The Presidents Who Changed Course in Office

The Presidents Who Changed Course in Office

By Sean Braswell


Because politicians, including presidents, can “evolve” for a variety of reasons

By Sean Braswell

You can see the enormity of the moment on the president’s face. “A second plane hit the second tower,” White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card whispered to George W. Bush on the morning of September 11, 2001, as the president read to children from a book called The Pet Goat at a Sarasota, Florida, elementary school. “America is under attack.” Bush remained seated for another seven minutes, but his discomfort is palpable and his demeanor altered — just as the remainder of his presidency would be from that day forth.

Just one year earlier, Bush had campaigned on avoiding foreign entanglements and “nation building,” but his platform — and the president himself — would be forever changed by 9/11. Most American presidents never have to confront such a singular calamity, but many undergo dramatic change while in office, whether as the result of external events, personal difficulties or simply their own “evolving” perspective. Will Donald Trump, “a man of flexible ideology but fixed habits,” as Glenn Thrush of The New York Times recently wrote, find himself changing course as president? Most observers are rightly skeptical, but we should never underestimate the power of the office, and the hand of fate, to change even the most stubborn and constant of men.

“Attitudes evolve, including mine.”

One of Barack Obama’s favorite themes as president was that America had always been in the process of slowly “perfecting itself,” and when it came to certain issues — like same-sex marriage — Obama came to admit he too had been slow to perfect himself. “Attitudes evolve, including mine,” he famously said in October 2010 of his view on the issue. Pushed by everyone from the gay community to members of his party and his own family, including First Lady Michelle Obama, who urged her husband to go public with his “evolved” viewpoint, Obama finally changed course and supported legalizing same-sex unions.

Circumstances often demand that a president go against his principles.

An even more profound example of presidential course correction can be found, of course, in Abraham Lincoln’s view of slavery. As with Obama’s position on same-sex marriage, Lincoln’s views mirrored America’s own shift on the issue. Before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln had always found slavery unjust, but the solutions he had proposed — from encouraging emancipated slaves to return to Africa to gradual abolishment (along with compensation for slaveholders) — were a far cry from what abolitionists were seeking. As the Civil War progressed, and thousands of African-Americans joined the ranks of the Union Army, Lincoln’s perspective shifted.

Extenuating Circumstances and the Executive

Changing circumstances helped reframe Lincoln’s view of slavery and Bush’s view of nation building, and other presidents have also been nudged in a new direction by external events. Herbert Hoover, an astoundingly capable administrator who had organized a massive humanitarian relief effort during World War I, became president just months before the stock market crash in 1929 shook the nation to its core. At first, Hoover downplayed it as “a passing incident in our national lives,” and, as a rugged individualist who opposed broad federal power, he resisted intervening. It was not until two years into the deepening economic crisis that he finally changed course and began bowing to public pressure to expand emergency federal relief, but it was too little too late and Hoover was replaced in 1932 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was willing to take more drastic measures.

Circumstances often demand that a president go against his principles or prior statements, a lesson that the elder George Bush learned the hard way. He had famously campaigned on a pledge of “Read my lips: No new taxes,” but when he and a Democratic-led Congress locked horns over a soaring budget deficit, he was forced to agree to tax hikes. Bush’s broken promise and perceived betrayal of his base cost him in 1992, when he lost to Bill Clinton, but on the bright side, he would win the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s Profile in Courage Award in 2014 for putting his country ahead of his politics.

The Personal Matters of a President

At times, presidents can appear superhuman, but in personal matters, they are just as susceptible as any of us. On the eve of the presidential inauguration in 1853, Franklin Pierce’s 11-year-old son was killed when the family’s railcar suddenly overturned, crashing down an embankment. Pierce was devastated, and under his distracted, indecisive leadership, the nation would careen toward civil war. 

Similarly, after Calvin Coolidge’s 16-year old son, Calvin Jr., died in 1924 from blood poisoning that set in when a blister on his foot went untreated, the president was consumed by grief and virtually disabled by clinical depression for the remainder of his presidency. “His son’s death did not change his viewpoint on the substance of issues,” says Robert E. Gilbert, a political science professor at Northeastern University and author of The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death and Clinical Depression, “but rather destroyed his interest in confronting and resolving the issues that confronted the country.” When none other than Hoover, a cabinet member, urged the president to “do something” about rising economic problems, Coolidge, says Gilbert, “was simply too ill, too demoralized and too grief-stricken to do so.”

All the king’s horses and all the king’s Secret Service agents cannot protect a president from the pressures of office or the cruel hand of fate. From hair that turns gray to dramatic policy shifts, most presidents change in subtle and not-so-subtle ways while in office. Will Donald Trump prove any different? As he himself has said: “What separates the winners from the losers is how a person reacts to each new twist of fate.”