History Lesson

Lincoln, Roosevelt, and … Bush?

Does war help presidents get re-elected?

FDR: at war abroad and in Washington

Though major combat is over in Iraq and Afghanistan, George W. Bush likes to describe himself as a “war president.” No doubt that’s partly because he and his campaign team think that such an image will help him get re-elected. When we recall Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War or Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, we impart to them a heroic aura, imagining Americans muting political rivalries and rallying behind the president and the war at hand. Few citizens, we suppose, could have opposed these valiant leaders.

But serving as president during wartime has in fact been a mixed blessing and certainly no guarantee of re-election. Lincoln and FDR, who led the nation through cataclysmic wars, were indeed re-elected, but not without difficulty. Presidents who waged more remote and less popular wars, such as Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson, found incumbency a liability. Although polls suggest that Bush should feel good about his prospects in November, he shouldn’t expect that wartime leadership will ensure his victory. On the contrary, his best hope may be convincing the public that he also knows how to talk about peace and problems at home.

The question for Bush is whether he’ll be perceived as a Roosevelt or Lincoln, or as a Truman or Johnson. In 1944, when FDR sought his fourth term, the United States and the Allied powers seemed likely to prevail over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Yet bloody combat continued across Europe and the Pacific, and peace remained a distant hope. More than 7 million Americans were under arms. The country was fully mobilized.

But the fact that the nation’s and the world’s fate hung in the balance didn’t guarantee a Roosevelt cakewalk. The proposals FDR outlined in his 1944 State of the Union address got nowhere in a Republican-heavy Congress. Thomas E. Dewey, the GOP nominee, slammed the president as an incipient dictator and (in a foretaste of future Republican campaigns) a pawn of radicals. 

It certainly helped FDR that the public approved of his wartime leadership—but probably more important was the robust prosperity that the country was finally enjoying. FDR pollster Hadley Cantril’s surveys found that the burning issues in 1944 were domestic. Accordingly, FDR campaigned on an “economic bill of rights” that promised 60 million jobs, help for small businesses, and the construction of homes, hospitals, and highways. Although he won a fourth term comfortably, he garnered fewer electoral votes in 1944 than he had in 1932, 1936, or 1940.

The Civil War nearly killed his presidency

Bush also might hope to create an aura like that of Abraham Lincoln, who is remembered today for holding the Union together during dark times. But even though Lincoln governed during the bloodiest war ever on American soil—the number of deaths at the Battle of Gettysburg alone dwarf those on Sept. 11—he didn’t have an easy road to re-election or even to renomination.

In early 1864, victory for the North, once a sure thing, seemed newly elusive. Republican leaders considered Lincoln’s emerging plans for reconstructing the South too timid; some also fumed over his suspension of habeas corpus. Boomlets sprang up to replace him on the GOP ticket with a more passionately antislavery candidate such as Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, Gen. John C. Fremont, or Gen. Benjamin Butler.

The Democrats, for their part, nominated the disgruntled Gen. George B. McClellan, whom Lincoln had fired as head of the Union army. McClellan attacked the president’s handling of the war and urged conciliation with the South. For much of the summer of 1864, many people, including Lincoln, expected McClellan to win. But a sudden series of military victories in the South, including Gen. William T. Sherman’s conquest of Atlanta, turned the tide. Internal GOP opposition to Lincoln faded, McClellan softened his opposition to the war, and the president won in November with 55 percent of the vote.

Incumbency was even less helpful to those presidents who conducted controversial and remote wars that lacked broad public backing. In those situations, which Bush’s predicament resembles more closely, being a wartime president was a hazard when the re-election campaign began.

Truman was never more disliked than in 1952, during the middle of the Korean War. The war initially enjoyed public support but by mid-1951 had become a gory standoff. Casualties mounted, with no prospect of a speedy victory for the U.S.-led United Nations force. By late 1951, the number of Americans who favored dropping nuclear bombs on North Korea to hasten the war’s end climbed from 28 percent to 51 percent. Critics spoke spitefully of “Truman’s War.”

Since 1950, Truman had been inclined to forgo a second full term. Public discontent over the lack of progress in Korea and Truman’s consequent unpopularity—his approval ratings would fall to 23 percent by 1952—settled the question. In November 1951, he told his staff that he wouldn’t seek re-election, and the next April he announced the decision publicly. If he had run, it’s almost impossible to imagine he would have defeated Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who campaigned as a man of peace.

Lyndon Johnson faced a predicament similar to Truman’s. By 1968, the national unity that he had enjoyed in 1964 when he first escalated the Vietnam War had long since dissipated. The portion of Americans who thought the war a mistake climbed from 32 percent in February 1967 to 49 percent in April 1968. The Tet Offensive of Jan. 30, 1968—a coordinated assault by Viet Cong forces on South Vietnamese cities and strongholds—represented a crushing psychological defeat for the United States and South Vietnam, even though in strictly military terms they came out ahead. After Tet, domestic opposition to the war, including from previously hawkish quarters, mushroomed.

Just as Korea had become Truman’s War, Vietnam became Johnson’s War. His handling of it, including his infamous “credibility gap,” mortally wounded his political viability. Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s strong second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary on March 12 helped convince Johnson not to run for another term—a decision he announced March 31.

Bush is more popular than either Johnson or Truman was in his final year in office. The occupation of Iraq, for all its headaches, hasn’t become the national migraine that Korea was in 1952 or Vietnam was in 1968. But the experience of these presidents may still be instructive. Although Americans will rally behind military actions, their appetite for such adventures is fickle and must be watched carefully . Presidents who can’t detect a shift in the prevailing mood, and who can’t assure the public that they’re eager to deliver peace, may rapidly squander the vast capital they reaped from having gone to war.