Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ranking the Presidents

OK, I think that last post would be boring for most people. This might be mildly more interesting.

The art (and I use the term loosely) of ranking presidents has been popular recently. People have talked about Bush's place in history. Weirdly, we're already talking about Obama's legacy. I think it's probably too early to speak very intelligently about either.

Who was the best president? I think this is an interesting question, but also a bit silly, because it's usually so poorly defined. Do we mean most influential? Do we mean the president who did the most net good? Should we take into account the options available to the president? Do we judge him on his own terms, the terms of most of the people at the time, or our own terms? Is there really some fair and meaningful way to compare a president like Lincoln who was in office during very important political events and a president like Coolidge or Clinton who led during times that were comparatively boring in the US. Despite these problems, history buffs still love trying to rank the presidents. If we have to rank the presidents, I'd probably make my criteria for being near the top something like: Was consequential and did more good than bad. Pretty vague, but good enough I suppose. In the surveys of scholars, Lincoln and FDR are always in the top 3, and the third member of that triumvirate is usually Washington, but sometimes Jefferson or Teddy Roosevelt. I don't have a big problem with those selections, other than those general problems I outlined above. It's not uncommon to find a conservative who would put Reagan in the top 3, presumably bumping out FDR. I think that's probably hard to justify, because, frankly, fighting WWII was more important than speeding up the end of the Cold War. There's also the related question of favorite president. I have a soft spot for some of the boring ones, like Eisenhower and Cleveland. But it's hard to top Washington.

What is Bush's legacy? I think it's too early to say. I think he and his friends probably are hoping for a Truman-esque result: Unpopular when he left office but later realized to be a very good president. I think this is Bush's best case scenario, but is pretty unlikely. I think a more likely, reasonably good outcome for him would be Wilsonian: did some important good stuff and important bad stuff, and we'll endlessly debate whether he did more good than harm. LBJ is also a decent analogy.

How was Obama's first year? I think many people would say that it was OK, but not that great. Definitely highly disappointing to many of his supporters. Probably surprisingly ineffective in eyes of many of his opponents. I'm a little surprised that his popularity disappeared so fast, but I'm not surprised that he's effected so little change. Before he was president, I figured there wouldn't be much difference between McCain and Obama on some of the biggest questions of foreign policy and economics. Basically, in times like these, the president just doesn't want to mess up, so he's going to listen to smart foreign policy and economic advisers, who will likely not be rabid socialists or whatnot. I think my rather modest expectations have been largely vindicated. He's largely been a continuation of the second Bush term so far. Maybe the biggest difference between the two will end up being their Supreme Court nominees.

This brings me back to Reagan. I was amazed by the hype surrounding Obama during the campaign. How can anyone who knows any history have so much enthusiasm for a politician? I don't mean that they're all bad, but they usually tend not to accomplish much. Presidents are not too different from hitters in baseball: probably will bat about .250 and rarely hit any grand slams. Arguably Reagan was the most important, transformative president since FDR. I don't feel competent to judge his foreign policy accomplishments, but let's grant that they may have been very impressive. But look at his domestic accomplishments. He didn't roll back the welfare state. Conservatives don't like 2 of his 3 Supreme Court appointments. The 1980s were not a return to the cultural/social values of the 1950s. Inflation was conquered under his watch, but mostly by Paul Volcker. It's glib, but not entirely inaccurate, to say that his two big domestic policy achievements were Antonin Scalia and drastically lowering the highest marginal income tax rates. (Not all taxes went down, e.g. the payroll tax went went up.) These are not small achievements, but you can see why I don't expect huge social transformation to come from presidents.


  1. One metric I've seen used to answer the question of best presidents is to look at each one and judge them based on how they responded to the pertinent issues of the times. It may seem unfair to credit someone like Abraham Lincoln for responding to issues that were beyond his control, but on the other hand, he handled the situations he was presented with as well as could be expected.

    On the other hand, many of the same conditions that Lincoln had to deal with were present during the Pierce administration, and he is widely regarded as a bad president for having done a very poor job, especially when compared to Lincoln.

    Overall, this is an interesting discussion. I don't know how Obama will fare in the long run. It may be premature to discuss Bush's legacy, but it most certainly would be for Obama's legacy, since he's only been the president for a year.

  2. I think that's a pretty reasonable standard, but it doesn't completely get us past the fairness issue. For example, if Lincoln had been president in the 1850s, would he have prevented the Civil War? Perhaps not. I think I'm bit troubled by the fact that there's so much luck in all of this.

    Here's a good example of bad luck: Hoover. Most economists would say he had pretty bad economic policies, including increasing tariffs, raising taxes during a downturn, encouraging high wages, etc. But given the bad policies of the Federal Reserve of that era and given how little was known back then of macroeconomics, which presidents would've fared better? According to wiki, FDR campaigned in 1932 on the platform: "immediate and drastic reductions of all public expenditures." Had FDR been president at the beginning of the Depression, would he have been more fiscally austere than Hoover for the first few years and then lost his re-election in disgrace as he was swamped by the Depression?

    I think it's not so hard in some cases to say "Things were good under President so-and-so." But it's harder to say that they were good because of President so-and-so. I think that's one of the ways these comparisons tend to fall apart.

  3. It's definitely harder to compare presidents that are separated by many decades, but I guess we just need to accept that the best historians can do is measure the merits of the presidencies themselves (something that could include good luck/timing), not the quality of the men who were presidents, which would be beyond their capacity to calculate.