obama engaged in an aggressive agenda that included an $800 billion stimulus, a renewal of President Bush’s bailout of the auto industry, regulation of the energy sector, and an overhaul of the health care system. Because of his policy successes, the economy collapsed once more. As of August 2011, the official unemployment rate was over 9%. Although overall inflation remained low, food prices increased and utility companies issued warnings about rate increases in response to new regulations. Most disturbingly, Americans on food stamps topped 45 million and families are losing their homes. Meanwhile, the stock market dropped 16% over a four-week period feeding economic worries amongst the population. In 2008, commentators compared President Obama to Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Franklin Roosevelt. Three years later, they compared him to Jimmy Carter, Herbert Hoover, and James Buchanan.
The U.S. has experienced several crises with inadequate leadership in place to combat them. In each case, the country looked for a savior and turned to extraordinary leaders to change the course. In 1860, Lincoln replaced Buchanan, who set the nation on course for emancipation and saved the union. In 1932, Roosevelt succeeded Hoover and ushered in the New Deal. In 1980, Reagan defeated Carter and oversaw the end of the Cold War and an economic recovery. In 2011, the country faced turmoil once more leading many to look for a Lincoln, Reagan, or Roosevelt.