Four Crises Facing the President and How History Can Help

Lindsay Chervinsky
·15-min read

President-Elect Joe Biden faces four enormous, interconnected crises: a crumbling economy, a raging global pandemic, systemic racial injustice, and a violent insurrection to overturn the November 2020 election. It’s almost too much for one person to bear. But there are three prior historic examples that demonstrate that Biden isn’t the first to take over the presidency under dire circumstances. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt all assumed the presidency when the nation was confronting very different, but equally intense challenges. These administrations offer a model for the type of leadership that will guide the country out of this perilous position and reveal the three characteristics required to meet the moment: flexibility, empathy, and excellent communication.

George Washington

From our perspective in 2020, it’s easy to see Washington’s inauguration as a moment of great potential and hope. But that’s not how he saw it. As Washington prepared to travel to New York City to take the oath of office, he wrote to his close friend, Henry Knox, “my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” After eight months in office, Washington’s anxiety had not lessened: “I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any action, whose motives may not be subject to a double interpretation. There is scarcely any part of my conduct wch may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.”

Washington’s contemporaries shared a similar sense of dread. They believed in the republican experiment and had faith in Washington’s leadership, but the possibility of failure was all too real. They were students of history and knew that all republics in history had collapsed—usually in a bloody, spectacularly dramatic fashion.

Furthermore, their first attempt at republican self-government had proven an embarrassing failure. The Articles of Confederation, passed in 1777, had created the first United States government. Ten years later, the Constitution Convention gathered in Philadelphia to form a new government—a recognition of the complete collapse of the Confederation government. The economy was in tatters, the government had no credit or ability to raise money, and the states were threatening to break into factions and secede from the nation. Nations rarely received a second chance to reinvent themselves and the first office holders, Washington included, didn’t want to waste the precious opportunity.

Americans also knew that the European powers were lingering on the wings waiting to snatch up any states or regional blocks that left the Union. But many Americans in the 1780s knew that the European powers on the Continent (Great Britain, France, and Spain) weren’t content to just sit back and let the new United States implode. No, they were actively fomenting local rebellion and dissatisfaction with the US government by arming hostile Native nations and encouraging local unrest.

Finally, Washington had no blue print to follow. The terms outlined in Article II of the Constitution that dictated the powers and responsibilities of the president are incredibly short. The delegates at the Constitutional Convention left it to the first president to flesh out the details of governing on a day-to-day basis. No small task. With all of these burdens and pressures, it’s no wonder Washington felt like he was slated for execution.

Despite the almost impossibly high stakes, Washington, the presidency, and the nation survived, largely thanks to his willingness to approach governing with flexibility. Washington initially intended to govern according to a strict interpretation of the terms outlined in the Constitution, but that best-laid plan was quickly scuttled in the face of the demands of governing.

In August 1789, just a few months after his inauguration, Washington planned his first visit to the Senate. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention intended for the Senate to serve as a council on foreign affairs and to actively advise the president on diplomatic issues. Accordingly, Washington arranged for a meeting to discuss and upcoming peace commission between representatives from North Carolina, South Carolina, the Creek Nation, and the Cherokee Nation.

On the day of the visit, Washington arrived and delivered his prepared address. He then asked the senators a series of questions designed to stimulate debate and advice. Instead, Washington was met with silence. Perhaps the senators were uncomfortable discussing the issue with an audience or perhaps they were intimidated by Washington’s presence. Whatever the reason, they elected to refer the issue to committee and asked the president to return the following week.

Washington was furious. He required immediate feedback. Diplomacy required immediate feedback. He concluded that the Senate was ill-equipped to provide the advice necessary for foreign policy. Instead, he began to experiment with other ways to obtain the support he needed.

On November 26, 1791, Washington convened the first cabinet meeting in U.S. history. The cabinet isn’t in the Constitution and no other legislation was ever passed to create the institution. Instead, Washington concluded that some issues were too big to handle by speaking to just one advisor. He needed the combined experience and knowledge of his secretary of state, secretary of war, secretary of treasury, and attorney general. The cabinet helped Washington set countless constitutional precedents, weather the first international crisis, subdue a domestic rebellion, and assert executive privilege for the first time.

The delayed emergence of the cabinet reflected Washington’s willingness to experiment with different methods of leadership until he found the right tools for the job. His successors followed his example and Biden should as well.

Abraham Lincoln

A dark-horse candidate in 1860, Lincoln beat far more experienced and well-known candidates to secure the Republican Party nomination. As soon as Lincoln became the Republican candidate, some southerners immediately began threatening to secede if he were to be elected. After Lincoln won a plurality of the Electoral College votes on November 6, several states made good on that threat. From December 20, 1860 to February 2, 1861, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas seceded, with Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee to shortly follow.

Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, seemed unwilling or unable to come up with a plan of action to hold the Union together, even as the situation escalated. Lincoln’s journey to Washington, D.C. parallels our current moment. Federal law enforcement uncovered seditious plots and plans to assassinate the president-elect as he traveled across the country. The plots weren’t designed to just harm Lincoln, the insurrectionists sought to prevent Lincoln from taking office because they believed he would abolish slavery.

Warned in advance about the impending violence, Lincoln snuck into Washington, D.C. under heavy guard. But he refused to be cowed and would not cancel the inauguration, nor take the oath in private. He knew that the public ceremony was essential to the preservation of democratic norms, government institutions, and free elections.

On March 4, 1861, Lincoln took the oath of office to preside over a country that was already split into two. He made clear in his inaugural speech that he would not countenance the dissolution of the Union: “I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual… It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union.” He assured the states that he would ensure “that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States,” but that he would not resort to military action unless forced: “In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority.”

Just a few weeks after his inauguration, South Carolina forced Lincoln’s hand. Since January, tensions had been brewing over Fort Sumter, the fort that guarded the mouth of Charleston harbor. Early in the month, Confederate forces had prevented ships from resupplying the fort and then on January 21, 1861, the Governor of South Carolina, Francis Pickens, demanded that the Union Army surrender the fort. Major Robert Anderson, the Union commander, quickly rejected the request. After taking office, Lincoln realized that Union forces in the fort would run out of food on April 15 and sent a small fleet of ships to Charleston. Before the fort could be fortified, Confederate forces opened fire on the fort, which did not cease for the next thirty-four hours. Two days later, Anderson evacuated and surrendered the fort. The war had officially begun.

Lincoln spent the next four years fighting to preserve the Union. While ultimately successful, the war effort required much more perseverance and flexibility than anyone anticipated. Lincoln had to fire three major generals (Winfield Scott, George B. McClellan, and Henry W. Halleck), before he found a commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant, that offered and implemented a winning strategy.[3]

Lincoln also experimented with political policy to support the military effort. He entered the presidency committed to preserving slavery in the states where it already existed. Two years later, on January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared “that all persons held as slaves” in the rebelling states, “are, and henceforward shall be free.” Lincoln’s position on slavery evolved as he received evidence that emancipation would undermine the Confederate military position. The Confederate Army relied on enslaved labor to dig ditches, build entrenchments, and transport materials. Furthermore, the South relied on enslaved labor to cultivate crops that fed the southern population. Lincoln’s generals convinced him that removing this source of labor would help cripple the Confederacy. They were right.

Lincoln also demonstrated the second critical characteristic that Joe Biden will need in January: empathy. Lincoln had two reasons to empathize with families who lost sons, brothers, and fathers during the conflict, as well as those that worried about their relatives fighting the war. His oldest son, Robert was a captain serving with Ulysses S. Grant. He knew what it meant to worry about a son in the army, especially because he had recently lost a child. In 1862, the Lincoln’s middle son, Willie, died of typhoid fever.

During his time in the White House, Lincoln met daily with visitors, including family members of soldiers. He also regularly visited the soldiers recuperating at the many hospital wards in D.C. and stopped by the camp hospitals every time he visited the army. On April 8, 1865, he arrived at the Depot Field Hospital at City Point and announced his intentions: “Gentlemen…I came here to take by the hand the men who have achieved our glorious victories.” The doctors suggested there would be too many soldiers to visit, to which Lincoln replied that he “guessed he was equal to the task; at any rate he would try, and go as far as he could.”

Lincoln’s visits meant everything to the soldiers who shook the hand of the president. One soldier from Vermont remembered the visit fifty years later: “I never shall forget the pressure he gave my hand, nor can I forget that sad, careworn face. I often see that sad and worn face in memory, and I can hardly keep back the tears.”

Biden seems uniquely positioned to offer empathy to the millions of citizens that have lost friends and families, jobs, and employment to the coronavirus and economic depression. In 2018, then Vice President Joe Biden attended an event for the survivors and families of the Parkland shooting. When Corey Hixon, the son of Chris Hixon (one of the victims of the shooting), ran toward the vice president, Biden didn’t miss a beat. He hugged Corey and offered him comfort.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

In October 1929, the stock market experienced a crash that triggered a decade of poverty, high unemployment, deflation, plunging farm prices, and stagnated economic growth. In July 1932, the stock market hit rock bottom, 41.22—a 90% drop from its highest level in 1929. President Herbert Hoover’s limited efforts to solve the crisis paralleled James Buchanan’s inability to stop the impending Civil War eighty years earlier. Both Buchanan and Hoover’s ineptitude in the face of a national crisis resemble President’s Trumps inability to combat the pandemic ravaging the country. Just as the country rejected Trump’s inaction in favor of Biden, Americans delivered an overwhelming victory to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the November 1932 presidential election.

