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WWFTD—What Would Franklin and Teddy Do? Leadership for the 21st Century

Rip Walsh is an Adjunct Professor at Long Island University who writes about U.S. History and Politics.

Read on for a comparison of several recent presidents against the leadership styles of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Read on for a comparison of several recent presidents against the leadership styles of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Domestic Issues: Can We all Come Together?

The United States is a very divided nation. The three presidents to serve since 2001 have not done much to unite the country. Trust in our government is at an all-time low, maybe deservedly so, which makes it that much more difficult to bring people together. National security after 9/11 was obviously a big issue, but has it been taken too far? The question of what to do with some 11 million undocumented immigrants that have entered the U.S. since 2001 still has not been settled. Gun violence reached its highest level in our history during the last 20 years, with no significant gun control measures seeing the light of day. Climate change and green energy are especially divisive issues, as any compromise on common ground has been nearly impossible to find. Race and minority rights have also succeeded in splintering the people; our founding call that “All people are created equal” is drowned out by angry voices.

George W. Bush and the Katrina Catastrophe

Within two months after 9/11, President George W. Bush got Congress to pass the Patriot Act, which greatly increased the power of the federal government to conduct surveillance on its own people. Naming it the Patriot Act seemed an attempt to cut off possible criticism or scrutiny of the law. How could you be against the Patriot Act? Are you un-American?

The next year, 2002, the Department of Homeland Security would be created, along with 16 other new agencies concerned with protecting the American people. Homeland Security re-shuffled the organization of security and immigration control in this country. Was it overkill? There were no major terror attacks during the rest of the Bush presidency, but could the same result have been obtained by getting the existing organizations to function better, without adding massive bureaucracy and cost? The increased ability of the national government to spy on its own people engendered images of George Orwell’s 1984 come to life. Say hello to Big Brother.

W. Bush attempted to get Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but the effort died in the Senate in 2007. 11 million undocumented immigrants are estimated to have entered the country between 2001 and 2009. Their status and future became a major and contentious issue. Two million people would be deported from the U.S. during Bush’s two terms. The fate of the 11 million remained unresolved when George W. left office. Gun violence increased tremendously in the late 1990s and early 2000s, beginning with the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. There would be 26 mass shootings during the W. Bush presidency, the worst being at Virginia Tech University in 2007, where 33 people were killed by a gunman, who then shot himself. No serious effort was undertaken to strengthen gun control, as George W. voiced support for 2nd Amendment Rights, along with the great influence of the NRA (National Rifle Association) in Washington blocked any change.

George W. could not be considered a big believer in climate change. Upon taking office, he withdrew U.S. support for the Kyoto Protocol, a U.N. convention seeking to reduce greenhouse emissions, feeling it was unduly harsh on the United States and might hurt our economy. President Bush thought the U.S. should invest more in green energy but still needed to increase the fossil-fuel supply in the short run. Along those lines, he supported drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and lifting the ban on offshore oil drilling. On the other hand, George W. did try to decrease pollution released into the atmosphere over a 15-year period. In 2006, he also created the largest national monument, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument, a move both TR and FDR would have been very proud of. George W. Bush felt global warming was real but stated he was not sure how much came from pollution and what could be attributed to the earth’s natural variations throughout history. A view that might be termed beside the point. The earth is warming; pollution is a huge problem. The U.S. should be making every effort to do its part in reducing pollution with the president leading the way, Mr. Bush decided not to follow that path.

On social issues, George W. followed a mostly conservative tone. He did appoint minorities to prominent Cabinet posts: Colin Powell, the first African-American Secretary of State; Condoleezza Rice, the first African-American woman Secretary of State; Alberto Gonzalez, the first Hispanic Attorney General. Mr. Bush supported the death penalty, eased regulations on charities run by religious organizations, and signed into law the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which protects Americans against discrimination in health insurance and employment based on their genetic information. George W. never approved of same-sex marriage or paid much attention to LGBT rights, but softened his rhetoric for political expediency. He did not repeal President Clinton’s Executive Order forbidding discrimination in federal employment due to sexual orientation, or get rid of the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy on gays in the military. Overall, a warm dishwater approach to a serious issue, not the stuff of strong presidential leadership.

