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Yawn: Another Presidents Day, another liberal ranking of U.S. presidents

By Carl M. Cannon
Real Clear Wire

Over the weekend, two enterprising scholars released a new pecking order of America’s chief executives. Well, not entirely new. Abraham Lincoln is still the G.O.A.T. But in a surprise move, Franklin D. Roosevelt has pulled ahead of George Washington for second place.

It seems unlikely that Washington, the man who defeated the British on the battlefield to give us a country and then invented the office of the presidency, has done anything in the past couple of years to be relegated to third banana. But so say the academics who filled out the questionnaire compiled by the 2024 Presidential Greatness Project Expert Survey. Devised and overseen by political scientists Brandon Rottinghaus of the University of Houston and Coastal Carolina University’s Justin S. Vaughn, this is the third incarnation of this particular straw poll, and the first time Franklin Roosevelt has been so honored. (FDR was in third place in 2018, where most such surveys put him).

Although these rankings are subjective undertakings by definition, the partisan component is especially pronounced this year. No surprise, really, as 2024 is shaping up as a historically contentious presidential election. Donald Trump, not coincidentally, has done the impossible — at least according to the tenured set: The 45th U.S. president (and the man who has designs on also becoming the 47th), has firmly supplanted James “There Won’t Be a Civil War” Buchanan at the bottom of the heap.

It’s not the first time Trump has brought up the rear in one of these polls, but it was Joe Biden’s unlikely ascension to a high ranking that made this little survey irresistible to the Fourth Estate. “Historians Rank Trump as Worst President,” blared Axios. “Trump Ranked History’s Worst U.S. President, Biden Finishes 14” trumpeted the New York Daily News. The New York Times flipped the emphasis: “Poll Ranks Biden as 14th-Best President, With Trump Last.”

One supposes, as Times correspondent Peter Baker did (and I do as well), that Trump’s descent is tied directly to Biden’s inflated position: He’s the president who defeated Trump. Which begs the question: If Biden loses to Trump in November, how far will Uncle Joe fall in the ratings? The authors of the study hint at this dynamic themselves.

“Presidents Day occurs at a crucial moment this year, with the presidency on the cusp of crisis as we inexorably shuffle toward a rematch between the incumbent and his predecessor,” Professors Rottinghaus and Vaughn wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “It’s the sort of contest we haven’t seen since the 19th century and judging by public opinion of President Biden and former President Trump, most Americans would have preferred to keep it that way.”

If you sense there’s more to a study that ranks Joe Biden ahead of Ronald Reagan, Woodrow Wilson, Gerald Ford, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, (not to mention both Bushes), you’d be right. The polling sample in the Presidential Greatness Project Expert Survey may indeed consist of “experts,” but as a group they are not ideologically reflective of the U.S. electorate at this — or any other — time. To their credit, the study’s authors are up front about this. More than that, they scrupulously asked respondents to rank themselves as liberals, moderates, and conservatives (and Democrats, independents, and Republicans).

The tipoff was that Republicans rank Reagan the fifth-greatest president, but the Gipper only came up 16th in the survey. It was a math question one didn’t need a Ph.D. to solve — a 9th grader could do it: The survey had 154 respondents — so what percentage had to be Democrats or independents to bring a guy from fifth place to 16th? Off the top of my head, I guessed 90%. It was close. Justin Vaughn gave me the numbers: Of the 154, there were only 15 Republicans.

This explains why Reagan, the greatest Republican president of the 20th century — and a man who won two landslides and did so much to end the Cold War — is given short shrift. “Even if you don’t like his politics, he was the last transformative era we’ve had,” Vaughn told me. “I think even Biden today is operating in the ‘Age of Reagan.’”

Partisanship isn’t all that’s going on, of course. Presidents adjudged to be wanting when it comes to 21st-century racial sensibilities (Wilson, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson to name three) keep sliding down the list. One supposes that’s why slave-owning Thomas Jefferson is in fifth place, slightly behind Theodore Roosevelt, and why George Washington has been passed by FDR. But didn’t Roosevelt sign the notorious executive order incarcerating 120,000 Japanese Americans? Another anomaly. What did classy old Calvin Coolidge do to slip six spots to 34th place? Vaughn himself is mystified.

George W. Bush doesn’t fare much better — Dubya is in 32nd place, 20 places behind the man he succeeded and 25 places behind the man who succeeded him. A coincidence that Bush is a Republican and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are Democrats? Obviously not, but Bush is actually on the upswing. Until Donald Trump came along, liberal elites confidently averred that George W. Bush was the “worst” president in American history. They don’t say that anymore.

Then again, liberal bias, to use a well-worn phrase, was present at the launch of presidential rankings. They date back to 1948 under the aegis of Arthur Schlesinger Sr., a prominent Harvard historian and ardent New Deal Democrat. His surveys, which set the stage for everything that came later, asked historians to put every previous president into one of five categories: great, near great, average, below average, and failure. Schlesinger repeated the exercise in 1962; in 1996, his son and namesake, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., took his turn at the wheel.

The Schlesingers’ methodology was problematic for several reasons. I’ll mention three. First, because no objective criteria were established, the conclusions were impressionistic. Also, using their methodology, it wasn’t possible to assign a president credit for a success and give him demerits for a failure. For that reason, their ratings are misleading. Lyndon B. Johnson, for example, is lauded for his civil rights record and faulted for his disastrous Vietnam policies. But the only way to reconcile the two areas is to give him an “average” grade.

