Some Thoughts on Presidential Rankings

A recent post highlighting a rather flawed poll on declaring who was the worst president generated some interesting answers … and raised more interesting questions. How does one evaluate presidential performance? Are exercises in ranking the presidents useful?

Personally, I care little for polls ranking presidential performance, although I have participated in them. I do so because I am a student of the presidency, and I teach a course on the American presidency and presidents. This means that I have to be able to speak about the 43 men who have occupied the office, not just one or two. Look at the people who participate in these polls, and tell me how many of them are familiar with more than a handful of presidents. Indeed, I think these polls would be more interesting if one constructed a pool of voters that included scholars for every president and that did not overrepresent the biographers of a few key figures.

I also wonder about the criteria for evaluation. First, are we evaluating a president’s effectiveness in achieving his agenda, without regard as to what that agenda might be? Take the case of James K. Polk, who was very effective in meeting his goals. Does that make him a great president? Or take the more complicated case of Andrew Johnson. The seventeenth president is currently considered one of the worst chief executives. Certainly his presidency was a damaging one. But was it ineffective, or was he something of a Tim Tebow in the White House, who got the job done in an ugly fashion? After all, Johnson wanted to preserve white supremacy while restoring the Union. One could argue that his obstructionist behavior undermined efforts to pursue a more fundamental reconstruction of the nation that established a sounder foundation for the future of the emancipated. Yes, a Republican-controlled Congress passed legislation and two constitutional amendments, but it also rushed to restore civil government and spent a great deal of energy in seeking to handcuff Johnson. The result was the construction of a structure on unsound ground that soon collapsed in the 1870s.

Second, are we taking into account the degree of difficulty of the challenges before a president? I would argue that one needs to see Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency in terms of the challenges before him, especially in inheriting a reconstruction policy that left him few choices. Some presidents simply didn’t face significant challenges while in office. Some fumbled their opportunities. Some created their own opportunities or made trouble for themselves. Presidents had fewer resources to take effective action in the 19th century when it came to domestic policy, although the growth of the administrative state has posed its own challenges to effective presidential leadership.

Finally, what are we to make of “good intentions”? Grant has been a major beneficiary of recent efforts to demonstrate that his intentions were good (as we today see them). I’m not so sure. For Grant, good intentions were not enough, I’d say. His policy toward native Americans proved a failure (and there are those who would argue that his intentions were not good, and that they reflected white paternalism). However much he wanted to protect black rights and stop white supremacist terrorism, his efforts in that direction proved unsuccessful, too. We might debate as to why things turned out that way, but one can’t give Grant a pass simply because his intentions were good (as we today see them).

Evaluating presidential performance isn’t quite as easy as it might first seem. Moreover, polls of presidential greatness leave much to be desired even as one questions the point of the whole exercise in increasing our understanding of the presidency and the presidents.

21 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Presidential Rankings

  1. John Foskett December 2, 2012 / 2:44 pm

    interesting analogy – although Johnson had better throwing mechanics than Tebow.

  2. Louis December 2, 2012 / 3:01 pm

    I agree, there is so much that goes into these polls that is not strictly historical. A good example is the rating for John F. Kennedy. Historians don’t rank him so highly as the near-great status he achieved after his assassination. Among the public he seems to still be thought of quite highly. I don’t mean this to knock JFK but can we really believe he will be honestly evaluated in light of the sudden, horrific way his presidency suddenly ended? To me, another president whose ratings are going to fluctuate a lot based on current events is Ronald Reagan. Is he primarily the conservative who began cutting social programs or the hero who ended the Cold War? Both? Neither? I doubt we will ever see a final answer to this in our lifetimes. Is it much of a stretch to believe that such divisions occurred in evaluations of Jackson or Polk until no one alive had memories of their presidencies? I don’t think so. I also believe it is naive to think we can evaluate any president without bringing our own views and priorities into the equation. I doubt there will ever been much of an reappraisal of Andrew Johnson but that’s why history remains fascinating. You never know what new interpretations a historian can come up with; it’s why we keep reading it and debating it.

