The nature of the vice presidency is typically one of brief significance, ridicule, and vague adaptability. They’re briefly significant in the election cycle because they can be used to give some momentum to a candidate’s campaign, as the final months close in. They’re ridiculed because, while seemingly senior in management, they’re often sidelined next to other key positions such as Chief of Staff or Secretary of State. And then their actual role remains vague, depending on the administration, and adaptable, because their responsibilities may change depending on the issues at hand, their credibility, or image.
All of these things are as true for any VP as they’ve been for the current incumbent, Kamala Harris. And yet, with an approval rating hovering in the 30s (a few points below Joe Biden’s), she seems to be suffering the brunt more unjustly. To the left, this is because she is a woman and mixed race. To the right (and many others aside), this is kind of for the same reasons, if with a twist. They see Kamala Harris’ very appointment in terms of affirmative action; a choice made solely to appeal on the grounds of identity politics. To reel in those wide-eyed liberals.
This is a tough ordeal for Harris because she can’t exactly deny such criticisms. Indeed, it was always Biden’s plan to choose a woman as his running mate but given she’d been relatively tough on him in the debates, she also might’ve drawn some early intrigue for her strength in challenging a potential “yes man” agenda. This might’ve mattered to some. To most, it probably didn’t.
But say, Harris was just what many expected; a choice to appease Democratic voters. This is hardly different (beyond the issues of gender and race) in making such a decision. Kennedy picked Johnson (despite disliking him) to win the South. Roosevelt was forced to go with Truman for his fourth round, to appease his party. Mike Pence was hardly a regular at Trump’s various resorts but yielded an opportunity to appeal to more traditional, evangelical Republicans. This kind of appointment is nothing new. And yet…
Well, things have changed a bit. The cultural and political wars of today are more toxic than ever. There is increasing skepticism and frustration with the Democratic Party and liberals today (from within and outside the party) on how important identity politics has become in electing and appointing important positions. Credibility is at play on the level of perception and media coverage. Plus, more tangibly, there’s the matter of Sleepy Joe’s age. He’s 80. And while relatively fit for the job, one can’t help but hover over the matter of mortality. Indeed, the question of whether he’ll run again in 2024 has been springing up at every occasion (he plans to, by the way). This is awkward for Harris because (already labelled an affirmative action pick), she’s been perceived as a forced successor; a more likely leader than most VPs have been before her. The optics are concerning.
The gullible (or innocent) response to this quagmire would be to posit that Harris need only prove herself in the role she has to attain credibility. If you regard most the criticisms of Harris however, they’ve been mostly vague: weak on immigration (not exactly a simple issue to tackle); not doing enough to support Biden and conversely, out there too much or hidden in the background; and “dysfunctions” in her office (as if Trump’s cabinet didn’t changed a thousand times in his first year). Again, this role is largely symbolic and without definition. Harris’ main prerogative seems to be addressing immigration, voting reform, and other issues (e.g. the destruction of Roe v. Wade) with an ambassadorial-type approach, which granted hasn’t yielded any phenomenal results. But the same people who’d argue how disastrous she’s been would likely be hard-pressed to define the legacy of past VPs such as Pence or Biden, himself. The point is that most people simply don’t care about the actual job, whatever they think it may be.
To return to the matter of image then, Harris faces a challenge there may be no solution to. It seems to me that she’s been given a raw deal on one hand but on the other, having watched her give several interviews, I’m not exactly impressed by her traditionally political, say-a-bunch-without-saying-anything approach either (see her on Colbert recently; cringe). The 2024 election is looming and where the question of Biden’s age lingers, so too does a tangent on Harris’ continued suitability. At the end of the day, is she worth the hassle? Would offing her prove cowardly or tactically smart? If Biden’s credibility is at stake, I think he’d be better off sticking with her; the image of loyalty supersedes political meanderings. They may be no Obama-Biden, but they can at least stick it out and maybe one day, Harris’ legacy will be revised to reflect her support of this administration rather than her attributes as a candidate.
