These American Presidents Were Just as Controversial as Donald Trump

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Donald Trump stirred up controversy from the very beginning of his presidential campaign. And once he got to the White House, he showed no signs of stopping. From divisive policies to controversial speeches to contentious tweets, Trump doesn’t shy away from conflict. But Trump isn’t the first American president to stir up controversy in Washington — and across America.
Whether because of fiercer political loyalties, more politically charged policies, or a growing variety of news sources, it’s becoming common for modern presidents to seem highly controversial. Read on to learn about the past American presidents who seemed just as controversial as Donald Trump.

1. Barack Obama 

  • 44th president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic
Throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, many people referred to him as divisive and controversial. The Atlantic takes issue with the argument that blames the controversy on Obama. The publication poses the question, “Why is Obama so divisive? Could it have anything to do with the no-compromise, no-surrender approach of today’s Republican Party?” The publication argues that the modern political climate is a “prescription for confrontation” on every side.
The Atlantic also points to a Gallup list of the biggest partisan gaps in presidential approval ratings. Obama’s first and second-year ratings do rank among the most polarized of all. And as Gallup puts it, “the extraordinary level of polarization in Obama’s first year in office is a combination of declining support from Republicans coupled with high and sustained approval from Democrats.” 

2. George W. Bush  

  • 43rd president of the United States
  • Party: Republican
At the end of Obama’s presidency, Gallup reported that “there have been 15 presidential years in which the party gap in approval ratings exceeded 60 points. That includes each of the last 13 presidential years — George W. Bush’s last five and all eight of Obama’s years in office.” Bush attracted controversy even though, as The Atlantic reports, he encountered a very different political reality than Barack Obama or Donald Trump. Democrats helped him pass his tax cut and education reform bills — which sounds unfamiliar today.
Bush earned approval ratings that diverged by as much as 76 percentage points from party to party. (From January 2004 to January 2005, he enjoyed an approval rating of 91% among Republicans, but only 15% among Democrats.) Additionally, Gallup reports that “Bush’s average Republican-Democratic gap for his eight years in office was 61 points.” Looking back at Bush’s entire presidency, The Atlantic explains, “Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, combined with liberal caricatures of him as a swaggering, out-of-his-depth cowboy, made polarization inevitable.” 

3. Bill Clinton   

  • 42nd president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic
The Atlantic names Bill Clinton as another president who became quite controversial during his time in office. “Some on the right speak fondly these days of Clinton, who once declared that ‘the era of big government is over.’ But back in the day, conservatives despised him,” the publication explains. The Atlantic adds, “He was investigated over Whitewater and Vince Foster’s suicide along with his extracurricular sexual activities. Long before his impeachment trial, some political foes even accused him of murder.”
Clinton famously shocked the country with a major presidential scandal: his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. People felt appalled not so much by what he did, but by how he covered it up. He famously claimed that he “did not have relations with that woman.” It outraged many Americans to learn that Clinton had lied so decisively. 

4. Ronald Reagan 

  • 40th president of the United States
  • Party: Republican
Gallup reports that Ronald Reagan’s fourth year in office — the year he sought re-election — saw presidential approval ratings just as polarized as those later achieved by Barack Obama and George W. Bush. As Gallup notes, Reagan’s presidency seemed to mark a turning point in the polarization of presidential approval ratings. “Prior to Ronald Reagan, no president averaged more than a 40-point gap in approval ratings by party during his term; since then, only the elder George Bush has averaged less than a 50-point gap.”
As the group explains, “In recent decades it has become clear that Americans’ evaluations of presidents are more strongly tied to their personal political loyalties than in the past.” Gallup adds, “This may reflect that recent presidents’ actions have become more controversial or just more politically charged, such as their decisions on the use of military force, their economic policies, their attempts to reform healthcare and other entitlement programs, and their choices of Supreme Court justices.” 

5. Jimmy Carter  

  • 39th president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic
Just like Donald Trump, Jimmy Carter became a very controversial president. In fact, MSNBC characterizes Carter’s presidency as “part of the foundation of the deep and intractable political divide we know today.” Steve Kornacki reports, “To the right, to Red America, it’s an essential ingredient in the legend of Ronald Reagan.” He adds, “For Ronald Reagan to rescue America, he couldn’t just follow a disappointing president – he had to follow the Worst President Ever.”
Conversely, Kornacki explains, “To the left, to Blue America, the Carter presidency is a different kind of tragedy. The kind of tragedy where a swirl of crises and misfortune totally beyond the control of one mere president creates an opening for an extreme ideologue who couldn’t get elected under any normal circumstance to seize power and pull the country sharply – and in many ways permanently – to the right.” 

