19 Presidents in a Row Promoted Social and Environmental Programs to Benefit Ordinary Americans. And then Came Donald Trump.

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Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, August 2015). A paperback edition is now available.

Every American President from 1901 to 2017, Republican and Democratic, conservative or progressive or moderate, Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama, has advanced America domestically in a multitude of ways. Some have contributed more domestic reform than others, but all nineteen of them changed the role of the federal government and the Presidency in a positive manner.

That record of accomplishment is now endangered by President Donald Trump, who seems hell bent on destroying much of the domestic reforms of America of the past century. His personality, temperament, and approach to government have featured confrontation and mean spiritedness on a level unseen before now.

A brief overview of Presidential advancements in domestic affairs is in order.

Theodore Roosevelt became the leading advocate of the environmental movement, and was the first President to concede that workers and labor unions possess basic rights in competition with corporations. He appointed Oliver Wendell Holmes to the Supreme Court.

William Howard Taft supported ratification of the 16th Amendment (Federal Income Tax) and the 17th Amendment (Direct Popular Election Of US Senators), and accomplished the first effective regulation of the nation’s railroads in the Mann-Elkins Act. He also busted more trusts than TR. 

Woodrow Wilson promoted the first federal labor laws, and enacted more domestic reforms under the title of the New Freedom than any previous president.These included establishing the eight-hour day for railroad workers, banning child labor, and providing worker’s compensation to federal employees. He appointed Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court.

Warren G. Harding established the Bureau of the Budget to monitor federal government spending, and created the Veterans Bureau to deal with the needs of veterans of the Great War and earlier wars, as well as the promotion of the Sheppard-Towner Maternity Act, the first major federal social welfare program in American history.

Calvin Coolidge advanced new industries, including aviation and radio, and made a major commitment to the development of highways and the auto industry. He appointed Harlan Fiske Stone to the Supreme Court.

Herbert Hoover presided over the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to help corporations in distress during the Great Depression’s early years (which was continued by his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt). Hoover appointed Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and Associate Justice Benjamin Cardozo.

Franklin D. Roosevelt achieved a multitude of New Deal legislation, including Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, and public works projects employing millions of people during the Great Depression. He appointed Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, and William O. Douglas to the Supreme Court.

Harry Truman expanded the New Deal (he called it the Fair Deal), and became a major civil rights advocate. He used executive orders to end segregation in Washington, DC and in the military services.

Dwight D. Eisenhower presided over the creation of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare cabinet post, advanced civil rights through his intervention with the National Guard in Little Rock, Arkansas, and made a federal commitment to education at all levels with the National Defense Education Act. He appointed Earl Warren Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and William Brennan as an Associate Justice.

John F. Kennedy proposed major civil rights bills and sent the National Guard into the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama to protect blacks threatened by white racists. His New Frontier initiatives helped pave the way for progress in healthcare, education, and women’s rights.

Lyndon B. Johnson became the champion of domestic reform with his Great Society agenda. In the brief span of two years he pushed Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and established Medicare and Medicaid. He also won approval of a comprehensive reform of the immigration system and greatly increased federal aid to education. On top of all this he declared a War on Poverty. He appointed the first African American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall.

Richard Nixon established an impressive environmental record, including the establishment of the first Earth Day, and signed into law the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He appointed Harry Blackmun to the Supreme Court.

Gerald Ford supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and signed into law the Education For All Handicapped Children Act, which established special education programs throughout the nation. He appointed John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court.

Jimmy Carter became an exceptional environmental President, establishing the best environmental record of any of our one-term Presidents. He presided over the creation of the Department of Energy, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education. Carter was the first President to address the issue of gay rights.

Ronald Reagan, in cooperation with the Democratic Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, reformed Social Security to provide for its long-term survival. He appointed Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court.

George H. W. Bush signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act, and increased legal immigration quotas, expanded environmental protections, and promoted education reforms.

Bill Clinton attempted major health care reform. Though it failed to pass Congress, he was able to win support for the Children’s Health Insurance Program. He also won passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act into law, outlawing assault weapons. He appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer to the Supreme Court.

George W. Bush promoted the No Child Left Behind Education Act, and won approval of Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit (Part D), the biggest expansion of social benefits since the establishment of Medicare. He protected rare species in Hawaii by establishing the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument.

Barack Obama spent his political capital on the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and greatly expanded national monuments and parks. He became a major proponent of gay rights, and appointed two women to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

There is no debate on the fact that these nineteen Presidents had major faults and shortcomings, but all contributed in major ways to the social and economic advancement of the nation.

But now, with Donald Trump, we are witnessing major setbacks, in regards to women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights of racial minorities and immigrants, as well as the interests of workers, consumers, the environment, the rule of law, and social justice at large. Trump has also undermined the federal government agencies which deal with the economic and social needs of the American people. Instead of working to expand his base and represent the interests of all Americans, Trump has focused solely on the base that elected him. Trump seems eager to take America back to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. 

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