Where does Obama rank among the presidents? Is he destined for Mt. Rushmore (move over, TR)? Or will he be placed with Andrew Johnson, Buchanan, Pierce, Harding and George W. Bush at the bottom of the list? Or somewhere in between? Siena College recently came out with their fifth ranking of the presidents but their first to include Obama. The rankings are based on evaluations by 238 “presidential scholars”, who rated each president in 20 categories, ranging from executive ability to handling of various policies to “luck”.
According to these experts, Obama now stands as the 15th greatest president, primarily on the basis of his imagination (6th best), communications skills (7th) and intelligence (8th). This is none too shabby, as progressives on several websites (see here, for example) were quick to point out. (Much of their glee, I suspect, is because Obama is rated much higher than his predecessor, George W. Bush!) What prevented Obama from ranking even higher, apparently, were concerns about his “background”, which evidently refers to education, experience and family history.
What are we to make of these rankings? I have no qualms with attempts take the measure of a president – it is a quintessentially American endeavor, right up there with choosing the all time baseball team. Indeed, Richard Neustadt begins his classic work on the American Presidency by writing, “In the United States we like to ‘rate’ a President. We measure him as ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ and call what we are measuring his ‘leadership’.”
Nor do I necessarily think it premature to rate Obama; as Neustadt notes, “We do not wait until a man is dead; we rate him from the moment he takes office. We are quite right to do so.” Every four years that ranking takes on particular importance.
Of course, it is quite possible that Obama’s current ranking might change considerably in the next two-to-six years. Think back to Lincoln two years into his presidency. The South was winning the war in part because Lincoln’s generals were incompetent, his own party was split over his leadership, his assertion of strong wartime powers probably violated the Constitution and his public support was at low ebb. It is likely he would have ranked at this time near the bottom of the list of presidents, behind his predecessor Buchanan. Or, to take a more recent example, recall Bill Clinton’s presidency two years in, when he felt the need to assert that his role was “still relevant” after failing to pass health care and watching the Republicans come to power in the 1994 midterm elections.
Note that we need not engage only in hypotheticals when discussing how presidential rankings can change. Siena actually rated George W. Bush one year into his presidency – the same Bush who is now often called one of the worst presidents in history, and who stands 39th (of 44 presidents) in the current Siena poll. Where did he rank in 2002? At number 23, placing him squarely in the average rankings. How times – and rankings – have changed!
So while it may be premature to rate Obama, I am not against trying to do so as long as we remember these rankings are provisional. Nonetheless, I do have a problem with the Siena rankings, and with most of the parallel efforts, dating back to the initial ratings of presidents sponsored by Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. in 1948. It’s the failure to rigorously conceptualize the criteria on which these evaluations are based. That failure makes it difficult for me to judge whether presidents are rated based on their actual influence over events, or on the events themselves, or on some other criteria.
To see what I mean, consider some of the 20 categories included in the Siena rankings. For example, Franklin Roosevelt ranks first among all presidents in his “handling of the economy”. On what is this based? The reality is that well into his second term, Roosevelt’s policies had failed to end the Great Depression – in fact, in 1937, the nation entered a mini-recession that wiped out a portion of the economic gains made during FDR’s first term. In the end, it was the massive spending of a wartime economy that finally ended the Depression. Now, one can argue that FDR’s New Deal program helped lessen the severity of the Depression, and that some of his specific actions, such as declaring a banking holiday, saved entire industries from collapse. But I can’t help thinking that his rating is based more on the severity of the economic crisis he inherited than in his actions in ending it. Indeed, is it even fair to evaluate presidents on the basis of their “handling of the economy”, considering just how little influence over economic processes presidents exercise?
Or, consider the ability to “avoid crucial mistakes.” Lincoln was rated 2nd best in this category, just behind Washington. Some might think, however, that Lincoln’s decision to resupply Ft. Sumter, which happened to trigger the Civil War, might fall in the category of “crucial mistake”. Certainly Lincoln did not foresee the consequences of this initial act.
A second problem with the Siena rankings is the failure to differentiate the significance of different categories. So, a president’s “luck” is apparently weighted equally with their “executive ability” or “communication ability” or “ability to handle the economy”. And to what does luck refer, anyhow? Lincoln – who was killed in office – was rated the 13th luckiest president. Really? Never mind the assassination – he took office only to see 13 states decide to secede. I hate to see the fate of an “unlucky” president! Clinton is rated the 10th luckiest – is that because he survived impeachment? What about getting impeached in the first place? How lucky was that? One might argue that it was supremely unlucky for him that Monica Lewinsky held on to the stained dress!
And what about “integrity” – George W. Bush is rated only 39th in this category. Why the low ranking? It might be because people object to his stretching (breaking?) the constitutional limits of his authority. But another president who pushed/broke his constitutional limits, Abraham Lincoln, is rated first in integrity. Are people judging integrity on the degree to which they agree with the president’s policy objectives?
Bush is also only rated 36th in “background”. Again, I have no clue why he is rated so low – he attended Yale, and Harvard Business School, served as Governor of one of the largest states in the Union, and his father was the President of the United States. Perhaps he would have been better prepared graduating from Eureka College and working in the movies? (In Reagan’s defense, he served two terms as California governor. And Eureka College may be on par with Yale.)
There is also the problem of evaluating presidents who served in significantly different eras. For example, how does one compare Lincoln’s “communication” ability (he ranks second) with FDR’s (he is rated first), given the differences in technology that governed their respective communication strategies? For that matter, given the difference in the scope of their responsibilities, is it fair to compare a 19th century president with someone who serves in the 21st?
Now, it may be that the 238 presidential scholars were able to come to some agreement on what these categories mean, and on their relative importance. One way to measure this agreement is to see the standard deviations in their rankings. That is, how closely do the ratings cluster around the mean in each category? A small standard deviation would suggest that there was basic agreement among the evaluators. But Siena doesn’t provide this statistic, so we have no way of seeing how much agreement there was within and across categories.
In another post I’ll present my own criteria for evaluating presidents, and make some effort to explain the rankings made by others. For now, we are left with this question: will Obama make it to Mt. Rushmore? I have no idea. My best guess, almost two years into his presidency, however, is that he has a better shot if he does what Mike Norris did: don a Presidential Power “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid” t-shirt and take a road trip.