Every U.S. president has pursued a legacy that will define their presidency as transformational. As Barack Obama faces the prospect of his signature achievement – the overhaul of health care, or Obamacare – being struck down by the Supreme Court on Thursday, here is a reminder: the legacy presidents want is not often the legacy they actually get in the end
President Barack Obama has described the health-care law as historic. It aims to extend health insurance coverage to 30 million Americans. No other domestic legislation occupied Mr. Obama’s focus the way health-care did. The political capital spent by the White House on the issue was considerable. If the law is struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, will Mr. Obama’s term as president been wasted? His challenger Mitt Romney thinks so. But American presidential history tells an interesting tale. “Often presidents end up being known for something different than what they campaigned on,” explains Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer.
President Lyndon Johnson’s call to Americans to build a Great Society was an ambitious project to transform the country. His agenda focused on education, reducing crime and poverty, urban renewal and a health program – Medicare – that would guarantee health insurance for Americans over the age of 65. But an overseas war dominated his presidency. “Lyndon Johnson came in as the president who wanted to expand domestic policy beyond the New Deal and ended up as the president who vastly expanded America's role in Vietnam,” explains Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer. The Vietnam chapter – or that “bitch of a war,” as Mr. Johnson once described it – shaped his legacy, argues Boston University historian Bruce Schulman, overshadowing the Great Society achievements.
Defeated in his bid for the White House in 1960 – losing narrowly to John F. Kennedy – Republican Richard Nixon won the presidential election in 1968. Mr. Nixon sought reconciliation within a United States deeply divided over the Vietnam war and in the midst of racial and urban unrest. “[Mr. Nixon] wanted to be remembered for détente with the Soviets and the rapprochement with China – that is, for his skills as an international leader – but whose legacy was Watergate, corruption and declining trust in politicians,” Boston University historian Bruce Schulman explains.
Republican Ronald Reagan became president at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. “[Ronald] Reagan came in as the president who sought to restore a more muscular national security state and take a more aggressive stand against the Soviets and ended up as the president who opened up diplomatic relations with the Soviets,” explains Prof. Zelizer. The Reagan presidency also envisioned smaller government and to restore what Mr. Reagan described as “the great, confident roar of American progress and growth and optimism.” Prof. Schulman frames the Reagan president in terms of a politician who achieved what he set out to do. “Even though the historical record may be a lot more complicated in reality, Reagan's legacy appears to be exactly how he envisioned it...as the man who won the Cold War, revived the American economy, and made conservatism a political force.”
George Bush Sr.
“George Bush Sr.'s legacy will now be read in contrast to his son's,” explains Boston University’s Prof. Schulman. “... His legacy today is as the un-W.” The elder Bush was a one-term president whose bid for a second term was upended by an economic recession, a Texan who ran as an independent candidate and a broken promise. “Read my lips: no new taxes,” the presidential candidate told the 1988 Republican National Convention. So where does Mr. Bush stand today compared with his son in the court of public opinion? A recent CNN/ORC poll showed the the elder Mr. Bush was more respected than his son.
“He wants to be remembered for engineering unprecedented peace and prosperity, reducing unemployment, teen pregnancy, welfare dependency, crime to unprecedented lows – but will always be remembered principally for his DNA on that infamous blue dress,” Prof. Schulman explains. Indeed, there is the Monica Lewinsky affair and impeachment by the House of Representatives on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Whatever his shortcomings during his presidency, in the 2012 election cycle, President Clinton has been active in fundraising, appearing with Barack Obama at campaign events and offering strategic advice to the Obama team.
George W. Bush
The legacy of the 43rd U.S. president is still being written by historians – and by politicians. “If you want to give the policies of the last decade another try, then you should vote for Mr. Romney,” Barack Obama has said on the campaign trail, a reference to the George W. Bush presidency and the policy of across-the-board tax cuts, which, along with two costly wars, strained the country’s finances. Whatever the heated election year debate around his presidency, Mr. Bush started out in pursuit of a legacy that was dramatically altered by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. “George W. Bush came in as the president who wanted to promote compassionate conservatism and introduce new Republican initiatives on domestic policy – like education – and ended up as the national security president,” explains Prof. Zelizer. He left office in 2008 deeply unpopular. But presidential legacies wax and wane, Prof. Schulman argues. “If 50 years from now, the United States has not suffered another major terrorist attack, George W. Bush, now perceived as an overreaching ideologue who damaged America's reputation, may be remembered as a the savvy statesmen who wiped out an international scourge.”