6. Gerald Ford   

  • 38th president of the United States
  • Party: Republican
The way that Gerald Ford came to office seemed destined to make his presidency a controversial one. Ford didn’t win election as president or vice president. Instead, he became president after Richard Nixon resigned. As the Miller Center at the University of Virginia explains, Ford faced “extraordinary” challenges during his time in office. He was faced with problems such as the nation’s economic woes, the likely collapse of South Vietnam, and the American people’s suspicion of their leaders, and he struggled to solve them.
But that’s not the only reason that many Americans regarded Ford as a controversial president. As the Miller Center explains, “Ford had difficulty navigating a demanding political environment in which Democrats (from across the ideological spectrum) and conservative Republicans found fault with his leadership and his foreign and domestic policies.” 

7. Richard Nixon 

  • 37th president of the United States
  • Party: Republican
Oxford Open Learning characterizes Richard Nixon as “the most well-known recent example of a divisive president.” Nixon’s presidency fell apart under the pressure of the Watergate controversy. Need a refresher on that story? The Democratic Party office in Watergate had been broken into during the 1972 campaigns. Five men were caught inside the DNC offices with bugging equipment and photographs. After months of investigations, it came to light that Nixon learned of the break-in, and then orchestrated a complex cover-up.
USA Today reports that by the time Nixon resigned, “the scandal had become a catalog of many of Nixon’s abuses of power.” Those abuses included FBI wiretaps of 17 government officials and journalists. They also included a plan to relax security procedures “to track suspected subversives,” the secret bombing of Cambodia, and a “dirty tricks program run by the Nixon 1972 campaign team.” 

8. Lyndon B. Johnson 

  • 36th president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic
The Washington Post characterizes presidential approval as “predictably partisan for as long as we’ve done consistent polling.” The publication notes, “The only times that the two parties came close to agreeing on a president’s performance were 1) in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, 2) after the Nixon resignation, and 3) Sept. 11, 2001.” Therefore, “the two presidents that saw a very small partisan difference at the outsets of their terms were Ford and Johnson.”
But even that unusual phenomenon couldn’t save Johnson from controversy. As The New York Times reported, “Johnson found himself trapped in a remote, bloody and incredibly costly war that, it seemed, would never end. Progressively the budgets of his Administration were mortgaged to that war, and its unpopularity drained his political strength. Moreover, the cities of America were ravaged by decay and racial dissension, and the white majority responded with anger, fear and vindictiveness.” 

9. John F. Kennedy 

  • 35th president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic
The Atlantic reports that historians tend to rate John F. Kennedy as a good president, though not a great one. And Americans give him the highest approval rating of any president since FDR. Kennedy spent less than three years in the White House, balancing a disastrous first year with important steps forward in civil rights, voting rights, and programs to provide healthcare for the poor and elderly. Many Americans liked his charm and his grace.
But Kennedy was a controversial figure, too. As The Atlantic explains, “Prior to his presidency, many of JFK’s political colleagues considered him merely a playboy whose wealthy father had bankrolled his campaigns. Many critics saw recklessness, impatience, impetuosity.” Kennedy attracted controversy with his membership in the Catholic Church and with his sexual indiscretions. And his assassination became one of the most controversial events in modern American history. 

10. Dwight D. Eisenhower 

  • 34th president of the United States
  • Party: Republican
The Miller Center reports that in 1962, historians ranked Dwight D. Eisenhower as “a barely average chief executive.” They characterized him as “successful as Chester A. Arthur and a notch better than Andrew Johnson.” But historians’ opinions have changed dramatically in the intervening decades. That illustrates just how controversial he seemed while he held office. (And how much the records and papers that have come to light since have changed the picture.)
While Eisenhower held office, “Contemporaries remembered Eisenhower’s frequent golfing and fishing trips and wondered whether he was leaving most of the business of government to White House assistants,” the Miller Center explains. “They also listened to his meandering, garbled answers to questions at press conferences and wondered whether he grasped issues and had clear ideas about how to deal with them.” Historians now appreciate Eisenhower’s thoughtful views, the discussions he had behind closed doors, and his method of working behind the scenes, which caused plenty of controversy at the time. 