We here at the Washington Walrus feel passionately about US presidents in a way that can only be described as ‘slightly obsessive.’ And while the Oval Office has been hijacked by a demented Sasquatch, we still felt it was worthwhile taking a look back at better times. Unlike C-SPAN however, we will only be ranking the leaders of the post-war years. Besides a list of 45 being exhaustive and frankly tedious to most (have you even heard of Rutherford B. Hayes? oh… you have?), the position as we know it today really began to take shape in the wake of the New Deal and with the Cold War.
How did we decide? Well, we evaluated each president against the others on an extensive range of factors including: economics; foreign policy; domestic policy; leadership qualities; the tone they set for their times; the context in which they led; bi-partisanship; lasting legacy within these factors; chat show appearances; and more. Some of our choices may raise eyebrows but we didn’t choose frivolously, there was a very definite consensus reached. So, without further ado, to celebrate Presidents’ Day- the United States Presidents from worst to best as ranked by Andrew Carolan (AC) and Matthew O’Brien (MOB):
13. Donald J. Trump (2017-hopefully 2017)
It hardly seems right to rank a president of one month but then nothing he’s done has been fair. Even if the current president (shudder) was ranked on the hilarity of memes alone, he would still lose to Obama and Biden. Also, his policies are over-rated. Sad. AC & MOB
12. George W. Bush (2001-2009)
The affable younger Bush never ranks highly in these lists and… well, do we need to justify this one? The invasion of Iraq, notwithstanding, he had already turned a surplus into a defecit by the time of 9/11 and his slow, baffled response to Hurricane Katrina proved he was anything but fit for the job. America lost its stature of respect across the world where most people could not have imagined this man getting re-elected, much less, surviving another four years without impeachment. And yet, he hung on, leaving the US in the ‘mess’ Trump thinks Obama brought about. It’s easy to criticize Bush though, so for the sake of some balance, we should note that his Medicaid package has proved very popular and PEPFAR has made him nothing short of a hero to Africans, even if it was at the cost of the American taxpayer. AC
11. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
The ghosts of John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur welcomed a new member to their exclusive club on August 9, 1974, the equally unexceptional, equally un-elected, Gerald Ford. It’s hard to postulate as to whether Ford would have ever considered running for president but there is no doubt that he inherited a poisoned chalice. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame came at the beginning of his presidency as he granted Richard Nixon a presidential pardon for the trials and tribulations of Watergate. This would set the tone for the next three years. Yet, many historians have credited Ford with strengthening the frayed fibers of the country through projecting a positive outlook for the American future. His foreign policy was marked by the signing of the Helsinki Accords, which aimed to strengthen the relations between Europe and the Soviet Union. Domestically, Ford struggled to work bilaterally with Democratic majorities in Congress, which tested his parliamentarian ability. Ford, unlike so many of his predecessors, was never destined for the White House. MOB
10. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
It pains me to put Jimmy Carter so far down the list. He’s my own personal favorite because I wrote my MA dissertation on him and he has the most moral fibre of any of these fellas (no shots fired during his time). He set a tone of restraint and fiscal conservatism for America, for energy conservation, and for the promotion of human rights internationally. While this may have seemed amicable on the surface; combined with his unfruitful relations with the Democratic base, it only served to corroborate the popular image of him as a weak leader. This, along with the Hostage Crisis, paved the way for a resurgence of the Right in 1980 and his eventual defeat. Carter’s batting average with Congress, on the otherhand, was not bad but many of his measures and examples for the country (including solar panels on the White House) were promptly abandoned in the following administration. Thankfully though, he has gone on to boast perhaps the finest post-presidency. AC
9. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
The iconography will never be dispelled but I’m sorry, the ‘what if he had survived…’ postulation is not enough to have him deemed a great president. Man landed on the moon by the close of that decade and yes, the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved but Kennedy merely made an epic speech in the former’s case and with the latter, helped spark the fuse in the first place with the Bay of Pigs operation. I like him and the image of his presidency remains a great inspiration for many politicians today but I’m sorry, he’s over-rated. There’s no two ways about it. AC
9. Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974)
For Richard Nixon, it was nearly a case of “always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” He had served as Eisenhower’s VP for eight years, and lost out to JFK in the Presidential election of 1960. Yet, he emerged as perhaps one of the most misunderstood presidents in U.S. history. There is no doubt that if you remove Watergate from the equation, Nixon would rank higher. Tricky Dicky assumed control of a country that was deeply bifurcated. Nixon’s domestic record is chequered, yet while he is credited with the progressive initiatives of ‘New Federalism,’ such as Affirmative Action, he is criticized for his economic policy in which inflation drastically increased during his time in office. Unequivocally, his greatest achievement lay in his foreign diplomacy as he opened a previously moribund diplomatic channel with China, and simultaneously eased tensions with the Soviet Union through Détente. Nixon also had to deal with the national dilemma of Vietnam, exercising a policy of Vietnamization. While this was an admirable move, the Christmas bombing campaign in 1972 would set a morose tone for the remainder of his presidency. MOB
7. Harry Truman (1945-1953)
When Truman took over from FDR, he had only been vice-president for three months and had no prior knowledge of the Manhattan Project. He had big shoes to fill and daunting decisions to make; perhaps the toughest of any US president. He’s often ranked highly in these lists for that reason as well as setting the tone for US morale and policy in the Cold War, with the Berlin Airlift, Marshall Plan, and Domino Theory. From an outside perspective, these measures can be interpreted as a signs of an increasing American aggression however. The Atomic Bomb and Korean War too, while necessary to many, are hotly contended by others as sinful acts. In my opinion, the former may never have been needed to defeat Japan (they were on the verge of surrender) but Truman saw no need for further American loss (and a sneaky chance to show Russia what’s what). For that reason, he is a patriot but his values of leadership elsewhere are (let’s say) controversial. AC
6. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
Dwight Eisenhower can be cast in the old American romanticism of a military hero turned Commander in Chief. A denizen of European battlefields, Eisenhower was a progressive Republican that continued the legacies of both the New Deal and the Fair Deal, which placated Congress. His domestic policy advanced the Social Security Program and increased the minimum wage while creating the Interstate Highway System. He brought an end to the Korean War and strengthened the mandate of NATO. Ike fostered a staunch anti-communist policy both at home and overseas with various counter-communist CIA operations. Through the ‘Red Scare’ anti-communist sentiment reached fever pitch, aided by the unchecked actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy who was only silenced when he targeted a sacred U.S. institution, the Army. Eisenhower also loses face for the apathetic national implementation of Brown Vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, which found that segregated schools were unconstitutional. MOB
5. William Jefferson Clinton (1993-2001)
Clinton’s sexual forays remain much of what he is remembered for, unfortunately. The context in which his impeachment arose, however,sheds light on the environment of Washington at the time. Much like Obama, his was a presidency mired by what Hillary referred to as a ‘vast right-wing conspiracy.’ Unlike Obama however, he managed to eventually hammer out a relationship with New Gingrich and the Republican-run Congress, leading to a productive if unintersting string of bills tackling issues like crime. In terms of foreign policy, he is remembered for early blunders in Somalia and failing to act more decisively in Bosnia and Rwanda, but he even found his footing there, leading a substantive effort in the late ’90s in Kosovo. Plus, the country was left with its first surplus since Truman and the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was a time of steady progress which brought America into the Globalized Information Age. AC
4. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
“You know there’s a ten-year delay in the Soviet Union on the delivery of an automobile…,” so went the intro to one of Ronald Reagan’s Soviet jokes. Known as the ‘Great Communicator,’ Reagan’s rhetoric resonated with the average American. Inheriting a rotten economy, Reagan went about his policy of supply-side fiscal reform, appeasing many while neglecting minorities. The detriment of ‘Reagenomics’ later manifest in swollen national debt that was bequeathed to H.W. Bush. Foreign policy under Reagan rapidly evolved to establish America as the only dominant global force. Military spending was increased in tandem with the Reagan Doctrine. The faux-pas of the Iran Contras damaged the reputation of the president and exposed the ugly, insidious actions of political back-channeling. However, through escalated efforts to tackle the de-escalation of tensions, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the ground-breaking INF Treaty, eliminating short and intermediate range missiles. A man who, even by his own admissions, was not the brightest, shone like a beacon for many Americans who believed that he had instilled a sense of pride and reignited the flames of patriotism. Just as with JFK, image was important to the successes of Reagan. His unique eloquence restored a nations confidence in an office that had lost all credibility. MOB
3. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
By 1992, the elder Bush’s image was one of a jaded veteran fazed by the economic troubles of the MTV generation. Perceptions change however. Historians now, have come to recognize the importance of a steady hand like his in a time of great international upheaval. When the Berlin Wall fell, he acted cautiously, mindful of the consequences this left for Gorbachev. When the more militant hearts called for an invasion of Iraq after the liberation of Kuwait, he thoughtfully withdrew, claiming the mission had been accomplished. When a recession encroached, he put the country ahead of his own political credit, abandoning his pledge to not raise taxes while working with Democrats. And while it may be hard to envisage such a policy with a Republican today, he actually passed a Clean Air Act. In a word- underrated. AC
2. Barrack Obama (2009-2017)
A popular sentiment that emerged in the aftermath of Obama’s historic election in November 2008, was that America had transitioned to post-racial era. This, of course, has not been the case. Elected on a wave of optimism and hope, Obama would face vicious partisanship with a Republican controlled Capitol. Obama initially took the pragmatic approach, but later was forced to use executive powers as he tried to implement his agenda. A historic stimulus package was signed within his first two months of his presidency, much to the chagrin of his friends in the emerging Tea Party. There can be no doubting that his Magnum Opus, the Affordable Health Care Act, is now deeply in jeopardy, and with it, a large portion of his presidential legacy. Obama has been criticized as being weak on foreign policy issues; Benghazi, Russia, Syria, and yet he excelled in restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, and reaching agreements with China to substantially reduce carbon emissions. We at the Walrus are admirers of Obama, not quite in the same category as the doughy-eyed former VP, Joe Biden, though. Through his presidency, he exemplified integrity speaking to Americans as if they were adults rather than children – perhaps an error, retrospectively. MOB
1. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)
There was almost immediate consensus in establishing LBJ as the number one on this list– particularly when we decided that FDR wouldn’t feature because it just simply wouldn’t be fair. In recent years, there has been a rekindling of LBJ’s presidency in television series, and films, namely relating to his landmark racial domestic policies. First the Civil Rights Act of 1964, followed by the commensurate Voting Rights Act in 1965. While some historians are critical of Johnson’s motives, I believe that he was a moral man (at least in regards to civil rights), who had seen the perniciousness of segregation first hand as a school teacher in Texas. Johnson was a spectacular bully, who, unlike Ford when he inherited the White House in freak circumstances, could assert his dominance over just about anybody. The legacy of his domestic agenda was the herculean vision of the Great Society. This encompassed many socially progressive streams such as the War on Poverty, and a plethora of Welfare programs. Johnson’s vision was to provide Americans in need with a hand up, not a handout. The Vietnam War dominated Johnson’s foreign policy and rapidly escalated through his presidency. It remains the major black mark on his presidential record, and discouraged him from seeking re-election in 1968. MOB
In Ireland, 2008, when the infamous Bertie Aherne stood down, only a year after re-election, we were given our proverbial white knight, Brian Cowen. A man of superior intellect, yet lacking experience and know how, his fate was already sealed as he assumed the highest office in this land. While dealing in hypothetcials is often trite, it’s fascinating to cogitate on the following: what if the Fianna Gael/Labour coalition had won that day in 2007? Let’s face it, that election was a poisoned chalice that could just as easily have had Enda’s lips pressed against the rim. If that was the case, what would have happened in 2011? Would the Irish people have re-elected the current government in a back to the future style election? We honestly don’t think so. There was something rotten in the state of Ireland and this was met with a prevailing current of mistrust towards government officials. But let’s not get bogged down in hypothetical situations because they can be as unrealistic as the person who posits them wants them to be such as, what if Donald Trump became POTUS? Shudder!
