Crises Can Define Presidencies
Donald Trump loves to brag and he loves to complain.
But this year, does he have something new to complain about—his political misfortune? Consider: Everything was going well. He was coming out of impeachment triumphant and heading into his re-election battle in a time of peace and prosperity. He had ended the previous year with killing the world’s most-wanted terrorist and began the new year with killing the Middle East’s god of mischief. Then, suddenly—boom! Everything went downhill: a global pandemic, massive unemployment and economic recession, protests, riots, murder hornets, nunchuck bears—it’s been a bad few months. He’s been the unluckiest president in decades.
But has he? Let’s rewind.
In 1961, America’s young, inexperienced, and charming president, John F. Kennedy, met with the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, for the first time as president during a summit in Vienna. On the last day of the summit, Kennedy was handed an ultimatum: Withdraw from West Berlin or Soviet tanks will kick you out. Kennedy defied the ultimatum. Instead, he began building up America’s conventional and nuclear forces to show his Soviet counterpart that he was ready to go at it. The deadline came and passed. Another ultimatum came. Kennedy defied it again. Then again another one, which he again defied. Finally, Khrushchev gave up and put up the Berlin Wall. It was an embarrassing moment for Khrushchev.
A year later, tensions rose again. U.S. officials learned that the Soviets were putting nuclear missiles in communist Cuba. That could not be tolerated. It was in defiance of the Monroe Doctrine and an existential threat to the United States. The world came as close as it ever has to a nuclear war. For thirteen days, Americans prepared for that nuclear war. But, in the end, the Soviets backed off, and they withdrew their arms from the Americas. Kennedy emerged triumphant.
In 1979, fanatics came to power in Iran. President Jimmy Carter had the year before helped negotiate peace between the Israelis and the Egyptians, and had previously called Iran “an island of stability” in the Middle East, but now he was caught flat-footed as revolutionaries took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took American diplomats hostage. It was an embarrassing moment. To make matters worse, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan—another embarrassment for Carter, who had come to office seeking cooperation on arms limitation with the Soviets. On Iran, he decided to send a rescue team to the country. The planning went poorly, and the mission was abandoned after the aircraft crashed in Iran. On Afghanistan, Carter doubled down on cooperation with the Soviets, rhetorically. Carter had faced two crises at once, and he failed to live up to the moment. Within a year, he would lose his re-election bid.
In 1990, right at the end of the Cold War, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded the neighboring Kuwait. For the George H.W. Bush administration, there was a national interest at stake—helping to secure the world’s oil supply—as well as an international security interest: the stability of the international order. But there was also an opportunity to mark the beginning of the unipolar moment. Americans were scarred by memories of the Vietnam War and reluctant to fight again for somebody else’s country. But Bush persisted and America entered a new war. In just a month, it had been won with few American casualties.
A decade later, George W. Bush—with much less experience on the international stage than his father had had—was eight months into his presidency when the United States was struck by al Qaeda. The deadliest attack ever on U.S. soil left the nation shaken, terrified, and confused. Every day, people expected another attack. Bush rose to the occasion. What followed were two wars and a rapid, robust set of changes to homeland security policy. During Bush’s remaining seven years in office, no subsequent attack on America succeeded.
Trump isn’t unlucky—if anything, he’s lucky that it took so long for a major crisis to arise. Sometimes crises are self-inflicted, but quite often they are caused by forces outside a president’s control. We judge our presidents not by whether they faced crises but by their responses to them. Some presidents live up to the moment; others, like Carter, fail. Trump, though, is in a league of his own. Carter at least didn’t worsen the bad situation he found himself in, as Trump manifestly has.
Trump has been a catastrophe, a failure, a disaster, and an embarrassment. What he hasn’t been is unlucky.