Chiefs worth hailing

Obama? He's no McKinley - at least not so far, the author contends.
Obama? He's no McKinley - at least not so far, the author contends.
Posted: January 21, 2013

By John P. Rossi

As President Obama's second term begins, it's worth considering how consequential his presidency will be. Given the amount of money spent on campaigns and the demands of the 24-hour news cycle, there is a tendency to portray every presidential election as crucial. But in reality, only a handful of presidencies in our history have truly mattered.

Whether Obama's turns out to be among them only time will tell. If you believed the ads and slogans of a few months ago, the fate of the republic hung in the balance. And yet how does 2012 stand up against the true turning points in American electoral history? Probably not very well.

To my mind, there have been only a few presidential elections that changed the country's course. Excluding the early presidencies of the Founding Fathers, because each was establishing what the presidency was and how it would work, I believe five presidential elections led to fundamental political transformations: those of Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.

Andrew Jackson's election in 1828, and his reelection four years later, can be seen as marking a transition toward true democracy in the United States. Under Jackson, something approximating universal white manhood suffrage took place for the first time.

Jackson also can be seen as the father of the modern Democratic Party, which still claims him and Thomas Jefferson as ancestors with its annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner.

And Jackson was America's first political superstar - the general who won the Battle of New Orleans, as well as "Old Hickory," the first president nicknamed by the public.

The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln was obviously one of the most decisive points in American history. It is impossible to imagine any other political figure managing the near-impossible task of preserving the Union, ending the blight of slavery, and doing so while producing some of the greatest presidential speeches in our history. A case can be made that none of the other political figures of the time could have saved the Union. If you have any doubts, you can read more about Lincoln's competitors in Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals.

The choice of McKinley may be more controversial, especially since his name for a time was closely associated with reactionary politics. But some historians now view McKinley as the first modern president.

McKinley's election in 1896 also marked the defeat of the radical Populists and the triumph of the capitalist system that made America a world economic power. And he gave the country his 1900 running mate, Theodore Roosevelt, who took the presidency to new heights of power while introducing progressivism and the welfare state to the American public.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's election in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, changed America's course forever. Until 1932, the nation's politics had been dominated by Republicans, who had held power for 48 of the 64 years since the end of Lincoln's second term. Roosevelt's election ushered in a period of Democratic dominance that lasted for almost 50 years.

His New Deal legislation made the welfare state an integral part of American life, including Social Security, insured bank deposits, and the GI Bill. Roosevelt also dominated political life - he was elected four times - making the president its center. If anyone can be seen as creating the concept of the imperial presidency, it was FDR.

Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 was another turning point in our history. At the time, the GOP was at one of its lowest ebbs. Its only presidents elected since FDR were Dwight Eisenhower, who was regarded as a war hero above party, and the disgraced Richard Nixon.

Reagan inaugurated an era of conservative domination that lasted for a quarter-century. He made conservatism popular: To this day, more Americans self-identify as conservative than as liberal. Even many Democrats now prefer the word progressive to liberal. A hard-liner on communism, Reagan also presided over the end of the Cold War.

With his second term ahead of him, could President Obama yet land among these great presidents? History, or at least some historians, will judge.

John P. Rossi is a professor emeritus of history at La Salle University. He can be reached at

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