He may have his hat in, but he's far from a shoo-in

March 07, 1991|By Thomas V. DiBacco

IN THE aftermath of the Persian Gulf war, President Bush's "approval rating" in national polling is so high that some people think the Democrats needn't bother to show up in 1992.

But don't be so hasty. There's more to being president than running a war. And history shows that splendid handling of foreign policy hasn't always aided incumbent presidents.

No president knew that better than John Adams, who finessed an undeclared naval war with France from 1798 to 1800, getting the French to agree to America's most insistent demand, the end of its alliance of 1778. Still, Adams' largely diplomatic victory wasn't sufficient to prevail over his administration's domestic shortcomings: He was defeated in his re-election bid in 1800.

Democrat James K. Polk won in 1844 on a slogan of "54-40 or fight" (relating to the Oregon boundary). Polk not only acquired Oregon but Texas -- and he annexed most of the Southwest as a result of the Mexican war. (It was America's "manifest destiny.") But these foreign policy accomplishments didn't help Polk in the long run. Deciding not to seek re-election, he saw his party lose the White House to a Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor, in 1848.

This century, there was Harry S Truman, who in 1945 brought about the end of World War II and earned approval ratings not unlike those currently enjoyed by Bush. But Truman, with the advantage of incumbency, had a difficult time winning in 1948 (the pollsters, indeed, thought Thomas E. Dewey would win), and Truman chose not to run in 1952, in part because his standing among voters had slipped.

Perhaps the classic example of a president achieving high marks in foreign policy while domestic issues piled up was Martin Van Buren, like Bush a sitting vice president who ascended to the White House in 1837. A former secretary of state, Van Buren did all the right things in handling foreign policy. His Indian policy, for instance, was scarcely wimpish: When the Cherokees failed to remove themselves from Southern states in 1838, as provided by law, Van Buren called out the troops to remove some 20,000 tribe members to Oklahoma.

When rebellious Canadians in 1837 went across the American border to stir up support for their cause -- and in the process killed an American citizen -- Van Buren sent troops to the border to ensure that such violations wouldn't reoccur. The president was just as stern a year later, when Canadian lumbermen began to log timber in an area claimed by Maine. Congress authorized some 50,000 troops to deal with the matter, and full-scale war was averted in favor of diplomacy, which succeeded by 1842.

Van Buren's Achilles heel, ensuring his defeat in his re-election bid in 1840, was the deteriorating American economy. The Panic of 1837 began within months of his taking office, banks began to fail throughout the nation. Within two years, hundreds had disappeared, as did private businesses. Americans, who earlier had put their savings in land because land appeared always to appreciate, found that land could decline in value, too.

Even state governments found the going tough, suspending major economic plans and failing to pay debts. Adding insult to injury were foreign investors, who began to pull money out of the United States, helping to bring down even more banks. The depression was the worst the nation had experienced; it lasted five years. There was massive unemployment. Farmers were plagued by low prices. (Cotton sold for as little as 6 cents a pound.) About the only strong economic activity was in the foreclosure business, in which lawyers made lots of money. Sound familiar?

Van Buren, who in his glory years was known as "the little magician" for his political acumen, was soundly whipped by William Henry Harrison in his re-election bid in 1840. "Van, Van," the opposing Whigs chanted, "is a used-up man."

The moral for George Herbert Walker Bush is clear: The economy, enormously more complicated than in Van Buren's time, merits the same sort of attention that the Persian Gulf crisis got. Americans eat, work, buy goods and pay their bills every day -- and seem inclined to be guided by their sentiments on these issues every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at American University in Washington.

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