The third weakness in the Schlesingers’ ratings racket is their obvious bias. They basically polled their fellow liberals — who were also political activists. How liberal? How activist? Schlesinger Jr. co-founded the left-wing Americans for Democratic Action. He also worked in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and was such a Democratic Party partisan that he wrote an acclaimed biography of Andrew Jackson without mentioning the Cherokees or the Trail of Tears.

The younger Schlesinger’s jury of experts in the 1990s included several historians who were signatories to a partisan and inflammatory newspaper ad attacking Republicans for daring to impeach Bill Clinton. Also among his panelists were two Democratic politicians, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who made his national reputation at the Democrats’ 1984 convention with a fiery attack on the Reagan Revolution.

The upshot of fielding such partisan panels isn’t hard to detect: In Schlesinger Sr.’s 1962 survey, he ranks Dwight Eisenhower one spot below the unprepared nonentity Chester A. Arthur. In 1996, Schlesinger Jr. gave Reagan and Eisenhower middling marks. Eisenhower, a smart man who sometimes dumbed down his own rhetoric deliberately, was such an interesting case study in leadership that Princeton political scientist Fred I. Greenstein developed an entire new framework for evaluating Oval Office performance. Greenstein’s criteria consisted of six qualities by which he evaluated a president’s success in office: public communication; organizational capacity; political skill; vision; cognitive style; and emotional intelligence.

Starting with Ike, Republican presidents tended to do better by Greenstein’s lights than Democrats. This was somewhat vexing to Fred’s academic contemporaries. It was vexing to Greenstein himself. He was a Democrat and a New Dealer. At a presidency conference midway through George W. Bush’s first term, Fred had a pithy comeback to liberal friends who were heckling him over the high marks he gave Bush. Fred, who was then 72, said he was too old to be changing the test just because students he didn’t like kept acing it.

In that same decade, Alvin S. Felzenberg (another Princeton man) refined the whole enterprise even further. He turned his study into a superb 2008 book, “The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game.” It evaluates presidents in six separate areas: character; vision; competence; economic policy; preserving and extending liberty; and defense, national security, and foreign policy.

Using these categories allows for a richer consideration of America’s past. President Grant, ranked as a mediocrity in the one-size-fits-all surveys, earns a top score (along with Lincoln and LBJ) in Felzenberg’s “preserving and extending liberty” category. Without the Schlesingers to cover up his genocidal Indian policies, Andrew Jackson flunks this class. In the foreign policy category, Reagan gets an A (along with seven others), while Lyndon Johnson gets an F.

Mining in the same vein, C-SPAN launched its own survey 24 years ago. True to its brand, C-SPAN seeks to offer a wide range of views: Its panel of historians, presidential biographers, and other observers of the presidency is ideologically diverse. And its panel of advisers formulated a list of 10 presidential attributes to judge, ranging from “moral authority” to “performance within the context of his times.”

This attention to detail and fairness pays off. In 2017, the year of C-SPAN’s third survey, Reagan finally cracked the Top 10. He still narrowly trails John F. Kennedy, who ranks No. 8, one place behind Thomas Jefferson. Kennedy seems to have had a much less substantive presidency than Reagan, but the glamor of Camelot apparently outshines the shine from Hollywood.

Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson is sinking like a stone: Without the Schlesingers to tout him, Old Hickory has gone from 13th place to 22nd in the C-SPAN survey. “Unfortunately, not all experts are entirely disinterested,” said “Silent Cal” Coolidge presciently. “Not all specialists are without guile.”

True, but modern rankings, while subjective, are neither always partisan nor always volatile. In the 2024 Presidential Greatness Project Expert Survey, for instance, there is hardly any partisan variance when it comes to Bill Clinton, who is nestled neatly between James Madison and John Adams. Democrats rank Clinton 10th, only slightly higher than independents (11th) or Democrats (12th).

Is there any good news in this weekend’s survey for Trump, anything at all? Well there is one potentially positive omen: The president who gets the most even marks — identical from Republicans, Democrats, and independents — is Grover Cleveland, who was the 22nd and 24th president, with a four-year hiatus.

Guess who is trying to replicate that feat? Maybe someday. MAGA supporters take solace in the idea that one day, their fire-eating opponents may mellow on Trump. Of course, if Grover Cleveland is the inspiration, it may take a while. He left the office in 1897.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics and executive editor of RealClearMedia Group. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.
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Matthew (not verified)

21 February 2024

Clay and Buck (the heirs apparent to Rush) asked the same question. Other than, don't count the Presidents the past 50 years, because history needs to vet the most recent events and decisions. That's fair. Washington, Lincoln are the top two. Then there is the rest. Jefferson and that Louisiana Purchase? Madison and Monroe? Coolidge and Eisenhower in the 20th century? Presidents like Jackson, FDR, and Wilson have some major issues that some won't admit. Poor JFK. I believe his demise has led to many misguided decisions from others for several years after. LBJ really was awful. Nixon was a mess at the end. Carter meant well (but his term is within the 50 year parameter. Reagan ended the Cold War. Despite the best democrat push-back.) I'm still not fully enlightened on Teddy Roosevelt's pros and cons. One day I'll review his contributions or detriments to our Country.

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