The Bush Administration’s handling of the veterans returning from the wars in the Middle East would not be a golden moment. The country had learned a lesson, not giving the service people the cold shoulder or indifference that greeted many Vietnam vets when they returned home. For Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans were welcomed warmly when departing the planes which carried them back to the U.S. The problems started after the euphoria of their safe return wore off and they tried to settle back into American society. The Veterans Administration’s beyond-antiquated computer system meant lengthy waiting times for veterans attempting to get treatment. Many came home with TBIs (Traumatic Brain Injuries) from roadside bombs that went undiagnosed for months or years. Counseling for those suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) was woefully inadequate, with thousands of veterans also finding it hard to find gainful employment. Depression and suicide among returning service people rose to alarming heights. Not the welcome home these folks who risked their lives for our country deserved. As the number of those coming home fell due to a decrease in the size of the wars, conditions have improved, but veteran affairs remain a blot on this nation.

Hurricane Katrina, a massive Category 5 storm that devastated the Gulf of Mexico region, especially New Orleans, in August of 2005, became the nadir of President George W. Bush’s weak and ineffective leadership. Over 1,800 Americans were killed, and it would be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. The response of the federal government, led by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) would be considered poor and too slow. The nation watched images on TV of stranded citizens sitting on the roofs of their homes above the flood waters for days, waiting to be rescued. George W. compounded the misery at first by not including the coastal areas of Louisiana in his state of emergency declaration—an omission his administration tried to blame on the governor of Louisiana, but was shown to be a blatant falsehood. Many Americans wondered about the difference between the bumbled response to Katrina and the billions pouring into Iraq for the war there. Another instructive comparison can be made with President Theodore Roosevelt’s energetic actions after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The U.S. army immediately rushed to the stricken city by the bay after disaster struck, restoring order to the streets, helping people to evacuate, and providing food and water, while creating tent cities for the homeless to shelter in. Resolve and drive in the Chief Executive make a big difference.

Barack Obama: An Uphill Battle

President Obama attempted to take a more liberal approach to domestic policy than George W. Bush, even changing views he held previously on certain issues. On government surveillance, Barack had criticized the Patriot Act while a Senator in 2006, but voted to re-authorize it, with some revisions, that same year, and as president in 2011, signed a four-year renewal of the law. Mr. Obama tried to help the 11 million undocumented migrants during his two terms; a gridlocked Congress, however, refused to pass any meaningful legislation. His administration attempted to clarify the status of undocumented immigrants through the creation of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) in 2012. DACA allowed immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to remain in the country indefinitely until Congress enacted comprehensive laws. Trump rescinded DACA in 2017, only to have the Supreme Court overturn his decision due to his failure in following the right procedures in terminating the program. The DREAM Act of 2001 hoped to establish a stable basis for undocumented minors to perhaps gain a path to citizenship. 10 different versions of the act came before Congress between 2001 and 2020, none of which gained approval. Barack would actually deport more people from the country during his presidency (2.5 million) than Bush did, concentrating on those with criminal records. The fate of undocumented immigrants remains in limbo.

Gun violence continued at unacceptably high levels during the Obama Presidency. The most heinous incident took place in December of 2012 at Sandy Hook, Connecticut, where over 20 grade school children and teachers were killed by a lone gunman, who had taken assault weapons from his mother’s home. One month after the tragedy, President Obama signed 23 Executive Orders for greater gun control, while urging Congress to make them permanent. The orders sought to limit the availability of assault weapons, along with greater restrictions on the ownership and sale of guns. Like immigration, Congress did nothing. In January 2016, President Obama issued more executive orders extending background check requirements to certain weapon sellers. Mr. Obama deserves praise for his efforts to institute additional gun control measures. In this case, to accomplish even more, the bully pulpit of TR or the fireside chats of FDR would have been needed to go over Congress’ head and appeal directly to the American people. Sadly, Barack did not deliver the thunder.

