Tag Archives: Presidential Rankings

Hillary Clinton: Is She Rich Enough To Be President?

Democratic Party activists and leading pundits have of late begun speculating whether Hillary Clinton’s wealth might prove to be an obstacle to her presidential aspirations. But history suggests their concerns are misplaced. The problem is not that Hillary’s too rich. It’s that she’s not rich enough – at least not rich enough to achieve presidential greatness!

As Clinton understands, a major drawback to being the front-runner for your party’s presidential nomination, with no clear rivals in sight, is that the media has no one else to talk about. Journalists, of course, view their mission as speaking truth to power and, not incidentally, they also have a strong preference for a competitive presidential nominating race. For this reason, they have spent considerable time of late, aided by issue activists and other party players, probing for weaknesses in Clinton’s candidacy. This is part of the candidate vetting process that Marty Cohen et al describe in their The Party Decides.  Part of that vetting involves testing possible negative campaign frames to see which ones might have legs on the campaign trail. So far the vetters have discussed Benghazi against the backdrop of Clinton’s record as Secretary of State, her evolving views on gay marriage and, most recently, her personal wealth. The wealth issue was triggered by Clinton’s statement, at the start of her recent book tour, that she and her husband were “dead broke” when they left the White House. Critics immediately pounced, noting that given her $200,000 speaking fees and current net worth hovering at an estimated $15 million,  the comments made her seem out of touch with ordinary Americans. More enticing still, pundits speculated that her wealth made her vulnerable to a challenge from a populist candidate (Elizabeth Warren, anyone?) who was not perceived to be so closely tied to Wall St. and the “1 percent”. (See also here and here.)

What are we to make of this effort to characterize Hillary as the poor-woman’s Mitt Romney – a plutocrat out of touch with the average American? History suggests Hillary’s critics are drawing the wrong lesson. Let’s face it – to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway (perhaps apocryphally) paraphrasing F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Presidents are different from you and me. They have more money.” Lots more, in fact. You don’t find very many presidents who were not men of considerable means when they took office.

Interestingly, the wealthier the President, the more likely he (someday she) will be considered one of the greater presidents, based on evaluations by historians and political scientists. (In previous posts I’ve discussed some of the problems with presidential rankings, so I won’t belabor the point here.) Consider the presidents typically ranked as the nation’s greatest: Lincoln, Washington, FDR, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt. With the exception of Lincoln (and who knows where he would be ranked had he served out his second term) all took office possessing great personal wealth – in fact, they are among the wealthiest of all the presidents. Washington ranks second in net worth, just behind JFK. Jefferson is third (although he was mired in debt in his post-presidential years), and TR fourth. Even FDR, the poorest among them at a wealth ranking of only nine (again, excluding Lincoln) based on an estimated net worth in current dollars of $60 million, has 4 times Clinton’s fortune.  All told, at least 17 presidents outrank Hillary in personal wealth and these include some of the highest ranked presidents, including Jackson (ranked 8), Kennedy (11), Adams (12), Madison (13), LBJ (14) and Monroe (15). Indeed, if you control for the usual suspects (death in office, scandal, whether the nation is at war, and if the president won reelection), wealth is a statistically significant predictor of a president’s historical ranking (although I wouldn’t put too much stock in the coefficient)!

Now, to anticipate the expressions of outrage that are sure to flow into my comments section, I am in fact deeply skeptical that there’s any direct link between wealth and presidential greatness, regression results notwithstanding (although I don’t rule out the possibility!) My point is simply that there’s nothing in the historical record that says being wealthy should disqualify you from holding the nation’s highest office.

Indeed, I think that rather than shy away from publicizing her wealth, Hillary should embrace it. Think of the possible slogans!

Hillary Clinton. She’s not a….er…..witch. She’s just rich.

But is she rich enough to be in the “10 percent” of great presidents?

[Update: 12:08.  And now the New York Times piles on by analyzing Chelsea's speaking fees!]

Meanwhile, Mad magazine has some fun at Hillary’s expense (hat tip to Shelly Sloan):

broke girl


Is George H. W. Bush the Best President Not To Win Reelection?

George H. W. Bush turned 88 yesterday, and the milestone got me thinking: is he the best president not to win reelection?

Bush, as most of you know, served one term before losing in 1992 to Bill Clinton in a three-way race that also involved Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot.  Bush received only 38% of the vote – less than any incumbent since Taft (who also lost in a three-way race). It was a loss that, by his own admission, hit him very hard. As he told his granddaughter Jenna in this Today show interview, it was a “terrible, awful feeling” to lose. “I really wanted to win and worked hard,” Bush said. “Later on, people said, ‘Well, he didn’t really care,’ which is crazy. I worked my heart out.”

His defeat was caused in large part by the public perception that although the economy was coming out of a recession, economic growth was more sluggish than it actually was. In addition, after 12 years of Republican control of the White House, there was growing sentiment that it was time for a partisan change.  Bush was also painted by Clinton as out of touch (many will remember his evident bafflement over seeing a grocery checkout scanner), and castigated by some conservatives for breaking his “no new taxes” pledge.  Despite this, there is evidence suggesting that had Bush begun campaigning earlier and more effectively in 1992 (he installed Secretary of State James Baker as campaign manager too late to overcome Clinton’s early polling lead), he might have won reelection.

