The most famous was Andrew Johnson’s 1866 excursion, a.k.a. the “swing around the circle,” his (failed) effort to build support for his Reconstruction plans in the face of furious opposition from Radical Republicans. “Even his partisans were mortified,” wrote Eric Foner, the distinguished historian of the period, who quoted the Journal of Commerce as characterizing the swing as “thoroughly reprehensible.”
Another famous presidential campaign-style tour was undertaken by Woodrow Wilson, who sought to go over the head of a recalcitrant Senate to win support for his League of Nations and for American approval of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.
“He had always enjoyed campaigning,” John Milton Cooper Jr. wrote in his recent biography of Wilson, “and he believed that a democratic leader — like the mythical figure Antaeus, who renewed his strength through contact with the Earth — renewed his strength through contact with his people.”
For a long while it seemed to work, the president attracting huge crowds: 12,000 in Oakland, 30,000 in San Diego, 200,000 in Los Angeles, enough to lead commentators to believe this swing had swung public opinion. But it wasn’t public opinion that mattered; it was the Senate, where Henry Cabot Lodge stood athwart the measure.
Wilson collapsed in Pueblo, Colo., suffering a debilitating stroke that in effect ended his presidency and doomed his drive for the League. The president was rendered an invalid for the remainder of his term, a sad and shocking coda to a brilliant career as academic, reformer, wartime president and peacetime visionary.
The public is increasingly pessimistic about Obama’s prospects for the remainder of his term; last week’s Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll showed more than a third of Americans expressing that pessimism, exactly double the rate of the public who expressed optimism — a chilling sign for the White House. But Obama possesses an advantage his predecessors lacked — a public that has even less patience for the Congress than for the president. The legislative branch’s disapproval rate, according to the same poll, is an astonishing 83 percent, as opposed to only 12 percent who express approval for congressional performance.