  3. Bob Huddleston December 2, 2012 / 4:47 pm

    Our now-10 year old granddaughter, Jessica, got interested in American history two years ago when at her school book fair picked up a book on the presidents. The book advertised that it met various state standards – which meant it is full of factual errors! But she read it and started looking for other material on presidents. The next spring we took her to Washington for spring break and she loved it! Washington’s birthday at Mount Vernon and a tour of the public areas of the White House – she impressed the guards by her identification of the various portraits on the walls.

    The importance here is her choice of her favorite presidents: Obama because he is the current incumbent; George W. Bush because he was president when she and her brother were born; Harry Truman because she also celebrates a birthday on May 8, John Adams since he shares a birthday with her brother.

    And FDR, Lincoln and Washington. She wanted to see Mount Vernon, Ford’s Theater and the FDR when we were in Washington. It is not like we sat around talking about presidents: these came from her reading. She cannot really tell *why* they are the best, but it shows some degree of knowledge on her part. And her choices are as good – and as logical – as many of the polls!

  4. Ned B December 2, 2012 / 5:02 pm

    I think that the discussion over criteria is most of what makes the exercise useful. What do we really want in a President? What can a president achieve? What are the alternatives? What is the comparative scale of events?

    In addition to what youbwrote, i think the criteria also needs to distinguish between things a president could have had an impact on and things he could not. For example, in Grant’s case I have seen Credit Mobilier referred to as an example of the corruption he presided over even though it did not involve Grant or his administration.

    Finally I think the criteria needs to be able to make comparisons across time. For example, how do scandals if different times measure against each other?

  5. James F. Epperson December 2, 2012 / 6:47 pm

    My niece is reading bios of the Presidents in order—from Washington forward. Last I heard she had gotten to Polk, and was very down on Jefferson and Lincoln (even though she had not gotten to AL yet).

  6. rcocean December 2, 2012 / 8:30 pm

    Henry Adams trashed the Grant Presidency and it hurt his reputation among 20th Century historians. I wonder what we would think about Lincoln if he’d been say Attorney General during the Civil War and gotten to be POTUS in 1868-1876? Grant strikes me as the kind of man who’s great when there’s a war or a big crisis – otherwise not.

  7. Lyle Smith December 2, 2012 / 9:18 pm

    More people should read this blog.

  8. Bummer December 3, 2012 / 10:13 am

    Bummer feels that Grant was the correct man for the time in 1868. A military leader that the Union could back. Grant would have been more successful and had less problems if some of his staff had lived or continued to support him. He was not a man who could be left to his own devices, he needed the psychological mentoring of a Rawlins in his cabinet at all times. Sherman would have been a perfect fit, but he didn’t want any part of politics.Grant had many personal and physical short comings, but he is still one of Bummer’s favorites.


    • John Randolph December 3, 2012 / 8:55 pm

      Well said.

  9. Mark December 3, 2012 / 2:47 pm

    I think good intentions count as a defense against false charges of bad intentions, but nothing else. I don’t think saying “project X was a failure” is helpful either. It just kicks the can one more abstraction down the road. On what basis is that to be judged? Every project is a failure on many standards, so perspective is all. The common-sense measure of performance in any job surely must have to do with the degree of improvement, or the reverse, and the reasonable expectations that anyone else could have done better.

    • Mark December 3, 2012 / 2:51 pm

      Of course, the degree of improvement implies a judgement about the what are the most important things. If one improved things of lesser importance while degrading things of higher importance that wouldn’t be a good thing.

    • Brooks D. Simpson December 3, 2012 / 2:51 pm

      I think we make judgments about success and failure all the time.

      • Mark December 3, 2012 / 5:45 pm

        I agree. But sometimes the basis for the judgment is a known and shared understanding from the context, and sometimes it isn’t and needs to be explicitly stated or the judgement may obscure more than it explains.

