Trying to live up to the giant legacy of Roosevelt was no mean task and it was further complicated by the fact, that Taft lacked political acumen and was himself critical of his own political skills. “Any party which would nominate me would make a great mistake”- so said, Taft, but, eventually he did become the 27th President of the United States. A lawyer and reporter by profession, Taft graduated from the Yale University and the University of Cincinnati. A Unitarian by religion, Taft also held the post of the Dean of University of Cincinnati.
He was the Commissioner and the Governor-General of the Philippines and in this capacity, he initiated many reforms like subordinating the military to civil command, bringing about land reforms and encouraging road-constructions, thus helping the Filipinos for future self-rule. It was his work in the Philippines that brought him recognition and he was promoted to the Secretary of War in Theodore Roosevelt’s Cabinet from 1904-1908. Along with President Roosevelt he oversaw the Portsmouth negotiations and the protectorate in Cuba.
As President, Taft carried on the reforms and progressive policies initiated by Roosevelt, particularly the anti-trust policies. More prosecutions occurred under Taft than under Roosevelt who was known as the “trust-buster”. But, he was a Conservative at heart and could not handle the growing progressive movement in the Republican Party. By 1911, he was not too keen in “trust-busting” and unsure of the impact of this policy on the national economy, gradually nudged closer to the old guard. His conservative business supporters had a huge hand in this decision.
Taft, by nature was more inclined towards judicial administration rather than executive activism. He preferred to execute existing laws rather than pushing for new laws from the Congress. He tried to make the Congress lower tariffs but, the Congress wanted to uphold the higher tariffs and Taft failed in his first attempt as President. Taft was not too concerned about conservation and he forced Roosevelt’s forestry head to resign, putting in danger Roosevelt’s progress in conserving natural resources. Taft so disappointed his former mentor and friend Roosevelt that the latter opposed his re-nomination in 1912 going to the extent of breaking away from the Republican party and forming his own “Bull-Moose” party. This gave an opening to Democrat aspirant Wilson in the 1912 Presidential elections. Taft’s differences with the Progressives intensified and he was defeated after his first term in office.
In matters of foreign policies, he embarked on what he called ‘dollar diplomacy’ by continuing Roosevelt’s policies of expanding America’s influence in South and Central America as well as in Asia. Taft wanted to encourage US investments overseas. Thus he promoted the sale of American products especially military and industrial hardware through his government officials. He used the US military as a means of economic diplomacy. But, his attempts to redefine the foreign policy was largely unsuccessful as trade with China actually decreased and he upset the Central American nations by seeking commercial gains for the US in those countries.
Taft’s long-cherished hope was realized when he was appointed the Chief Justice of the United States in 1921 after his Presidency. He remains the only person to have achieved the highest executive and judicial post in America. His temperament was naturally suited to the judiciary where his tendency to weigh every side of an issue stood him in good stead, but, paradoxically, it left him indecisive and incompetent as President.
While in office, he was the first President to have a Presidential car and his wife was the first Lady to ride with her husband to his Presidential inauguration. His biographers remark that his huge appetite and girth hid unresolved psychological problems within himself. Despite his portly appearance, Taft was a good dancer, a reasonable tennis player and an average golfer.
His was a controversial Presidential tenure marked by frequent skirmishes between his conservatism and a burgeoning national reform movement. A warm-hearted man, Taft’s biggest failure was his inability to take initiatives in legislative matters and assert himself for the good of the nation. He lacked leadership qualities and hence his administration produced few achievements during his Presidency.