Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Ranking Presidents

In time for Presidents' Day, CSPAN recently released its 2017 Presidential Historians' Survey, ranking the 43 individuals (from Washington to Obama) who have served as US Presidents from best score (Abraham Lincoln) to the worst score (James Buchanan). Ranking Presidents - like ranking movies or anything else - can be fun and is forever popular. But it is a dubious enterprise. We can clearly cluster a group of the best and perhaps another group that we consider the worst (while continuing to quibble about the exact ranking within each cluster). But, really, what exactly does it mean to rank as, say, the 22nd best President (Ulysses S. Grant) just above the 23rd (Grover Cleveland)?

The top 10 according to the 2017 survey are Lincoln, Washington, FDR, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Truman, Jefferson, Kennedy, Reagan, and Lyndon Johnson. I am OK with the first six. Lincoln saved the Union and in the process gave that Union a moral meaning rooted in the Declaration of Independence's assertion of human equality. Washington defined the Presidency and safely got the federal government started. He also set a vitally important precedent in voluntarily leaving office. FDR transformed the nation in a more communitarian and egalitarian direction and also led the US to victory in World War II. Theodore Roosevelt pioneered modern activist government. Eisenhower and Truman both successfully steered the country through the opportunities of post-war prosperity and the perils of the Cold War. As somewhat of a Hamiltonian, I find Jefferson politically - as well as personally - obnoxious, but I'll acknowledge his place in the top cluster, if only for violating his professed principles and doubling the country's size with the Louisiana Purchase. JFK did a great job steering us through the Cuban Missile Crisis, but hardly deserves to rank above his successor, LBJ, who actually accomplished so much more. Like TR and FDR, Kennedy and Johnson both believed in activist government; but, unlike Kennedy, Johnson was actually effective at activist government. As for Ronald Reagan, I'll give him high marks in foreign policy, but I think his infamous line in his first Inaugural Address - "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government Is the problem" - had to be one of the most harmful and destructive comments ever made by any President in our entire history!

As for the bottom 10 - Martin Van Buren, Chester Arthur, Herbert Hoover, Millard Fillmore, William, Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Warren Harding, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan - my only serious argument might be about Chester Arthur, who vastly exceeded expectations and made an important contribution with Civil Service reform. (not perhaps a trending topic among contemporary historians). And is it really fair (and does it serve an purpose) to rank Harrison at all, given that he had only one month in the White House?

Interestingly of the other Presidents who have held the office in my lifetime, George W. Bush is ranked at 33, just above the bottom 10 cluster. Richard Nixon stands at 28. As the only president ever forced to resign in disgrace, perhaps he should have a special category (or an asterisk). On the other hand, were it not for Watergate, Nixon would almost surely be ranked higher, given his administration's many real accomplishments. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are ranked at 25 and 26 respectively. It seems only poetic justice to see Ford, having been narrowly defeated by Carter, climb one narrow notch above him in ranking! George H.W. Bush is ranked at 20. What stands out about his position is that he is right between the two one-term Adams presidents.  Like Bush, both John (19) and John Quincy Adams (21) failed to win re-election, which usually counts as a mark against a president's reputation. (Except obviously for Kennedy, all of the top 13 won a second term.) But both of the Adams presidents were morally upstanding and extremely competent persons, whose gifts were insufficiently appreciated by increasingly "populist" electorates. And, like Washington before him, John Adams did the nation an incalculable service in his leaving of the office - leaving it peacefully in history's first presidential transition between opposing parties. Surprisingly Bill Clinton was ranked 21 when he left office, but is up to 15 now. In fact, Clinton left office extremely popular. And, while he remains popular, the left-ward direction of his party (and of the nation's rising demographic groups) might more likely be expected to diminish his stature over time. Finally Barack Obama is ranked at 12, just below Woodrow Wilson. Personally I would happily demote Wilson further down the list. But frankly I think it is just too early to rate Obama at all. I suspect his high rating reflects his present popularity, the high regard in which he is held for his personal qualities, his historic significance, and perhaps a not so subtle comparison with his successor. 

As I said earlier, ranking presidents can be fun. It can also cause us to reflect upon what we value and look for in leadership. Certainly such reflection is especially timely at this critical juncture in American presidential history!

No comments:

Post a Comment