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‘Wartime’ presidency boosts Trumps re-election chances

photo of donald trump
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Donald Trump
The recent self-characterization by President Donald Trump that he now is a “wartime president” boosts his chances of re-election and, if history is any guide, it might work.

The American electorate is loath to depose an incumbent president seeking re-election during a time of war. In fact, the public is so reluctant that it has never done so.

The practice dates back more than two centuries and has been consistently followed since then on a bipartisan basis through the destruction of the halls of government, disastrous military battles, broken promises of peace, precedent-shattering presidential durations, and misleading premises leading to conflict, among other indignities.

Burning belligerence 

It began in 1812, when James Madison of the infant Democratic-Republican Party, one of the fathers of the Constitution, was re-elected to a second term as the nation’s fourth president six months into the War of 1812 with Great Britain, a conflict so muddled that they couldn’t even come up with a name for it.

The belligerence, which lasted three years, was a mixed success, with cessation of the practice of harassing American maritime traffic (and abducting seamen), some favorable territorial gains, and the creation of “The Star Spangled Banner,” notwithstanding the ignominy of seeing the British force the president and his administration to flee the nation’s capital and then burn the still incomplete U.S. Capitol and the White House before being routed by Andrew Jackson’s rag-tag band of warriors at the Battle of New Orleans.

A little more then two score later, Republican Abraham Lincoln overcame a coterie of bad military leaders and stunning setbacks in the early years of the Civil War to secure re-election in 1864 over one of those former wayward generals, George McClellan, despite the Great Emancipator’s well-founded fear months before the election that he would be defeated.

He attributed his ensuing resounding victory, following a number of major advances and triumphs by the Union army, to the aversion of the voters “to change horses in the middle of the stream.”

World wars 

As much of the world was engulfed in war 50 years later, Democrat Woodrow Wilson framed his successful but narrow 1916 re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” Within five weeks of his second inauguration, he sought and obtained a congressional declaration for the country to enter World War I.

Marshall H. Tanick
Marshall H. Tanick
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the candidate for vice president on the unsuccessful Democratic ticket to succeed Wilson, 2½ decades later in the midst of World War II ran and won his bid in for a fourth term in 1944, following his precedent-shattering third term and preceding his death three months after his fourth inauguratio

Vietnam and beyond

Although it was still in its infancy, with fewer than 25,000 American troops in Vietnam in 1964, the American undertaking in that country to support the South Vietnamese  government against insurgents from the Communist North was a backdrop for the election that year. The incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, clobbered Republican challenger Barry Goldwater, before he began escalating the undeclared war in a way that essentially drove him out of office, or from seeking another term four years later.

That war was in its final stages in 1972 when President Richard Nixon had an even easier time defeating Democratic challenger George McGovern, who, like McClellan before him, made ending the war the centerpiece of his unsuccessful quest for the White  House.

During the undeclared but quite real war with Iraq in 2004, President George W. Bush narrowly secured re-election over Vietnam War medal winner John Kerry despite the revelation that the American invasion was based on misleading reports of weapons of mass destruction maintained by the Iraqi leadership. A major motif of the GOP incumbent’s campaign was the denigration of his opponent’s military service, despite a spotty and dubious one of his own.

In all instances in which a White House resident sought an extension of occupancy during a war, the voters renewed his lease, from Madison chased out of the blazing White House to the second Bush’s prevarications forming the basis for leading the country into war.

All were shooting wars

However, these precedents could be shattered this year. All of the prior instances involved shooting wars, distinct from the current equally serious, or more so, coronavirus pandemic. Unlike the current crisis, none of the wars overseen by past wartime incumbents was aggravated or instigated by a president’s belated, dithering pre-war incompetence. Nor was any of them characterized by the type of self-promotional ego-inflating boasts of the current occupant of the White House, coupled with a virtually total lack of empathy for the suffering incurred by the victims of the wars.

Despite these deficiencies, Trump’s titular “wartime” presidency increases the likelihood, from a historical perspective, that he will be re-elected, a prospect that encourages his supporters.

But his detractors might like to invoke the converse of the oft-quoted remark of philosopher George Santayana: Those who do remember the past are not condemned to repeat it.

Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities constitutional law attorney and historian with the law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Michael Hess on 03/31/2020 - 08:53 am.

    Trumps self description as a “wartime president” is just that, a self bestowed title not validated by others. He is presiding through a terrible disaster unlike others we’ve faced in our lifetime, and his low approval ratings compared to his predecessors in similar situations (9/11) suggests the public is not swayed by his lies, his incompetence, and his narcissistic obsession with self adulation in the face of his many many mistakes and deceptions.

    • Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 03/31/2020 - 09:27 am.

      Also the way he is treating the reporters asking direct questions, is nothing more that his bait and switch con game he wrote about in his book ” The Art Of The Deal”. He has also turned his “virus briefings” into political rallies. That last one with the CEO of My Pillow declaring how god put Trump in as president because America has shunned “GOD” was a total joke and farce!

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/31/2020 - 07:00 pm.

        Given how the GOP is so willing to let their most loyal voters, seniors, die for the Dow, I’m in agreement we’ve abandoned God.

        • Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 04/01/2020 - 07:33 am.

          Sorry, but “GOD” is a figment of your imagination. My view is a bit different. There is no god to abandon.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/31/2020 - 09:50 am.

    I think Trump’s best chance for Re-election is in finding ways to manipulate the vote.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 03/31/2020 - 03:47 pm.

      Not to worry, Republicans are on that. Democrats are trying to get money out to the states so they can do mail-in voting if necessary in the fall. Republicans are fighting it. Donald went so far as to say if we had vote by mail there would never be another Republican president elected in this country. He’ll veto any legislation supporting it. He is probably right in his assessment, if all votes were counted Republicans would have a tough time holding onto power.