As with other concerns, President Obama desired a more progressive agenda in protecting the environment, energy, and climate change. He asserted his belief in global warming and the urgency to combat it. Sometimes, however, it almost seemed the effort to convince doubters of climate change that they were wrong, assumed more importance than proposing concrete steps to fight pollution. In 2009, the Obama Administration championed new regulations on factories and other industries to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The resolve of Team Obama would be tested in 2010 when a BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, spewing crude unhindered into the water. A federal investigation was undertaken, while the oil continued to pollute Gulf waters and beaches, causing many to ask if the government did enough to stop the leak. Oil-encrusted wildlife and tar balls on the sand could not be considered pretty or confidence-inspiring sights.

On green energy, Barack encouraged some initiatives that fizzled and he mostly tried to steer a middle course in terms of battling pollution and damaging the economy with increased regulations—an approach that made numerous people on both sides of the political divide unhappy. In 2013, the president vetoed a bill to authorize the Keystone Pipeline and halted oil exploration in the Arctic. Mr. Obama signaled his support for international cooperation in combatting global warming by signing the United States onto the Paris Climate Accords in 2016. Barack also protected millions of acres of land in the country, continuing the legacy of Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt in environmental conservation.

Barack Obama had waffled early in his political career on LGBT rights. While a candidate for the Illinois State Senate in 1996, he supported legalizing gay marriage. 12 years later in 2008, while campaigning for president, he stated opposition to marriage between anyone but a man and a woman. Barack reversed himself again in 2012 during his re-election campaign, pronouncing he favored legalizing same-sex marriages. His administration provided briefs to the Supreme Court calling for change as the Court heard cases on the issue. In 2015, the Court ruled same-sex marriage to be a fundamental right in Obergefell vs. Hodges, a major triumph for President Obama and the country. Barack also did away with the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy of gays in the military, while the prohibition against transgender people in the armed forces was lifted as well. These were positive changes for the country led by a president who had the courage to change beliefs for the advancement of civil rights.

Being the first African-American president was not an easy task, and that became no more apparent than in the area of race relations. Mr. Obama’s supporters hoped he might be able to reduce racial tensions and work on the prejudice which still permeated American society. At the beginning of his presidency, an African-American Harvard professor complained of racist treatment by a Cambridge police officer after being arrested outside his own house. President Obama invited the two men to the White House to share a beer and discuss the incident. The “Beer Summit” went off amicably, but further investigation seemed to point to the professor staging the event for publicity; a view reinforced by the fact the officer conducted sensitivity training for the Cambridge police department. Police violence against minorities grabbed the attention of the country in 2014 with the fatal shooting of 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. President Obama formed a commission to investigate and offer recommendations for police reform. After much time and effort, the committee released a report the members acknowledged almost no one read, especially not police departments, and few of its suggestions would be followed. The biggest black mark against the Obama Administration on minority rights, as it would be with the other two 21st-century presidents, has already been mentioned in the Economy section—poverty in the United States. Poverty levels remained the same during the Obama Era; a failure for the entire country. The president must do better and scream from the rooftops every day of his administration to get things done. The American people, particularly the downtrodden, deserve no less.

Donald Trump: Twitter Dee and Twitter Dum

Of all the falsehoods perpetrated by Donald Trump, the most telling occurred during the 2016 presidential campaign when a reporter asked him if his outlandish behavior would change once he became president. He responded that of course, it would. That lie almost guaranteed the Trump Presidency would be a failure. The use of social media by Presidents Bush and Obama has not been discussed as neither of them engaged in the practice to any significant degree while in office. Twitter was not launched until 2006, two years into George W.’s second term, and I don’t think he ever had an account. President Obama possessed a Twitter account but wisely did not engage in employing it when in the Executive Office. The same cannot be said of Mr. Trump. The Donald may go down in history as the Twitter president, Mr. Twitter Dee, or maybe more appropriately, Mr. Twitter Dum.

As the country well knows, President Trump released Tweets non-stop throughout his four years in office, starting at 5 AM in the morning many days and not letting up. Were these tweet storms of any benefit? Perhaps to Mr. Trump’s self-gratification, but not the nation. He attacked everybody and everything via Twitter; political opponents, other world leaders, and celebrities (somewhat perplexing here, the man is president of the United States. He had nothing better to do with his time than respond to criticism from Hollywood or sports stars); ordinary citizens; anybody who dared challenge his rightness. Cabinet members were even fired by Tweet. Trump’s blatant misuse of the social media tool could make a person think it might be a good idea for future presidents to agree to suspend their Twitter accounts while in office.

