With the economy humming along and United States troops withdrawn from major wars, Americans cited a variety of domestic problems as the most important. The top response was dissatisfaction with government, a sentiment Mr. Trump harnessed during his populist campaign.
Barack Obama entered his second term after a major budget showdown with Congress and with another fiscal deadline, the federal debt ceiling, approaching. Mr. Obama regularly criticized Republicans for using the debt limit as a bargaining chip to cut spending.
Mr. Obama entered his first term during the heart of the Great Recession. During his first major speech before Congress, he promoted the just-passed stimulus package and the need for the government to further intervene in the financial system.
George W. Bush began his second term two years into the war in Iraq. While he did not mention the country by name in his second inaugural address, he focused heavily on the importance of securing America by spreading freedom and democracy.
Like the start of Mr. Trump’s presidency, the beginning of Mr. Bush’s first term lacked a major war or economic crisis, and Americans cited a variety of important problems. At the top of the list was moral decline in society, which had increasingly become a concern during the scandals of the presidency of Bill Clinton.
Crime was front and center in Americans’ minds during the debate over the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which Bill Clinton signed in 1994. It was still the most-cited problem by the start of Mr. Clinton’s second term in 1997, though its share had decreased.
Mr. Clinton came into office in 1993 in the midst of a recession, with the unemployment rate above 7 percent. But a financial boom soon followed, and by the end of his presidency, very few people still listed the economy as the key problem.
In his first address to a joint session of Congress, George Bush described his plans to wage a war on drugs “on all fronts.” Drugs were cited in more than a quarter of responses in May of 1989 and then in two-thirds of responses later that year.
After years of military buildup and an arms race with the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan entered his second term pushing for an anti-ballistic missile defense system that he said would “render nuclear weapons obsolete.”
Mr. Reagan began his first term in office in the midst of a recession, with the inflation rate at a whopping 11.4 percent (it had come down slightly from 13.6 percent in June of 1979) and unemployment at 7.5 percent.
Concerns about energy – high prices and depletion of resources – bubbled up several times during Jimmy Carter's presidency. About a third of responses cited the problem during the oil crisis of 1979.
When Gerald Ford assumed the presidency in August 1974, the nation was in the midst of a recession, and the inflation rate was rising rapidly. An early attempt to address the problem, a public campaign called “Whip Inflation Now,” did not last for long.
As the Watergate scandal intensified, President Richard Nixon gave his first address to the nation on the topic in April of his second term, after two of his top aides resigned over the cover-up.
Mr. Nixon won his first presidential election in 1968, the year that American troops in Vietnam peaked at more than 500,000. In his speech accepting the Republican nomination that year, he promised to bring the war to an end.
Nearly a year after Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and just two months into his first full term, civil rights activists held a march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., bringing voting rights to the forefront of Americans’ minds.
Foreign affairs dominating the list of most important problems when John F. Kennedy took office, primarily the threat of war with the Soviet Union and the threat of communism.
At the start of his second term, Dwight D. Eisenhower also faced several problems abroad, including the growing influence of the Soviet Union in the Middle East. No polls are available from the beginning of his first term in 1953, though one from 1952 shows overwhelming concern about the Korean War.
Harry S. Truman began his first full term in office four years after the end of World War II and the formation of the United Nations. Americans were still concerned about the threat of war and keeping the peace.
The United States officially entered World War II in December of 1941, nearly a year into Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third term. A poll the month before reflected Americans’ concerns about the nation’s defenses and involvement in the war.
Gallup began asking the “most important problem” question in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression and two and a half years into Mr. Roosevelt’s 12-year presidency. The Works Progress Administration, which created millions of jobs in public works projects, was established earlier that year.
The biggest problems cited by Americans this month:
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth.”
Donald J. Trumpin his inaugural addresson Jan. 20, 2017
“So while I’m willing to compromise and find common ground over how to reduce our deficits, America cannot afford another debate with this Congress about whether or not they should pay the bills they’ve already racked up.”
Barack Obamain a news conferenceon Jan. 14, 2013
“But while the cost of action will be great, I can assure you that the cost of inaction will be far greater, for it could result in an economy that sputters along for not months or years, but perhaps a decade.”
Barack Obamain his first address to Congresson Feb. 24, 2009
“Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill, and would be dishonorable to abandon. Yet because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom.”
George W. Bushin his second inaugural addresson Jan. 20, 2005
“Our public interest depends on private character, on civic duty and family bonds and basic fairness, on uncounted, unhonored acts of decency, which give direction to our freedom.”
George W. Bushin his first inaugural addresson Jan. 20, 2001
“Serious crime has dropped five years in a row. The key has been community policing. We must finish the job of putting 100,000 community police on the streets of the United States.”
Bill Clintonin his State of the Union addresson Feb. 4, 1997
“Our immediate priority must be to create jobs, create jobs now. Some people say, ‘Well, we’re in a recovery, and we don't have to do that.’ Well, we all hope we’re in a recovery, but we’re sure not creating new jobs.”
Bill Clintonin his first address to Congresson Feb. 17, 1993
“The scourge of drugs must be stopped. And I am asking tonight for an increase of almost a billion dollars in budget outlays to escalate the war against drugs.”
George Bushin his first address to Congresson Feb. 9, 1989
“I have approved a research program to find, if we can, a security shield that would destroy nuclear missiles before they reach their target. It wouldn't kill people, it would destroy weapons. It wouldn't militarize space, it would help demilitarize the arsenals of Earth.”
Ronald Reaganin his second inaugural addresson Jan. 21, 1985
“We don't have an option of living with inflation and its attendant tragedy, millions of productive people willing and able to work but unable to find a buyer for their work in the job market. We have an alternative, and that is the program for economic recovery.”
