President Bush at His — and Our — Crossroads

As George W. Bush enters the last two years of his presidency, he faces a stark choice: to take the course of our nation’s most resilient presidents or to act like the nation’s most stubborn.

America’s greatest presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, were agile leaders who managed to adjust their positions in response to changing political circumstances, but Andrew Johnson, who followed Lincoln in the White House, was an especially obstinate president. Historians now regard him as one of our most ineffective leaders.

In recent weeks President Bush has sounded like Andrew Johnson as he has dealt with troubles in Iraq and the Democrats’ victories in recent elections. There is still time for him to adopt a more flexible position in the fashion of Abraham Lincoln.

President Bush displayed a Johnson-like temperament after the November elections. When Democrats won many seats in the House and the Senate, pundits suggested that it was time for Bush to abandon his practice of strong partisanship. They urged him to mend political fences with Democrats and Republican moderates.

Yet after the elections Bush nominated controversial right-wing judges to the federal courts and tried unsuccessfully to formalize his appointment of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. (Bolton, an arrogant and strident neoconservative, had aroused powerful opposition in the Congress.) Bush talked of pressing again for changes in the Social Security program (his earlier efforts to privatize Social Security having alarmed senior citizens and Democrats). These actions led many to conclude that the president didn’t appreciate the significance of the elections. He continued to practice strict partisanship.

President Andrew Johnson took a similar course in an election year. During the 1866 congressional election campaign, Johnson made intemperate and highly partisan speeches about his political opponents and excited considerable resistance. Northerners thought that Johnson, who had represented Tennessee in the Congress, showed too much sympathy for southern interests. They complained that he would not compromise with diverse and powerful political groups in the manner of Abraham Lincoln.

Candidates who were critical of Johnson’s inflexible stands won election handily in the northern states and arrived in Washington in 1867 prepared to challenge his policies. Congress delivered three important bills to the president’s desk, and Johnson vetoed each of them. The congressmen then overrode Johnson’s vetoes and enacted their own plan for reconstruction of the South. Andrew Johnson’s obstinacy had weakened him greatly, and he seemed largely irrelevant in Washington’s deliberations for the rest of his term.

President Bush’s most notable example of stubbornness relates to his position on Iraq. Bush has come under sharp criticism for responding inadequately to the recent Iraq Study Group’s report, which urged a dramatic change in American policy. The President will not endorse the ISG’s advice to remove U.S. combat forces from Iraq by early 2008 or to talk directly with leaders of Iran and Syria. Bush still hints of an open-ended U.S. military commitment. The President acts as if he does not appreciate the report’s principal messages.

If Bush remains intransigent while American difficulties in Iraq grow and newly elected Democrats assert themselves, he may find himself in a situation like the one that troubled Andrew Johnson. Johnson allowed former Confederate leaders to regain political power after the Civil War, and he supported white southerners’ attempts to intimidate blacks in the early period of Reconstruction. Congressmen and journalists warned that these actions could embolden the opposition and weaken his presidency, but Johnson forged ahead nevertheless. Eventually, Andrew Johnson’s critics pushed for impeachment, and the beleaguered president escaped dismissal from office by only a one-vote margin in the Senate.

Although some of Bush’s critics talk about forcing him out of office, impeachment does not presently attract many advocates. Identifying specific violations of the Constitution is always a difficult task. Furthermore, leaders in both major parties sense that impeachment proceedings can stir intense partisan anger and poison the political atmosphere in Washington.

There are other ways that opponents can challenge the chief executive. Bush could face a strong rebellion from Democrats as well as from some Republicans during his last two years in the White House. If he continues to take uncompromising stands on controversial issues, legislators in Washington may look elsewhere for leadership.

The president still has time to avoid the mistakes that plagued Andrew Johnson’s presidency. He can strengthen public confidence by treating the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations more seriously and negotiating earnestly with his political opponents. If Bush reads the November election results as a strong signal that the public seeks a return to bipartisan politics, he can improve his standing in the public opinion polls, and he may be able to rescue his presidency.

But if Bush remains obstinate in the fashion of Andrew Johnson, he’s likely to find himself as isolated and powerless as that unfortunate leader.

Robert Brent Toplin, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has published books on popular culture and politics, and is a writer for the History News Service.