Presidents' Biggest Regrets From Their Times In Office

In United States politics, presidents are forced to make difficult decisions, and often they face harsh criticism no matter what they choose. While in office, presidents usually stand by their decisions in public despite private misgivings in order to appear strong and avoid political turmoil. However, once their terms are over, presidents sometimes admit to their mistakes. 

The biggest regrets of US presidents often involve mishandling foreign affairs and internal conflicts. Bungled wars and poorly planned invasions often lead US presidents to rethink their decision-making during their time in office. Difficult decisions - especially those that result in the loss of life - can haunt a president for the remainder of their days. The United States presidents' biggest regrets reveal a rare glimpse of the vulnerable side of powerful leaders. 

Photo: National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

  • George W. Bush Regrets The Iraq War
    Photo: White House photo by Eric Draper / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    George W. Bush Regrets The Iraq War

    When asked in a 2008 interview about his biggest regret as president, George W. Bush surprisingly listed the Iraq War. While he did not regret everything that occurred in Iraq, the president seemed distraught over intelligence failures. He claimed this was the biggest regret of his presidency, stating, “I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.”

    Bush denied accusations that his administration had intentionally misled Congress. He noted members of Congress read all the same reports his staff did and still decided to go forward with the invasion. While he was disappointed things in Iraq did not go as planned, he still stated, “I will leave the presidency with my head held high.”

  • John Quincy Adams Regretted His Treatment Of Native Americans
    Photo: Charles Robert Leslie / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    John Quincy Adams Regretted His Treatment Of Native Americans

    When John Quincy Adams took office, the Indian Springs Treaty was waiting on his desk. The treaty forced the Creek Nation, living in what is now Georgia, to give up their land and move west. As Congress had already voted in favor of the treaty, Adams signed it as soon as he took office. This was an act he regretted almost immediately.

    Leaders of the Creek Nation met with Adams, changing his views on the nation’s treatment of its Native American populations. Adams tried to annul the treaty, but his attempts were blocked by Congress and the state of Georgia threatened military action. While a new treaty was eventually drafted, the Creek Nation still had to cede two-thirds of their land to Georgia. A third treaty, passed a year later, forced the Creek Nation to give up all remaining land. 

    Adams both regretted the Indian Springs Treaty and the nation’s treatment of Native Americans overall. He would go on to write about this in his personal diary. “We have talked of benevolence and humanity, and preached them into civilization," he wrote, "But none of this benevolence is felt where the right of the Indian comes in collision with the interest of the white man.”

  • George H.W. Bush Wishes He Had Taken Out Saddam Hussein
    Photo: Randy Gaddo, Marine Staff Sgt. / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    George H.W. Bush Wishes He Had Taken Out Saddam Hussein

    Had George H.W. Bush succeeded in getting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of power, perhaps the Second Iraq War could have been avoided. Bush regretted not continuing with action in Iraq until Hussein surrendered. He believed, had the Gulf War gone on longer, Hussein could have been removed from power. 

    Apparently, an FBI agent told Bush that he was certain Hussein would have eventually surrendered had military action continued. While Bush still considers the ending of the Gulf War a military success, he regrets it did not have a cleaner conclusion. He feels that, had he forced Hussein into surrendering, the present troubles in Iraq could have been avoided.

  • Barack Obama Regrets His Handling Of Libya
    Photo: Pete Souza, The Obama-Biden Transition Project / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 3.0

    Barack Obama Regrets His Handling Of Libya

    In 2011, Obama helped remove Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafi from power. While he knew intervening was the right decision, he regrets his lack of a follow-up plan. Libya was thrown into turmoil after Gadafi’s removal, and the country is still recovering today.

    Obama said in an interview that his failure to plan for the day after the intervention was his worst mistake as president. Nevertheless, Obama expressed pride in other achievements he made during his time in the Oval Office. Despite his bungling of the Libya situation, Obama is confident his leadership helped the country recover from the 2008 economic crisis. 

  • Bill Clinton Wishes He Brought Peace To The Middle East
    Photo: Bob McNeely, The White House / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Bill Clinton Wishes He Brought Peace To The Middle East

    Surprisingly, the Monica Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment threat was not Bill Clinton’s biggest regret as president. Clinton was actually more concerned with his handling of conflict in the Middle East. When asked about his biggest regret as president, he said he wished he had done more to smooth over tensions between Israel and Palestine.

    “My number one regret is that I was not able to persuade Yasser Arafat to accept the peace plan I offered at the end of my presidency,” Clinton said. Clinton believes, had Arafat accepted the terms of the agreement, he could have spent the coming years making progress towards peace in Israel.

  • Eisenhower Regretted His Own Supreme Court Pick
    Photo: Fabian Bachrach / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Eisenhower Regretted His Own Supreme Court Pick

    When Dwight D. Eisenhower originally appointed Earl Warren as a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he was confident in his decision. He stated Warren had the kind of political, economic, and social thinking the country needed. However, after Warren led the court in a series of liberal decisions, Eisenhower’s feelings towards him soured. Eisenhower would go on to call the appointment the “biggest damned-fool mistake I ever made.”