Special Report

Presidents With the Best and Worst Relationships With Congress

Hristina Byrnes, John Harrington

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

John F. Kennedy
> Years served: 1961-1963
> Relationship with Congress score: 61.3 (12th highest)
> Crisis leadership score: 79.4 (7th highest)
> Party affiliation: Democrat

President John F. Kennedy often found that he had to compromise to achieve his legislative programs because Congress distrusted him. He was viewed, even by some from his own party, as suspicious because of his northeast establishment background. He could not get his two priorities — cutting income tax and a civil rights bill — passed.

Source: National Archives / Getty Images

James K. Polk
> Years served: 1845 – 1849
> Relationship with Congress score: 64.6 (11th highest)
> Crisis leadership score: 73.8 (9th highest)
> Party affiliation: Democrat

President James K. Polk and Congress did not always agree, but they managed to find common ground without big standoffs. When his whole party was united behind a policy he opposed, Polk sided with Congress. He vetoed a total of three bills, only one of which was overridden. Polk was regarded as a skillful and ambitious president who achieved all of his major goals, including lower tariffs, an independent treasury, and expansion of the United States. By the end of his presidency, the country spanned for the first time from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

William McKinley
> Years served: 1897 – 1901
> Relationship with Congress score: 65.6 (10th highest)
> Crisis leadership score: 64.8 (16th highest)
> Party affiliation: Republican

President William McKinley called for a special session of Congress right after his inauguration to raise custom duties because he thought this would lower other taxes as well as unemployment. He signed the Dingley Tariff Act, which imposed the highest protective tariff to that point. McKinley’s presidency was largely marked by the Spanish-American War, which he was praised for handling. He asked Congress to intervene in the ongoing conflict in Cuba after an American battleship was sunk (by what later turned out to be an internal explosion), and Congress issued a formal declaration of war a few months later. The United States defeated Spain in Cuba, seized Manila in the Philippines, and annexed Puerto Rico.

Source: Billy Hathorn / Wikimedia Commons

James Monroe
> Years served: 1817 – 1825
> Relationship with Congress score: 66.2 (9th highest)
> Crisis leadership score: 66.1 (14th highest)
> Party affiliation: Democratic-Republican

James Monroe was the last president from the Founding Fathers. His time in office has been called the “Era of Good Feelings.” But then an economic crisis resulting from declining imports and exports and plummeting agricultural prices contributed in what is known as the Panic of 1819. Banks declared bankruptcy, unemployment was high, and foreclosures increased. Monroe’s detractors in Congress criticized him for doing little to solve the economic problems. When Missouri applied for statehood, the House wanted it to enter the Union as a free state, but the Senate disagreed. Monroe said he would veto a bill that places special restrictions on the admission of one state and not others. Behind the scenes he negotiated with all sides to help reach the Missouri Compromise in which Missouri was admitted as a slave state in return for the South agreeing to outlaw slavery in western territories.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Ronald Reagan
> Years served: 1981 – 1989
> Relationship with Congress score: 68.9 (8th highest)
> Crisis leadership score: 74.1 (8th highest)
> Party affiliation: Republican

Ronald Reagan, the oldest man elected president of the United States, faced the twin challenges of a moribund economy and a possible war with the Soviet Union. Just as he assumed the presidency, Reagan was shot. He quickly recovered, and riding the goodwill from the Democratic Congress following the assassination attempt, he was able to get legislation passed to cut taxes aimed at stimulating the economy as well as strengthen national defense. After he was re-elected, Reagan and Congress overhauled the tax code in 1986.