You don't need to be a financial mastermind to get elected as president. As history has shown, most presidents know as much about legislating fiscal policy as the average college student. They manage to keep the economy afloat by just nodding their heads, doing what they're told and letting the system sort itself out.
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Consequently, it takes a special kind of incompetence for a president to singlehandedly make the economy worse during his term in office. Throughout history, there have only been a few presidents whose policies have been so bad that they've significantly contributed to a recession or a depression - and if you think that the guy in the oval office is doing a bad job now, then you clearly need to brush up on your history. For instance, just look at the legacies left by the most financially irresponsible presidents of all time.
James Madison is history's first example of a president whose foreign policy ended up backfiring on him spectacularly. Upset that Britain was disrupting American trade relationships with France, Madison as Secretary of State at the time was a major influence behind passing the Embargo Act of 1807.
The act was supposed to punish the British by excluding them from American trade, but really it just sent America plummeting into a depression. Then, to make things worse, Madison tried to make up for his mistake by instigating the War of 1812 - a costly and unnecessary conflict that the U.S., for all intents and purposes, lost miserably. Though the war was over by 1814, the damage it did to America's fledgling economy was tremendous. Madison ended up spending his last years in office as a lame duck, ineffectually waiting for his successor to take over and clean up the mess he made.
Jimmy Carter is proof that being a nice guy doesn't make you a good president. Though Carter has been internationally recognized for his humanitarian work, his legacy as our 39th president is hardly as laudable.
In an ill-fated attempt to free America from its dependency on foreign oil, Carter deregulated domestic oil pricing. In response, foreign oil producers banded together to form a price-fixing cartel. Oil prices ended up soaring, causing massive inflation which then caused a massive recession which then caused massive unemployment. Things got so bad that pundits began to use the Misery Index - a figure calculated by adding national percentages of inflation and unemployment together - to judge Carter's failure. Suffice to say, he only lasted a single term in office before Reagan came in and defeated him by a landslide.
Herbert Hoover may not have caused the Great Depression, but his economic policies ended up perpetuating the crisis longer than it should naturally have lasted. Rather than offering outright relief to the millions of homeless Americans living in shantytowns known as "Hoovervilles," Hoover contented himself with simply lowering taxes, starting public works like the Hoover Dam to create jobs and hoping that the economy would work itself out.
As history shows, the economy did not work itself out. At least not in a timely manner. To make things worse, in the midst of the crisis Hoover passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. The new law raised import tariffs on over 20,000 goods to record levels, fueled foreign trade wars and made the Depression even worse. Hoover was presented with the opportunity to be one of the greatest presidents of all time, but instead he ended up being little more than a stopgap.
Warren G. Harding
As far as pure financial irresponsibility goes, you can't get much worse than Warren G. Harding. After winning the first presidential election in which women were allowed to vote, Harding proceeded to shrug his official duties off onto his appointees and occupy himself instead with golf, poker and his mistress.
Harding's apathy created a culture of corruption in the White House. While the President was off gallivanting, his cronies looted the federal government in every way imaginable. This all came to a head in the Teapot Dome Scandal, where it was discovered that Harding's secretary of the interior had been allowing dozens of oil magnates to plunder a large federal oil reserve in Wyoming in exchange for bribes. To frame Harding's legacy in his own words - "I am not fit for this office and should never have been here."
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The Bottom Line
These men might not be the worst presidents we've ever had, but as far as economic policy goes they're certainly the most irresponsible. Their shortsighted actions - or in some cases, inactions - made a distinct, negative impact on an American economy that probably would have been fine if anyone else had been in office at the time. So, the next time you find yourself complaining about how the current Commander-in-Chief is driving the country into the ground, just remember that things could be worse. Much worse.
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