      Their plan is still be fleshed out, but if a state’s vote can’t be verified the electoral college representatives from that state can choose the winner, so they’ll be trying to use that angle.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/01/2020 - 09:59 am.

      So, you don’t think he’ll just leave it up to Putin again?

  3. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 03/31/2020 - 10:28 am.

    Now we see that Trump has got into a peeing match with the Governor of Michigan, a state he needs to win again.

    Recent crises, 911 and Gulf War 1, each gave the incumbent a 30% push in approval. Trump is less than 5 on this one.

    Bush 1 went from 92% approval to a loss to Clinton. And while he had more time than Trump to waste away the advantage, never underestimate DJT’s ability to alienate people.

  4. Submitted by PHILIP GRANT on 03/31/2020 - 11:40 am.

    Perhaps “disaster president” is a more apt description.

  5. Submitted by Richard Brattain on 03/31/2020 - 01:57 pm.

    Trump has declared himself a “wartime President” in his war with the coronavirus. If Trump were our “wartime President” instead of FDR during WWII and given his lackadaisical attitude about the seriousness of the coronavirus in the beginning of the pandemic he would not have taken the Japanese seriously after their attack on Pearl Harbor until they were at the outskirts of Denver, Colorado.

  6. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/31/2020 - 02:14 pm.

    Early days, early days….

    After setting an acceptable loss goal of 200,000 people we’ll see how that works out for him when they are not just predictions.

    When was a war fought so incompetently on our own soil?

    A guy you wouldn’t leave in-charge of a convenience store for a couple of weeks in charge of this?

    We’re not even close to the worst of it yet–it’s too early for this type of speculation.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 03/31/2020 - 05:32 pm.

    None of those above former Presidents were as weak as is trump.
    Those Presidents did not exhibit day after day bottomless ignorant comments, challenges, responses, reactions and edicts. The swing voters will not be sucked in, and he cannot win without them.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/31/2020 - 05:50 pm.

    Alas, I fear there’s some truth to Mr. Tanick’s supposition. The fact that Mr. Trump’s approval ratings have not gone into negative numbers – either now or in previous years – does more than suggest that his supporters don’t care how incompetent he may prove himself to be as an actual administrator in a crisis situation. While I’d argue that he should never have elected to office anywhere, that’s just my opinion, and while I think my opinion is based on plenty of evidence, true believers don’t care about evidence – they’re true believers.

    Plenty of 20th-century dictators elsewhere got into office legitimately, and were supported by their own true believers, right up to the point where the catastrophe was too severe and too obvious to ignore, but by then, incredible damage had been done, both to individuals and to the societies they lived in. Not for a minute do I think we’re immune from that happening here, and in fact, the current health emergency is turning into a frightening opportunity for Trump and his acolytes in the West Wing to add even more power to an already-too-powerful executive branch. I just heard Trump say at this evening’s “briefing,” “Let me tell you, I approve everything,” with the emphasis on that last word.

    As a “wartime” leader, he’s hopeless, and we’re fortunate that he has several lieutenants who are far more competent, and are carrying him, as well as the rest of us, through this. At least so far. We’ll see how it goes. As Neal Rovick has said, “early days, early days…” We have a long way to go before this health crisis is over, and there are still many, many ways for things to go tragically, disastrously wrong. The health professionals will do their very best, but we’re hampered by a system based on profit, with leaders that, too often, had to be persuaded that the situation was serious, and by the fact that, when times are good, few people are thinking ahead to when times won’t be so good. Those that are, usually are labeled as naysayers and ignored as a result.

    More locally, I’m very glad that the legislative session didn’t get far enough along for both DFL and Rebublican lawmakers to carve up and commit the state’s projected budget surplus. We’re going to need every penny of it and more, and I’m glad that Governor Walz had the good sense to tread cautiously in that context. It’s still early…

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/01/2020 - 06:28 am.

      Ray, I spit my coffee out at “…he has several lieutenants who are far more competent…”

      Evidence, please.

  9. Submitted by Andy Briebart on 04/01/2020 - 06:20 am.

    The real problem is where is Joe Biden?

    You can complain about Trump all day but how can Joe Biden beat him if he can’t be seen?

    Candidate Protection Program? He was on MSNBC the other day and couldn’t even read the teleprompter. His handlers have him on such a short leash. I know we have the whole Covid thing going on but geez, how about some daily media exposure. The public may think he died of Corona virus.

    Complain about Trump all day, but at this rate it’s four more years of complaining.

    • Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 04/01/2020 - 07:41 am.

      Trump has turned his “virus briefings” into political rallies instead, to keep his ego inflated, his constant con game going.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/01/2020 - 11:17 am.

        The liberal media, bent on destroying Don Trump, continues to allow these campaign rallies live.

        I guess it’s not a problem for them to allow the Draft Dodger In Chief to spread dangerous misinformation during a pandemic.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/02/2020 - 10:06 am.

    This is a weird scenario so I’m not sure the pandemic actually gives Trump an edge. Trump’s little bump in favorability doesn’t concern me as much as Biden’s poor numbers in that area.

    This “electability” gambit is more likely to keep Trump in office than the pandemic if Biden doesn’t get out ahead with much stronger numbers. Despite Trump’s multiple fiasco’s Biden remains more or less tied, and that fact is starting to look eerily like HRC’s performance it 2016.

    Biden cannot afford to be a dud of a candidate. If you put a dud on the ballot you’re putting the only guy who can lose on the ballot. Biden has no compelling message, and no real plan to dramatically improve American life, the more we see of his campaign, the more see it rely on just not being Trump… we’ve seen this movie before and it put Trump in the White House.

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