Still, all around the world, the question remains: Does voting make a difference? Are we actually participating in a democratic system? They all look the same! Indeed, one might nod along just to give the impression of comprehension but with the US election in full swing and an Irish one right around the corner, it’s important to actually take some time to consider this question. Done? The answer is yes – it makes a difference. You might not change the colour of the sky, you may have to wait a little while for a bill to pass but that doesn’t mean you should just give up, shake your head and turn on The Big Bang Theory. Allow us to explain…
Without voting, democracy would crumble and fail. Without it, the margin between public interest and political rhetoric simply widens; oligarchies develop, corruption thrives, and the people lose. Yes, we may feel this if often the case when taxes are raised and any worthwhile bills get frozen in deadlock. What we need to understand and ultimately appreciate however is that any worthwhile change requires this time and care. It’s frustrating but necessary if we mean to be part of a reasoned society and believe me, every last vote can count.
Take for example the U.S. Presidential Election of 1960, the closest race for the White House in history. Kennedy eeked out a .1% victory over Ticky Dicky, and became the youngest ever American president. Fueling the embers of the much anticipated election were the inaugural televised presidential debates, which presented a new platform that the American population embraced, well, those who owned a television set. So, it simply doesn’t matter if the margin of victory is .1% or 60%. What does matter, however, is that the vessel of democracy is kept afloat through its virtuous axiom, and that as members of the electorate we recognise the importance of the responsibility and indeed power that we wield.
Our responsibility extends further than merely casting a vote for the sake of a vote, however. By that we mean that people should know what they’re talking about. In his seminal body of work, Democracy in America, the French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville commented that any true democracy requires the ‘enlightenment’ of its people. In short, people who vote need to be smart about it. On the radio a couple of weeks an average Joe called in to rant against the ‘waffling’ of People Before Profit, whilst claiming he would support Michael Martin because he seems like a ‘nice’ guy. Well, that’s all very good if you’re choosing someone to go drinking with but is that what elections are really about? This should be obvious, but elections should be treated more like job interviews. So don’t be an idiot and vote for someone only because you like them. Don’t vote for someone you know, your friends recommend or who has an amiable poster face. Vote for the person who actually knows what they’re talking about and has the nation’s interest at heart.
This brings us to a crucial point; personal bias. So you might know someone who seems fairly tuned in to the whole political process but who also puts their own interests forward as the most important. We all have a point to make about how our own class or family or club has been affected by government cuts, e.g. a middle class earner may gripe about having to pay higher taxes, while lower earners may feel just as hard done by paying what they pay. Yet sometimes, you need to put the country before yourself; vote for what you think is right rather than what is beneficial for you.
When the campaign trails start, make an effort to absorb all the information you can. Ask the important questions. Challenge your own pre-conceived notions and make a smart decision because when smart decisions are made, the game is raised. When you test these politicians, it follows that they naturally have to become a bit smarter, themselves; a bit more accountable even. Then you get the changes you want. When you sit at home and don’t make the effort but spout out vague nonsense about revolutions, well, you might get a few Facebook likes but you won’t be taken seriously. Remember, a government is only as good as its people. Don’t be so naïve as to think all politicians are naturally bad.