Presidents and the Cost of War
Few presidents have thrived or even survived in the heat of widespread upheaval.
By: GenZ Staff | October 19, 2023 | 729 Words
There are few things more unnerving for a president seeking re-election than the outbreak of war. Many chief executives have been forced into this situation throughout the years. While President Joe Biden has yet to commit to an expanded American presence on the ground in Ukraine, Israel, or elsewhere in the Middle East, his clear alignment with the Jewish state could cost him support on the hard left, where there is still strong support for Hamas despite the terrorist group’s atrocities.
With the future of the Ukrainian and Israeli wars fraught with both peril and uncertainty, Biden can only hope for a repeat of past instances when effective wartime or quasi-wartime leadership had a positive impact on a president’s chances at re-election. However, such instances are the exception, not the rule.
Presidents and War
James Madison declared war on Britain in June 1812, just five months before facing the voters for a second term. After a failed invasion of Canada, then controlled by the British, Madison was narrowly re-elected, winning by less than three points after capturing the 1808 election by a whopping 32 points. Two years later, in 1814, the Brits would set fire to the White House.
In 1864, Abraham Lincoln presided over the most devastating of all conflicts, a civil war that resulted in some one million deaths on and off the battlefield, and yet with the war still raging, he was victorious in the 1864 election by the same margin — ten points — he achieved in the similarly divided political climate of 1860.
Woodrow Wilson ran for a second term in 1916 on the promise that he would keep the United States out of the conflict raging in Europe. But once he won re-election, we entered World War I anyway, which almost certainly would have led to Wilson’s defeat in 1920. But he pulled out after suffering major stroke, and the Democrats’ successor nominee, James Cox, was lost in a 26-point landslide to Warren Harding, leading to 12 uninterrupted years of Republican control of the White House.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was forced into World War II by the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was both popular and entrenched, one year past the third of his four presidential victories. And when he finally acceded to the desperate pleas of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and entered the European war in 1944, FDR was in declining health, months away from death, but still won a fourth landslide victory.
President Harry S. Truman ordered American ground forces to Korea in 1950 and did not stick around to experience the voters’ wrath for the unpopular war, pulling out of the race in 1952 in favor of Adlai Stevenson, who was easily beaten by Dwight Eisenhower.
The Vietnam War began under the administration of John F. Kennedy, who had unveiled a plan for steady withdrawal from Southeast Asia before his assassination. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, went in the opposite direction, escalating the American presence to more than 500,000 troops, and paid a steep price for what later turned into the first defeat in American military history, withdrawing from the 1968 race and dying four years later, a beaten man.
George H.W. Bush actually peaked in popularity in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, soaring to an unheard of 91% approval following an overwhelming military victory, before a precipitous fall leading to a decisive defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton — and Ross Perot — in 1992.
George W. Bush drew high marks for his response to 9/11. But he later engaged in the disastrous Iraq War, was barely re-elected in 2004, and, like Wilson, Truman, and Johnson before him, would likely have lost badly had he been up for re-election in 2008. Instead, the GOP nominated John McCain, who lost to Barack Obama.
A broad conclusion one could draw from the long march of political history is that, if a president is already popular when a war or major conflict begins, effective wartime leadership will likely sustain his popularity. But if he is already flagging, as Biden is with his favorability barely touching 40%, a war — especially a second one on his watch — is unlikely to salvage his presidency and could in fact cause irreparable harm to his chances of returning to the White House.