Mr. Trump tended to be obnoxious and rude to reporters who had the nerve to ask a tough or uncomfortable question, and lambasted most news, besides Fox, as fake and corrupt. President George W. Bush seems to tolerate the press, not having a terrible interaction with reporters, but not going out of the way to accommodate them either. President Obama had a similar relationship with the press corps. Sometimes he appeared to take sniping from Fox News more seriously than necessary. Being a Democrat president, Barack should have understood that no matter what he said or did, the Sean Hannitys of Fox would find fault with it. Not worth the time or trouble.

Current and future presidents might learn a valuable lesson from the manner in which the Roosevelts handled the media and criticism. Theodore Roosevelt loved nothing better than a robust debate or discussion with supposed experts on certain topics and issues, even with his harshest critics. If a person was invited to the White House to talk about their expertise, they knew to come well-prepared as TR certainly would be. Before the meeting, Roosevelt read every newspaper or magazine article, book, paper, or pamphlet his visitor had written and could discuss them intelligently. A famous example is TR’s exchange with Upton Sinclair, author of the acclaimed muckraking novel, The Jungle, which exposed the horrors of the meatpacking industry in Chicago. President Roosevelt congratulated Sinclair on having written an excellent exposé on meat packing but disliked the ending of the book. TR blasted the Socialist Utopia conclusion as pansy-ass (not his exact words but ones that convey his meaning), which weakened an otherwise brilliant effort. Teddy also relished his everyday interactions with the national press, always providing the writers with something to report on, even on slow news days. Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed his dealings with the press as well, joking and bantering with them, but both sides got what they needed from the sessions. Working with the press should not be a burden for a president, but an opportunity to get his ideas and policies out to his or her bosses, the American people.

Donald Trump’s presidency may have also set a record for the turnover rate in Cabinet members and advisors. The number who were fired or resigned was extensive, as well as the ones who were indicted, tried, and found guilty of crimes. Something which obviously called into question Trump’s judgment as he continually asserted that he only hired the brightest and best. The cream of the crop until they happen to disagree with the president, then they were chastised and degraded on the way out the door. In addition, a new benchmark may have been established in the number of tell-all books being released by dismissed people while the Donald remained in office. A final sad distinction for Trump would be the longest government shutdown in December 2018 and January 2019 of 35 days, over funding for his border wall. This fiasco cost the American people some $5 billion dollars. An appearance that pointed toward a weak and dysfunctional executive branch, consumed by legal proceedings and backbiting from former employees. Not what the country wants or needs from its president.

While campaigning for president, Mr. Trump announced he would implement a tough new immigration policy, aimed at deporting as many illegal migrants as possible. He promised to build a wall on our southern border with Mexico, and have Mexico pay for it. In the end, the Donald took money earmarked for the Pentagon to build a section of wall, not as long as Trump guaranteed, which people just tunneled under anyway. The treatment of people attempting to enter the U.S. and detained became one of the saddest episodes in our recent history. Migrants were held in overcrowded cages; parents were separated from their children; the new immigration enforcement agency, ICE, stretched the limits of decency with their heavy-handed methods of apprehending suspects. Instead of bringing order and humanity to the immigration system, Mr. Trump drove it into the ground, leaving the next president to clean up the colossal mess.

As he made very clear early on while running for president, Donald Trump rejects the idea of climate change. Thus his policies toward energy and pollution control were diametrically opposed to his predecessor’s. The Donald made huge cuts to renewable energy programs and discarded Obama’s regulations on reducing greenhouse gases and different types of pollution employing toxic substances. Along with removing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, at the 2019 G7 summit, he skipped the sessions on global warming but afterward told reporters he was an environmentalist. The Donald expanded areas for permitted drilling and resource extraction, also allowing resumed drilling in the Arctic Refuge to increase production and exports of oil, natural gas, and coal. Mr. Trump announced strong support for the controversial oil and gas extraction method of fracking. The president’s overall goal seemed to be to eliminate as many federal regulations as possible concerning energy and pollution control. The guy even reduced government protection for animals.