Ronald Reaganin his first address to Congresson Feb. 18, 1981
“We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.”
Jimmy Carterin a speech proposing a new energy policyon April 18, 1977
“But I say to you with all sincerity that our inflation, our Public Enemy No. 1, will, unless whipped, destroy our country, our homes, our liberties, our property, and finally our national pride, as surely as any well-armed wartime enemy.”
Gerald Fordin an address to Congress on inflationon Oct. 8, 1974
“We must maintain the integrity of the White House, and that integrity must be real, not transparent, There can be no whitewash at the White House.”
Richard Nixonin a speech about Watergateon April 30, 1973
“And I pledge to you tonight that the first priority foreign policy objective of our next administration will be to bring an honorable end to the war in Vietnam. We shall not stop there — we need a policy to prevent more Vietnams.”
Richard Nixonin his Republican convention speechon Aug. 8, 1968
“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans — not as Democrats or Republicans — we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.”
Lyndon B. Johnsonin a speech to Congress on voting rightson March 15, 1965
“Our greatest challenge is still the world that lies beyond the Cold War — but the first great obstacle is still our relations with the Soviet Union and Communist China. We must never be lulled into believing that either power has yielded its ambitions for world domination.”
John F. Kennedyin his first State of the Union addresson Jan. 30, 1961
“The Soviet Union has nothing whatsoever to fear from the United States in the Middle East, or anywhere else in the world, so long as its rulers do not themselves first resort to aggression.”
Dwight D. Eisenhowerin a speech on a new Middle East doctrineon Jan. 5, 1957
“We are supporting a world organization to keep peace and a world economic policy to create prosperity for mankind. Our guiding star is the principle of international cooperation.”
Harry S. Trumanin his State of the Union addresson Jan. 5, 1949
“The need of the moment is that our actions and our policy should be devoted primarily — almost exclusively — to meeting this foreign peril. For all our domestic problems are now a part of the great emergency.”
Franklin D. Rooseveltin his State of the Union addresson Jan. 6, 1941
“We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination.”
Franklin D. Rooseveltin his State of the Union addresson Jan. 4, 1935
Gabby Giffords has an op-ed in the New York Times today, excoriating the Senate’s failure to pass legislation expanding background checks on gun purchases. Once it went live, Ezra Klein tweeted something quite provocative:
Now this led to a rollicking Twitter debate about whether any op-ed has ever changed American politics. The consensus among the Twitterati seemed to be "no" — but that might be an unfair bar. Often, op-eds are condensed versions of longer essays that might have an effect on public policy. After all, earlier in the week there was a whole kerfuffle about some mistakes in a Carmen Reinhart-Kenneth Rogoff paper and whether the Reinhart-Rogoff argument contributed to the wave of austerity policies that swept the developed world starting around 2009.
Narrowing the focus to international relations and U.S. foreign policy, I started to think if one could point to essays that really did affect the contours of world politics. The effect couldn’t just be because of who the author was — say, for example, Hillary Clinton describing the rebalancing strategy, which mattered because she was the U.S. secretary of state — but rather the content of the ideas. Here’s my somewhat obvious short list:
1) George Kennan, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct,"Foreign Affairs, July 1947. Now let’s be clear – the animating ideas behind Kennan’s essay were already affecting U.S. foreign policy before the "X" article. That’s because they originally appeared in Kennan’s Long Telegram, and because Kennan, was in a government position to affect policy. That said, everyone in the foreign policy community read and imbibed Kennan’s arguments. Even if they disagreed with how to execute the "containment" strategy, they had to use Kennan’s language. So yeah, this essay mattered.
2) Jeane Kirkpatrick, "Dictatorship and Double Standards,"Commentary, November 1979. Kirkpatrick’s basic argument was that, in trying to affect change on human rights, engagement with communist dictatorships was futile, while engagement with anti-communist dictatorships had at least some chance of succeeding. When Ronald Reagan was elected, he appointed Kirkpatrick to be his ambassador to the United Nations. As I’ve argued here, Kirkpatrick’s ideas really did shape Reagan’s human rights agenda during his administration.
3) Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History?"The National Interest, Summer 1989. Talk about timing. Fukuyama’s essay was published just as the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact allies saw their communist regimes disappear. How did this abstruse essay about Hegelian dialectics matter? Because it provided a narrative for what was happening during the end of the Cold War. Perhaps more importantly, it offered a narrative that suggested the United States did not need to act aggressively in response to the Soviet collapse.
4) Samuel Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs,Summer 1993. The doppelgänger to Fukuyama. Huntington’s essay had some influence in the 1990s when foreign policy analysts were trying to understand the Bosnia conflict. I’d argue that Huntington’s argument, however, carried even greater weight in the post-9/11 world, when a clash of civilizations seemed, for a moment, to be a semi-plausible explanation for the terrorist attacks.
5) Zheng Bijian, "China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’ to Great Power Status,"Foreign Affairs, September/October 2005. Ironically, China’s government scuttled the "peaceful rise" rhetoric pretty damn quickly because the word "rise" seemed to freak out everyone. By then it was too late, however. I suspect this mattered less for the content of the ideas and more for the fact that it was the first time a lot of the U.S. foreign policy community read something about China’s worldview written by a Chinese national. Still, much like Kennan’s "containment" language, it was impossible to talk about China during the last decade without "peaceful rise" being part of the conversation.
OK, readers, which essays did I leave out? Make your case in the comments. And bonus points if you can come up with a peer-reviewed paper that did so (I can think of one or two that might have made the list, but I think the effect was indirect and not direct).
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