Bush’s most publicized successes as President came in foreign policy.  In an almost bloodless campaign, he authorized the use of military force to remove Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega from power.  And when in 1990 Saddam Hussein annexed Kuwait as a possible prelude to invading Saudi Arabia, rather than fulfilling Margaret Thatcher’s fears that he might “go wobbly”, Bush instead put together a domestic and international political and military coalition that drove Hussein out of Kuwait in less than a month of combat and with a minimal loss of American lives.  (We forget just how close was the vote in Congress giving Bush authority to use military force against Hussein; the resolution passed the Senate by a scant 5 votes, 52-47.  This was a far closer vote than what Bush’s son received when he sought congressional approval to go to war in Iraq.)  Most notably, when Iraq’s military forces were routed and Hussein most vulnerable, Bush chose to halt the military carnage rather than pursue regime change.  His decision not to remove Hussein from power was heavily criticized at the time, and for years after, but today, as the violence continues in post-invasion Iraq, many now laud Bush’s prudence and foresight.

Bush also presided with deceptive ease over the end of the Cold War; we now view German reunification as the natural result of the collapse of East Germany, but had Bush overplayed his hand, he could easily have undercut Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s political support back home and triggered a backlash among European nations to the specter of a unified Germany. Similarly, when the Soviet Union subsequently dissolved in 1991, Bush again confronted a potentially volatile period as Eastern bloc nations, freed from the yoke of Soviet dominance, struggled to remake themselves as democracies. If Bush’s leadership during this time lacked Reagan’s inspirational flourishes, he more than compensated by exercising a steady, if understated, diplomatic hand.  He recognized, despite pressure from critics to more actively intervene in the restructuring of Eastern Europe, that leadership sometimes means doing less, not more.

Bush’s political downfall, however, was rooted in domestic affairs, particularly the economy, which slid into a recession on his watch.  As with all modern presidents, he was held accountable for the state of the economy although he lacked many tools to influence it. Indeed, one of his most courageous but politically disastrous acts was to negotiate, in the face of growing budget deficit, a budget deal with Democrats in Congress that included additional revenue – thus breaking his famous “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge that was a cornerstone of his 1988 campaign.  For that act of treason he was pilloried by the Gingrich-wing of the Republican Party while receiving scant credit from liberals.  Sensing Bush’s political vulnerability, social conservative Pat Buchanan, touting his pitchfork brigade, unsuccessfully challenged the sitting President for the Republican nomination.  That was an early indication that Bush was in electoral trouble. With hindsight, of course, the Bush tax hike served as a downpayment that contributed to the budget surplus that was briefly enjoyed during Clinton’s last term.

Since leaving the White House Bush has largely stayed out of the limelight, except for his occasional leap from airplanes (he is promising at least one more jump on his 90th birthday). Here he is jumping on his 85th birthday.

Rather than actively engage in national politics, he has limited his public involvement to bipartisan goodwill missions. Notably, he kept a very low profile during his son’s eight years as president.  Rather than engaging in national politics, he spends much of his time on the water at Kennebunkport, Maine, and enjoying his grandchildren.  He did recently attend the unveiling of his son’s portrait at the White House.

So, is he the best president not to win reelection? By my count, there have been at least 11 polls ranking the presidents since Bush left office.  His aggregate place in the rankings is 21st (standard deviation 3.2), with his highest ranking 18th (twice) and one poll placing him as low as 31st.  Typically he is clustered in a pack that includes Taft, Martin Van Buren and the man who defeated him, Bill Clinton. I’ve  written previously about the unreliability of these rankings, but there does not seem to be any evidence that Bush’s historical standing will change appreciably in the foreseeable future – his presidency, rightly or not, is deemed average.  Interestingly, in the aggregate presidential rankings, only the two Adamses – John and his son John Quincy – rank ahead of Bush among those presidents who sought reelection but were defeated.  Both Adamses may benefit historically due to their accomplishments outside the presidential office – an advantage Bush does not enjoy.

In his interview with his granddaughter (see below), Bush read from a letter he wrote that addressed, in part, the process of aging. He wrote: “As the summers finish out, and the seas get a little higher, winds a little colder, I’ll be making some notes, writing it down lest I forget so I can add to the report on getting older. Who knows, maybe they will come out with a new drug that makes legs bend easier, joints hurt less, drives go farther, memory come roaring back and all fears about falling off fishing rafts go away. Remember the old song, ‘I’ll be there ready when you are’? Well, I’ll be there, ready when you are, because there’s so much excitement ahead, so many grandkids to watch grow. If you need me, I’m here. Devotedly, Dad.”

Here he is reading that letter and talking about his presidency more generally. (The exchange in this video between Jenna and Bush regarding “the Bieb” is priceless.)

George H. W. Bush.  Possible the best president we never reelected – and a pretty good grandfather too.

Here’s to you, Poppy.  May you enjoy many more birthdays (and sky dives) to come!

P.S. For a discussion of his son’s rankings, see  my analysis here.

Ranking the Presidents: Will Obama Make It To Mt. Rushmore?

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.