President Eisenhower and the Development of Active Labor Market Policy in the United States: A Revisionist View

By Wilson, Hugh A. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2009 | Go to article overview
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President Eisenhower and the Development of Active Labor Market Policy in the United States: A Revisionist View


Wilson, Hugh A., Presidential Studies Quarterly


The early assessment of Dwight D. Eisenhower and his presidency by the popular media and academic scholars was predominately negative. They saw his political philosophy as conservative and dated, his political leadership and skills as weak, and his grasp of issues and policies as minimal. His foreign policy was timid and isolationist. His domestic policy was virtually nonexistent. In addition, he was accused of delegating decision making to his staff and cabinet. Moreover, he was lazy and a bumbler with the English language (Barber 1972, 162; Brinkley 1990, 113; De Santis 1976, 191; Greenstein 1994, 6-7; Reichard 1978, 266-71). President Harry Truman, who began taking notes for a book on American presidents soon after he left office, categorized Eisenhower as one of our worst presidents. In Truman's estimation, "He didn't do a thing as President ... [and] never made any effort to put forward the leadership to which he was entitled, and he didn't have any program" (1988, 7).

Academics reinforced these early assessments in their ranking of the presidents from "greats" to "failures." The famous Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., poll of 75 prominent historians, political scientists, and journalists in 1962 ranked Eisenhower twenty-second out of 31 presidents. Subsequent assessments by historians and political scientists ranked Eisenhower nineteenth to twentieth among presidents (Reichard 1978, 273; Rosenman and Rosenman 1976, 553-54). James David Barber, in his classification of presidents, rated Eisenhower a "passive-negative" president--that is, "someone who does little in politics and enjoys it less" and a political leader who "lack[s] the experience and flexibility to perform effectively" (1972, 13, 156).

However, time has been good to Eisenhower's reputation. Changing values brought on by the alleged military and domestic excesses of the 1960s and 1970s, and the opening of various Eisenhower archives, have resulted in an outburst of revisionist literature. Commentators now hail Eisenhower's leadership skills, his "hidden-hand" executive maneuvers, his foreign policy successes, and his domestic achievements. The most highly touted of these newly discovered successes were his foreign policy efforts in dealing with the Middle East, China, Vietnam, and the Soviet Union (Alexander 1975; Cook 1981; De Santis 1976; Divine 1981; Hahn 2006; Reichard 1978; Rushkoff 1981). Eisenhower's much-derided political and executive skills have also been subject to positive revision (Conley and Yon 2007, 293; De Santis 1976, 206-7; Greenstein 1994; Maranto 1993; Reichard 1978, 275; Sloan 1991, 153, 160). Some revisionists now credit Eisenhower with desegregating public facilities in previously rigidly segregated Washington, D.C., thus burnishing his civil rights record (Brownell 1991; Mayer 1991).

Eisenhower's early rankings as a mediocre president at best have also been reversed. For example, a 1982 poll of historians placed Eisenhower ninth in the presidential rankings. Successive polls and analyses have ranked Eisenhower between ninth and eleventh as president (Endersby and Towle 2003, 392; Murray and Blessing 1994, 16; Ridings and McIver 1997, xi). Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1997, 189), whose father initiated the ranking system, found in a replication of his father's poll that respondents rated Eisenhower tenth, just below James K. Polk and just above John Adams. Sanchez (1996, 61, 99, 102), in an analysis of positive and negative comments on American presidents in 36 introductory political science texts, found that of the modern presidents, Eisenhower ranked second to Franklin D. Roosevelt and just ahead of John E Kennedy in the total percentage of all positive comments.

Purpose of the Article

This article is concerned with Eisenhower's domestic policies, namely his initiatives in furthering active labor market policy (i.e., full employment)--an important staple in the welfare state--in the United States.

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