Being a Republican president, if in name only, Mr. Trump might be expected to protect 2nd Amendment rights while in office, and he did. The killing, however, went on even worse than before. Another dubious landmark for the Trump Administration would be the deadliest mass shooting in our history, taking place on October 1, 2017, in Las Vegas, Nevada, where a lone gunman killed 60 people, wounding 411, who were attending an outdoor country music concert. The fact that the shooter used bump stocks on his weapons to increase the rate of fire did lead to its banning in December 2018 by the Department of Justice. That small step did not decrease the number of shootings: Parkland, Florida high school 17 dead; a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 11 dead; Walmart, El Paso, Texas, 23 dead; Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs, Texas, 27 dead. The nightmare goes on.

President Trump claimed numerous times during his presidency that he had done more for African-Americans than any other president since Abraham Lincoln. The state of racial relations in the country seemed to contradict that statement. Police violence against minorities finally exploded in 2020 with the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25. Mr. Floyd had his breathing cut off by an officer putting his knee on Floyd’s neck for over 8 minutes, resulting in death. Floyd’s demise led to protests and rioting across the nation, which the Trump Administration attempted to blame on radical left-wing groups, without even trying to address the issue of police brutality against minorities. The Donald’s stance allowed for the emergence from the shadows of extreme right-wing organizations, something which he did not discourage. Mr. Trump’s whole misguided beliefs on race relations had become apparent after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulted in the death of a young counter-protester, who was hit by a car driven by a Neo-Nazi. The Donald dumped oil on the fire by stating there were good people on both sides of the confrontation. A group whose openly proclaimed views are extreme prejudice and racism against certain people cannot in any shape or form be labeled good. As he often did in these situations, Trump walked back his original statements, saying he did not really know about these Neo-Nazis. His refusal to condemn them and their philosophy, however, spoke volumes. Donald Trump would not undertake any initiatives while in office to bridge or heal the racial divide present in the U.S. Another failure in his feeble presidency.

The outbreak of the Coronavirus Pandemic in early 2020 put the final nail in the coffin of the Trump Administration. At first, the Donald tried to downplay the seriousness of the virus, repeatedly asserting that it would disappear quickly. Next, Trump, as is his wont, blamed the epidemic on others, mainly China, calling it the Wuhan or China flu. Third, his administration never put forth a coherent or comprehensive plan to combat it, or arrange for the distribution of resources in the best manner. Lastly, and maybe most damning, the Donald worked at cross-purposes and would not cooperate with the nation’s medical experts. When they began to question his handling of the crisis, the inevitable brow-beating and disparagement of the doctors commenced. In addition, Mr. Trump displayed crass callousness to the number of lives lost to the virus, some 250,000 by November 2020, and still growing. The president’s character flaws shone through most brightly in his child-like refusal to wear a mask in public. Even getting the virus himself did not humble or alter his petulant denial of Covid’s impact on the country. A more pathetic and sorry display of presidential immaturity cannot be found in our history.

As he often stated, Donald Trump is not a politician. The crisis did not have to be the downfall of the Trump Administration, except at its head was the Donald. All Mr. Trump had to do was go before the nation and say, “I am not a doctor. This is a medical crisis. I will follow the advice and direction of the medical experts, and place the full strength and resources of the federal government at their disposal.” If the virus is contained faster and better, the president is a winner and hero. If it turned out as bad as it has, the people know the president made the best decision by letting the experts handle it. It is just a very powerful illness. A win-win situation for Mr. Trump, but he, being the Donald, converted the crisis into a lose-lose. He lost the 2020 presidential election, and the nation continues to suffer the misery of the pandemic. It seemed Donald Trump counted on a strong economy to carry him through to a second term, which is why he battled the doctors and governors over the safest time to re-open the economy. A fight he might have won if he cooperated instead of working at odds. Defeat in 2020 at the polls perhaps was just desserts for Twitter Dum.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.