When a president begins his second term, as Barack Obama does next week, he ponders his legacy. Whatever Obama's achievements, history might remember him for a dubious distinction, at least if one pattern continues. Something stunning has happened -- or rather, largely failed to happen -- during his presidency. Obama has almost never used the veto.
This failure helps to explain why his leadership often lacks vitality, and it provides insight into the mushrooming federal deficit.
Since World War II, presidents have used the veto to restrain congressional spending. Harry Truman, who called the veto "one of the most important instruments" in a president's arsenal, issued 250 vetoes. Dwight Eisenhower vetoed 181 bills, many of them embracing large-scale spending. Eisenhower scythed down a bill to construct a $60-million, nuclear-powered Coast Guard icebreaker and rejected another for nearly $2 billion in water projects, which he called a "waste of public funds." Eisenhower's vetoes helped him to keep annual federal budgets around $80 billion, and he presided over three budget surpluses.
Among recent presidents, Gerald Ford used vetoes adroitly, issuing 66 during 21/2 years. During interviews for my political biography of Ford, he spoke proudly of this record, considering it one of his best legacies. A former House minority leader, Ford knew Congress well and stressed that the veto imposed fiscal discipline on Capitol Hill and bolstered presidential power -- especially when an opposition party dominated one or both congressional chambers, a situation that bedevils Obama today.
"Congress has to learn to respect you," Ford said, "and they learn to respect you when you tell them 'no.' "
Ford estimated that his vetoes saved taxpayers $41 billion, and his budget director James Lynn told me that he believed Ford might have balanced the federal budget if he had served a full term, partly through the veto strategy.
Since then, though, the veto's deployment has arced downward. Even Ronald Reagan, famous for decrying wasteful government spending, used it only 78 times over eight years, far below the Truman and Eisenhower totals. Recent two-term presidents have even skimpier records: Bill Clinton vetoed 37 bills, and George W. Bush just 12 -- and none in his first term.
Yet Barack Obama is taking a run at the modern record. During his first term, he vetoed only two bills. He seems unwilling to confront Congress on spending by using the veto, and he's not as experienced a legislator as, say, Ford, who knew the lawmaking process inside and out.
Obama's veto void is one factor behind today's erosion of fiscal discipline. A veto threat can change Washington behavior; members of Congress would hesitate to approve boondoggles or else refashion bills into slimmer versions, if they believed the president might strike them down. Ford argued that a president must tell lawmakers, "You made a mistake. Now go back and think about it," adding, "And often, when they think about it, they change."
Granted, the veto is no easy recourse. It leaves a president vulnerable to charges of negative leadership. Yet wielded properly, it is a positive instrument that reduces deficits and encourages sound lawmaking. In defending his vetoes, Eisenhower said, "What I'm trying to do is to get legislation passed that will benefit the United States and keep us solvent at the same time."
Above all, the veto represents an opportunity for leadership, and here Obama can build a greater legacy. Immune from re-election pressures, a second-term president can confront special interests and lobbyists that clamor for more federal money. He can provide cover for lawmakers, absorbing blame for rejecting spending that legislators support to win their own re-elections yet candidly concede is wasteful. This kind of action not only enhances a president's legacy, but benefits future Americans, who will be yoked to the debt that accumulates today.
Ultimately, the wisdom to see this reality can ensure a measure of presidential greatness. As Ford observed, politicians think about the next election; statesmen think about the next generation. In this context, the veto is more than a political weapon, more than a curb on spending, even more than a hallmark of bold leadership. It guards the welfare of future Americans.
Yanek Mieczkowski, professor and chairman of the History Department at Dowling College, is the author of "Eisenhower's Sputnik Moment: The Race for Space and World Prestige."