Office politics: 10 Tough Presidential Decisions

August 9, 2011 by Mark Kehres of Constitution Daily Blog


President Barack Obama has been in office less than two years, and yet he’s already had to face down some tough moments – the continued disruptions in the economy, the revolutionary fervor in the Middle East, and the crisis over the national debt, to name a few.  But Obama is far from the only president to have endured tough situations in office.  Here are ten other examples from history.

More Quick Notes

Rating the US Presidents

Presidential Courage-M. Beschloss

Jefferson: The Art of Power-T. Meacham

American Dynasty-K. Phillips
Bush Family Business Oil Dynasty  

J. ADAMS: Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

An undeclared war with France was wreaking havoc on American trade, and the young nation’s inability to protect its borders led to fears that foreign intrigue would disrupt the government to the point of total collapse.  Adams’ Federalist allies in Congress passed four acts which gave the President the power to deport aliens deemed to be a threat to national security and severely curtailed the right to criticize or protest against the administration.  Thomas Jefferson denounced the acts as unconstitutional and beat Adams in the election of 1800.

On the positive side, he refused to go to war with France.

THOMAS JEFFERSON: The Embargo Act of 1807

Jefferson had his own challenges.  In 1807, as the ongoing war between Britain and France was disrupting American trade, Jefferson sought to keep the United States out of hostilities by imposing an embargo on all American trade with foreign nations.  The result was disastrous for New England’s trade-based economy.  The law would be revised to forbid only trade with Britain or France, but it wasn’t enough to avoid the War of 1812 against Britain – a war which was strongly opposed in New England, a consequence of the Embargo Act.

Not the first time a southern President made an anti northern decision.


JAMES POLK: The Oregon Country Border Dispute

Polk was dedicated to expanding American territory, but he ran into a serious obstacle in the Oregon Country.  This huge section of land – which today would cover Oregon, Washington, Idaho, parts of Montana and Wyoming, and British Columbia as far north as Alaska – was the subject of both American and British claims.  Polk wasn’t intimidated by the military might of Great Britain, rallying supporters with the catchphrase “Fifty-four forty or fight!” which referred to the line of latitude forming Oregon’s northern border.  Although the dispute would ultimately be settled by drawing the boundary at the 49th Parallel, Polk’s willingness to stand up to mighty Britain made him a symbol for all those who believed that America’s “Manifest Destiny” was to expand to cover the continent from sea to sea.






W. WILSON: The Zimmermann Telegram

Wilson had been re-elected President in 1916 under the slogan, “He Kept Us Out Of War.”  So when he learned of a secret telegram sent by the Germans to Mexico, offering to help reconquer the Southwestern United States in exchange for entering World War I against the Allies, he was faced with a tough choice: go back on his word, or allow hostile foreign governments to negotiate while using American territory as a bargaining chip.  Wilson determined that the outrage of the German intrigue was too much to bear, and he asked for – and received – a declaration of war on Germany, telling the American people that they were joining the fight “to make the world safe for democracy.”

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: The Secession Crisis

This one hardly needs any introduction.  As Lincoln prepared to assume office in 1861, the United States was literally tearing itself apart before his eyes.  As the secessionist government of South Carolina demanded that Lincoln remove the Army garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, Lincoln had to determine on a course of action.  Should he withdraw and attempt to negotiate with the South?  Or should he use the fort as a location to launch an invasion to bring the South back into the fold?  Lincoln determined on a middle course – not an attack, but a mission to resupply the fort with necessities.  When the South Carolina batteries fired on the supply ships, the Federal government was able to portray itself as the victim of Confederate aggression and rally popular support for what would soon become the Civil War.


When the Japanese Navy launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there was no question that the United States would become involved in World War II.  Roosevelt faced another dilemma, however, in the form of the Japanese American community living on the Pacific coast.  Fearing that their loyalties would lie more with Japan than with the United States, Roosevelt gave the fateful order to intern thousands of immigrants and natural-born citizens in remote camps, miles from the internees’ homes.  Roosevelt thought he was protecting American security, but the episode serves as a stark example of how the government can abridge civil liberties in times of crisis – sometimes with tragic results.

HARRY TRUMAN: Relieving General MacArthur

Truman’s presidency was so stressful that he gets two entries on this list.  General Douglas MacArthur was a hero of World War II who commanded the United Nations forces in the Korean War.  General MacArthur disagreed with Truman’s prosecution of the war effort, and he aired his views in the press – as well as meeting with the President in a dirty old uniform and shaking Truman’s hand rather than saluting him.  In spite of MacArthur’s overwhelming public popularity, Truman decided that he needed to preserve the primacy and integrity of the Presidency, and he reasserted the President’s control of the military by relieving MacArthur of his command on April 11, 1951.

When Truman assumed the presidency after Roosevelt’s death, he was not aware of the full details of the atomic weapons program.  He only knew that the military had developed a weapon capable of unprecedented amounts of destruction, and that its use would almost certainly and immediately bring the Japanese war effort to an end.  On one hand, he could not have been aware of the full consequences of dropping the atomic bomb; on the other, he knew that this new weapon would likely end the war and spare a bloody overland invasion of Japan.  Working with advice from officers, diplomats, and scientists, Truman made the decision to drop the bomb – a fascinating study in how leaders make decisions based on the information they have.


J. KENNEDY: Cuban Missile Crisis

America’s youngest elected president had his hands full with a nuclear crisis in 1962.  The Soviet Union had been secretly moving nuclear weapons to the Communist nation of Cuba, located just ninety miles from the Florida coast.  When photographs from the U-2 spy plane revealed to the Americans the existence of the missiles, Kennedy was forced to confront the possibility of nuclear war.  He did not want to lose face and allow the Soviets to tip the balance of power in world affairs, but at the same time, the wrong approach could start a war which could end the world as we knew it.  Kennedy blockaded Cuba and opened secret negotiations, which defused the crisis and restored the balance of power.

JIMMY CARTER: The Iran Hostage Crisis

When the Iranian Revolution of 1979 created the world’s first Islamic republic, one of the first actions undertaken by the new government was to exile the old regime’s ruler, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.  Carter allowed the exiled Shah to come to the United States for medical treatment, an action which enraged the already anti-American Islamic leaders.  Iran responded by storming the American embassy in Tehran and taking 52 hostages, holding them for 444 days.  Carter attempted to negotiate a release; he also authorized a military rescue called Operation Eagle Claw which ended in failure.  The hostages would finally be released on January 20, 1981 – just hours after Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, took the Oath of Office as the new president.


Mark Kehres is the Public Programs Trainer at the National Constitution Center.  His work involves bringing the stories of American history alive for visitors.