Yes, he is.
At least that’s one superficial way to interpret the results of Gallup’s most recent annual President’s Day poll. When asked to name the greatest president, Bush came in tied for 10th with Thomas Jefferson in votes received, just behind Harry Truman. Ronald Reagan was judged the greatest president, ahead of Abraham Lincoln. With one exception (Kennedy in 2000), either Lincoln or Reagan has topped the last eight Gallup surveys asking Americans to name the greatest president. (Obama ranks 5th, by the way, in this latest poll).
Upon closer inspection, however, Bush’s popular ranking seems much less impressive. (For that matter, so is Obama’s.) To begin, the survey only asks respondents to name the greatest president; they are not required to rank all the presidents. This is for good reason – it appears they can’t remember most of them! Indeed, the results suggest that respondents drew a blank after considering the historically most famous presidents – Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and the two Roosevelts. With these names exhausted, the default option then became choosing among those presidents who served within living memory. In effect, that precluded anyone serving before Truman, which evidently is as far back as Americans’ collective memory goes.
This meant that a few presidents received most of the votes. That made it possible for Bush to come in 10th although he received only 2% of the votes. (With the poll’s margin of error at +/- 4%, it means you can essentially throw a blanket over the bottom ten presidents on the list; their ratings are virtually indistinguishable.) Reagan, in contrast, topped the list with 19% of the votes cast for the nation’s greatest president. Here’s the list of everyone receiving votes:
Note that there was a clear partisan bias in the results. Among Democrats, the greatest presidents was, drum roll please….Bill Clinton! He received 22% of Democrats’ votes, edging Kennedy’s 18% with Obama third at 11%. Indeed, he finished third overall, ahead of Washington, both Roosevelts, and Jefferson and Jackson. Not bad for a president who was impeached!
Before castigating Democrats as historically-challenged, however, note that among Independents Clinton placed third, at 11%, comfortably behind Lincoln (19%) and Reagan (16%), but ahead of Washington (10%) and FDR (9%). Among Republicans, Reagan was the runaway winner with 38% of the vote, followed by Washington (14%) and Lincoln (13%). George W. Bush came in 5th among Republicans, with 5% of the votes.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Bush fares far worse in the collective judgment of my academic peers in history and political science. As I’ve noted in previous blogs, these judgments by scholars are also not without controversy. Nonetheless – without making any pronouncements regarding the relative wisdom of presidential “experts” compared to the public – it is interesting to analyze how scholars rank George W. Bush. At about the same time that Gallup released its survey results, a group of 47 British academics specializing in American history and politics announced their rankings of every president who served during the period from 1789 to 2009 (excluding William Henry Harrison and James Garfield, who both died shortly after taking office). The results were based on the cumulative total of ranking in five categories, including:
- domestic leadership
- foreign policy leadership
- moral authority
- positive historical significance of their legacy
Here Bush fares much less well, coming in at 31st among the 40 presidents ranked. He is dead last among the post-World War II “modern” presidents, several slots behind his father who is ranked 22nd, followed by Nixon at 23 and Ford at 24. Carter is 18th and Clinton 19th. Reagan ranks eighth among the British scholars.
The British ranking of Bush is slightly more positive than where their American counterparts place him. If we include the five previous polls by American scholars that include Bush, he comes out 34th among all presidents, but his rankings are boosted by two early surveys made midway through his presidency that placed him 23rd and 19th. Since leaving the presidency, American surveys have ranked him 37th, 36th and 39th.
Of course, as I’ve previously discussed, these rankings are based on different methodologies that make comparing them somewhat problematic. On the other hand, there is remarkable consistency for some presidents whose rankings span surveys conducted decades apart. So, for the most part, every one of the 17 surveys of which I’m aware dating back to the initial one put together by Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. in the 1940’s places Lincoln, Washington and FDR in the top three.
On the other hand, there are some noticeable variations across these 17 surveys as well. One of the biggest jumps is made by Dwight Eisenhower, who is ranked only 22nd in the first survey in which he is included conducted during the early 1960’s, shortly after he stepped down, but who now ranks 9th overall based on all 17 surveys. Eisenhower’s rise was fueled primarily by archives released in the 1970’s that led many scholars, most notably Fred Greenstein, to reevaluate Eisenhower “hidden-hand” leadership. But it also reflects the passage of time. With hindsight, the years of general peace and prosperity enjoyed during the Eisenhower era seemed far more impressive after Vietnam, stagflation and myriad other controversial events since.
Eisenhower’s rise is a reminder that these current rankings are not set in stone. One crude way to gauge the relative uncertainty of scholars’ rankings is to measure the standard deviation of each president’s average ranking based on all 17 polls. (Think of standard deviation as the “average” spread around each president’s mean ranking; the greater the deviation, the larger the discrepancy among scholars’ evaluations.)
Which President’s ranking has the highest deviation? Not surprisingly, it is George W. Bush’s; although ranked on average 34th, the standard deviation around that slot is 7.5 positions. Note, however, that this reflects the inclusion of the more positive evaluations he received while in office; if we include only his post-presidential rankings, the standard deviation decreases considerably.
Among those presidents who rank among the top ten in standard deviation, signifying greater uncertainty in their average ranking, only one served in the post-World War II modern era. That is Ronald Reagan, who is ranked 16th overall but comes in third with a standard deviation of 6.7 slots. (The other “modern” presidents with high standard deviations in their rankings are Jimmy Carter (4.73) and Richard Nixon (4.68), who rank 11th and 12th respectively.) Evidently scholars are still struggling to come to grips with Reagan’s role across a range of issues, such as economic growth in the 1980’s, budget deficits, and ending the Cold War, to name just a few. It may also be the case that Reagan is a more polarizing figure – one that splits scholars along ideological or partisan lines, although this is hard to assess without knowing who conducts the rankings, and something about their backgrounds as well.
Bush concludes his memoirs Decision Points by reminding readers that at one point Reagan was “denounced” as a “dunce and warmonger”, and now is viewed as “Great Communicator” who helped win the Cold War. Whether one agrees with Bush’s evaluation of Reagan or not , it does raise the question whether he will also see a reappraisal of his presidency, one that will place it in a more favorable light. It is far too early to know where he will ultimately rank. But I think his future ranking is likely to depend on two factors. First, as with Eisenhower, will scholars digging through the archival record discover evidence that will cause them to reevaluate Bush’s decisionmaking? I’m skeptical that this type of archival-based reevaluation will happen because, unlike with Eisenhower, there has never been much doubt regarding Bush’s decisiveness. He was clearly in charge of his presidency (although some still speculate that Richard Cheney was something akin to Bush’s “co-president”).
The second factor is whether subsequent events will make Bush’s presidency look more positive. What might those events be? It seems to me that the lynchpin is what happens in Iraq. If it becomes a functioning democracy (preferably one that pumps huge quantities of oil!), against a backdrop of a Mideast region where democracy movements have broken out all over, it will inevitably raise the question – a not uncontroversial one, to be sure – regarding whether and to what extent Bush’s policies can be said to have contributed to this development.
We are far too close to Bush’s presidency, and events far too fluid, to make this assessment now, of course (although I fully expect partisans to immediately jump on me for even suggesting he might be credited with influencing reform in the Mideast!) But I don’t find it far fetched to believe several decades from now Bush’s historical ranking may well improve, much as Reagan’s and Eisenhower’s have. His ranking will also depend in large part on judgments regarding the War on Terror and the relative blame/credit he gets for 9-11 and for keeping the nation safe from attack in the post-9-11 years. That judgment too will depend on events occurring after Bush has left office.
In the meantime, let the debate begin!