The nation had experienced economic recessions before, but nothing close to the economic depression that FDR faced after his inauguration. The previous methods for responding to economic downturn simply wouldn’t cut it. FDR encouraged his advisors to think creatively and acknowledged that not all of their programs would be successful. Flexibility was essential when confronting an unprecedented problem.

Roosevelt’s programs focused on three key goals: relief for the unemployed, economic recovery, and financial reform. In pursuit of those goals, FDR created agencies to regulate prices, insure bank depositors, ensure fair business practices, empower labor organizations, and support farm prices. He also created several programs designed to provide honorable work for the unemployed, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Public Works Administration, and the Civil Works Administration. These organizations put thousands of men to work improving national forests, build large-scale projects proposed by states, and develop hydroelectric dams.

FDR also knew that the people needed reassurance that the federal government was trying to solve their problems. Accordingly, on March 12, he delivered his first Fireside Chat on the radio—the first of thirty chats he would give over the next eleven years. Most years of his presidency, FDR gave a fireside chat every few months. Sometimes FDR explained a particular challenge facing the nation, like a drought or the outbreak of the war. Other times, he outlined new policy crafted by the administration to address citizens’ needs.

The chats weren’t always upbeat. FDR didn’t sugarcoat the challenges that lay ahead. On December 9, 1941, FDR gave an address following the declaration of war against Japan. He bluntly outlined the conditions currently facing the American forces:

“So far, the news has been all bad. We have suffered a serious setback in Hawaii. Our forces in the Philippines, which include the brave people of that Commonwealth, are taking punishment, but are defending themselves vigorously. The reports from Guam and Wake and Midway Islands are still confused, but we must be prepared for the announcement that all these three outposts have been seized. The casualty lists of these first few days will undoubtedly be large. I deeply feel the anxiety of all of the families of the men in our armed forces and the relatives of people in cities which have been bombed. I can only give them my solemn promise that they will get news just as quickly as possible.”

Crucially, FDR didn’t condescend to the American public, but he did take the opportunity to educate citizens on complex fiscal matters. In his first chat on March 12, 1933, FDR explained the origins of the banking crisis, why a banking holiday was necessary, and what the government was doing to solve the problem.

FDR also acknowledged that he needed everyone’s help to make the recovery work. When asking for citizens’ participation in an employment census, he was careful to acknowledge that many were unemployed through no fault of their own. FDR also made it clear this document wasn’t charity or an application for a loan: “If all unemployed and partly unemployed persons, who are able to work and who are seeking work, will conscientiously fill out these cards and mail them just as they are, without stamp or envelope, by or before midnight November 20, our nation will have real facts upon which to base a sound re-employment program. It is important for every unemployed person to understand that this report card is not an application for relief, nor registration for a job. This is purely and simply a fact-seeking census.”

Finally, FDR acknowledged that his presidency wouldn’t be perfect and that some of these programs wouldn’t work. On May 7, 1933, in his second fireside chat, he said. “I do not deny that we may make mistakes of procedure as we carry out the policy. I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average, not only for myself but for the team.”

The response to the Fireside Chats was overwhelming. FDR received more than 8,000 letters per day, many of them about the chats. The letters expressed overwhelming gratitude for Roosevelt’s efforts to fix the economy, but more importantly they thanked the president for speaking directly to the American people. For example, on October 1, 1934, Melvin Chisum wrote, “It is well that you take us into your confidence and tell us Mr. President…You know what your government is doing. You know how to explain it. You know where you are heading and you are on your way.”

The Fireside Chats spoke to a tangible need of the American people during a time of crisis. Americans like to feel heard. They want to know that someone is listening to their demands, understands their concerns, and is working toward a solution. In some ways, the solution is less important than the knowledge that the president and the federal government were taking action. FDR’s New Deal programs gave people hope, even if they didn’t always solve every economic problem.

There’s a reason that FDR is considered one of the best presidents in U.S. history. It’s hard for one person to combine the flexibility, empathy, and communication skills FDR demonstrated during the Great Depression and few presidents have managed to replicate his success.

While it is impossible to predict how a president will fare once in office, evidence suggests Biden has the tools and characteristics to follow in Washington, Lincoln, and FDR’s shoes. At the very least these historic examples provide a blueprint for the new president to lead the nation out of this dark moment.

Image credit: Matt Johnson via flickr