  10. John Randolph December 3, 2012 / 8:53 pm

    I think you always have to consider the realities of the times in which a president served. Given the enormous challenges of Civil Rights and Vietnam, would JFK be anywhere near as revered as is his now had Lee Harvey Oswald missed? Presidents can manage history and few of the great ones can actually change it. Given the realities of the 1860’s and 1870’s, it’s hard to see how anyone else who could possibly been president from 1869-1877 could have done much better than U.S. Grant actually did. Had President Lincoln walked out of Ford’s Theatre in April, 1865, he would have been beset with enormous difficulties. Notwithstanding his wartime genius, I am not sure he could have achieved much more than Grant in the post-war period. A conflict weary North, which may have disdained slavery to some degree but still wasn’t all that keen on the notion of equality for African-Americans, combined with a bitter and increasingly defiant South did not bode well for either Reconstruction or the hopes of some to create a more just society for the recently emancipated slaves. Furthermore, while Grant’s Peace Policy towards the Indians was undoubtably paternalistic and inherently racist, in my view it was still far preferable to the most popular alternative of the time which seemed to be out and out genocide exemplified by Phil Sheridan’s infamous quote, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”. This is not to excuse Grant’s failures as president, but while good intentions and success are obviously better than good intentions alone, I will still gladly credit Grant for good intentions given the other awful and henious possibilities that some other president might have embraced. While Ulysses will probably never be up there on Mount Rushmore with George, Tom, Abe and Teddy, neither does he deserve to be languishing anywhere near the likes of Buchanan, Harding and Dubya either.

  11. rcocean December 3, 2012 / 9:30 pm

    Rating Presidents is a good parlor game but most people’s opinion is worthless. Reason is; they simply judge Presidents based on their own 21st Century Politics and beliefs. I get the feeling some have a checklist and rate everyone based on how much the Presidents agree (or would’ve agreed) with the NYT Op Ed page or the New Republic. Grant liked the Indians +10 points but Grant didn’t like Indians enough -5 points. Sorry, Grant.

    Others seem to think that if fought a big war, you’re a great President, the more blood you shed as President – the better the President. Having said that, I’d say our best President was the first one and the worst LBJ – who involved us in one of our bloodiest and most useless wars.

    • John Randolph December 3, 2012 / 10:18 pm

      I agree that rating presidents is a bit of a mugs game. You’re right when you say that people to a large degree judge presidents on the basis of their own politics and beliefs. Probably very true. For example, you say that LBJ was the worst president due to the bloody Vietnam debacle. I think there might be more than a few Americans (and Vietnamese) who would agree. But while LBJ escalated US involvement and expanded the war, his decision was in fact consistent with American policy from Truman through Eisenhower all the way to JFK. The seeds of the Vietnam war were planted a long time before LBJ came along. He takes the blame for what three of his Cold War predecessors going back 20 years began and carried forward because of American fears towards a Vietnam unified under the Communists. Perhaps it’s only right that Lyndon gets slagged with most of the blame since he was the president who had to choose between escalation or letting SVN collapse and thus decided to introduce US ground troops in a big way rather than face the enormous poltiical consquences of pulling out, but if LBJ is goint to take the blame for Vietnam, objectively he should also get some credit for things like helping to break the back of 100 years of legal segregation by pushing Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I won’t even mention the Great Society and the War on Poverty because I suspect whether one gives him credit or blame dependes on where one falls on the left-right political spectrum. Nevertheless, all of this proves your point that our individual rankings of presidents are far more subjective in nature than objective.

      • rcocean December 4, 2012 / 7:50 pm

        He gets the blame for Vietnam because he was the ‘decider’. Without his OK – no 500,000 troops in Vietnam. In the 1960s the POTUS ran foreign policy, period. Civil rights and Medicare would’ve come with -or without- LBJ. Most people wanted both, and they were supported by large majorities in congress. In fact, given his domestic policy track record while POTUS, Nixon probably would’ve supported Medicare and he did support the Civil Rights Bill.

        People make the same mistake with FDR. People forget FDR ran on a Democrat party platform that included Social Security and whole bunch of New deal Reforms. These reforms had been pushed by Northern Democrats for a long time. Plus, FDR has crushing Democrat majorities supporting his domestic legislation.