11. Franklin D. Roosevelt 

  • 32nd president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic
U.S. News characterizes Franklin D. Roosevelt as “the nation’s most controversial President, loved and hatedacross America.” As the publication explains, “As a cure for a depression that left the stock market a shambles and 1 of 4 Americans out of work, FDR invoked the power of the government to prop up and stimulate the economy.” He put into place an array of new agencies and programs.
The Atlantic reports that Roosevelt’s “New Deal policies in the teeth of the Great Depression sparked ferocious backlash.” And U.S. News adds that “From this New Deal evolved a welfare state that is applauded and scorned today.” Many Americans believed that Roosevelt saved them. But others “despised Roosevelt as the ruination of America, an aristocrat who turned against his class,” according to U.S. News. 

12. Warren G. Harding 

  • 29th president of the United States
  • Party: Republican
Warren G. Harding is generally regarded as a failure of a president, but not for a lack of action while in office. As The Atlantic reports, Harding “served for just over half a term before he dropped dead of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1923, and even in that short time, he had already earned a ‘bad boy’ image.” When he died, rumors circulated that his wife poisoned him. After his death, scandalous news broke about his affairs. One of those affairs resulted in a child born out of wedlock.
Harding’s cabinet was also “riddled with corruption.” History reports that the Teapot Dome Scandal during Harding’s tenure “shocked Americans by revealing an unprecedented level of greed and corruption within a presidential administration. The scandal involved ornery oil tycoons, poker-playing politicians, illegal liquor sales, a murder-suicide, a womanizing president and a bagful of bribery cash delivered on the sly.” 

13. Andrew Johnson 

  • 17th president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic
Andrew Johnson became president after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Johnson goes down in history as the first U.S. president to be impeached. That should serve as a pretty good indicator of just how controversial he was while in office. As History reports, Johnson became “the only U.S. senator from a seceding state who remained loyal to the Union,” at the start of the Civil War. (That’s a pretty controversial start!) He was elected vice president, and then sworn in as president after Lincoln’s assassination.
As president, he enacted a lenient Reconstruction policy for the defeated south. He pardoned ex-rebels, and approved local southern governments. Those governments, in turn, legislated “‘Black Codes’ that preserved the system of slavery in all but its name.” As PBS reports, the final blow came when Johnson defied a law that prohibited the president from dismissing government officials without Senate approval. So the House of Representatives initiated impeachment proceedings. Johnson escaped removal from office by a single vote. 

14. Abraham Lincoln 

  • 16th president of the United Sates
  • Party: Republican
Most Americans today would cite Abraham Lincoln as one of the best presidents. But as you might guess, he served as a pretty controversial figure while in office. The Atlantic notes that Lincoln’s “ideas led to a period so divisive it nearly tore one nation into two.” Oxford Open Learning notes that Lincoln promised to bring about revolutionary change, something that never happens without controversy. “He condemned slavery and called for increased democracy,” the publication explains of the major changes that Lincoln envisioned for the country.
Today, we look back and see a president on the right side of history. But many people (and states) did not agree with Lincoln’s actions. Smithsonian Magazine reports that Lincoln’s legacy remains contested, even today. “Lincoln’s legacy has shifted again and again as different groups have interpreted him. Northerners and Southerners, blacks and whites, East Coast elites and prairie Westerners, liberals and conservatives, the religious and secular, scholars and popularizers—all have recalled a sometimes startlingly different Lincoln.” 

15. Andrew Jackson 

  • 7th president of the United States
  • Party: Democratic-Republican
One of the most controversial presidents in early American history? Andrew Jackson, who Oxford Open Learning reports was born in the west to immigrant Irish parents, rose from “log cabin to White House.” As the publication explains, “The East Coast establishment were nervous about him, but he vowed to change the way politics was done.”
Jackson did change a great deal in Washington. But he “remains a deeply controversial figure in American history today.” And for good reason. Modern historians don’t look kindly on his anti-Native American policies, his ownership of hundreds of slaves, or his support of pro-slavery policies.

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