        • John Randolph December 5, 2012 / 12:27 am

          I don’t quite see the 1950’s and ‘60’s as simply as you do. In fact, domestic politics played a significant part of presidential decision making in the early decades of the Cold War. Truman and Acheson were torn to pieces in the court of public opinion by Republicans and Senator McCarthy for “losing” China and failing to secure victory in Korea. Adlai Stevenson and the Democrats took a thumping for being “soft of communism”. The lesson was not lost on JFK. When Kennedy said in 1961 that Americans would “pay any price, bear any burden”, his words implicitly heralded a hard-line policy against the Communist bloc that was popular at home, but also significantly upped the stakes for American prestige everywhere, including the long-standing policy of US support for SVN. Yes, LBJ was the “decider” who committed American ground troops and escalated the war. As such, he deserves his share of the blame for doing so, but the blood resulting from that decision is also on other hands as well. With the exception of George Ball, the “best and brightest” from JFK’s administration who remained with LBJ, men such as Rusk, McNamara, Bundy, etc. all agreed that bombing and then US ground troops were necessary to ensure the survival of SVN. Thanks to the instability brought on by the US supported coup against Diem, which was green-lighted by the Kennedy administration in August, 1963, by the time LBJ made the decision to go in with US troops in July, 1965, his only other real option would have been to pull out and let South Vietnam fall to Communist NVN. This would not have been very popular with an American populace who generally believed at the time, perhaps wrongly in retrospect, that it was their nation’s solemn duty to resist the Reds everywhere. In fact, American public opinion strongly backed Johnson’s escalation of the war until the roof caved in on his Vietnam policy during the aftermath of the January 1968 Tet Offensive. Had LBJ let SVN fall in ’65, folks such as Goldwater, Nixon, etc, undoubtedly would have attempted to destroy him for “losing” Vietnam in the same way they crippled Truman back in the early ‘50’s. Furthermore, many Democrats would have attacked him for reneging on JFK’s pledge to “pay any price, bear and burden”, which sounded good as long as Americans didn’t have to see the bill to pay for Kennedy’s promises. All of this is not to absolve LBJ of the blame for his decision to escalate the Vietnam War, but rather an attempt to understand the complexities and realities of the political context in which his decision was made.

          As far as Civil Rights goes, the actual facts indicate that the landmark legislative achievements embodied in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were not at all inevitable, and even if they had been achieved later on, would have occurred after much greater violence and bloodshed. Civil rights legislation proposed by Kennedy had languished in Congress for years (along with Medicare). Reactionaries across the South circa 1964 were resisting change mightily and prepared for even greater efforts to fight the Civil Rights movement, and this wasn’t just the KKK. Look up the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission as an example of how the official power structure across Dixie was preparing to fight The Civil War II. The violence and bloodshed would likely have been much worse had the conflict over Civil Rights in the South dragged on. Segregation was ultimately broken because black Americans were prepared to resist their oppression, take to the streets in large numbers to protest Jim Crow and get their heads busted for their trouble. LBJ’s genius was in recognizing that the combination of the Civil Rights movement and the aftershock from Kennedy’s murder created a unique political opportunity for him push Congress to act on Civil Rights, thus finally redeeming the promise of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. In fact, LBJ coordinated extensively with Civil Rights leaders such as MLK to help him push through legislation that would put the final nails in the coffin for legalized apartheid in America. I don’t think this would have happened as quickly, simply or has bloodlessly had any other president been in the Oval Office at the time, including JFK. I would suggest reading “Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Laws that Changed America” (2005) by Nick Kotz. It’s an excellent history of how LBJ and MLK frequently consulted each other from 1963 to 1965 with a view to creating a strategy to coordinate their respective actions to secure passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

          If one insists that Lyndon Johnson carries the can for the Vietnam debacle all by himself, then in all fairness he should certainly also get credit for his efforts and achievements on behalf of Civil Rights.

          • Another Mark December 5, 2012 / 1:02 pm

            LBJ is a fascinating case study on the difficulty of ratings. On domestic policy alone you have the 64 Civil Right Act and the 65 Voting Rights Act which I consider the two greatest legislative achievements of the 20th century and in which LBJ was the driving force. On the other hand the Great Society push was hubris, a failure short term and laid the groundwork for the government financial crisis we face today. He also planted two huge fiscal landmines, putting social security into the budget, since it was in the black, and taking fannie mae and freddie mac out, since they were in the red.

  12. Jimmy Dick December 5, 2012 / 1:37 pm

    Very good comments, John. Accurate and on the money. Good work!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s