Above: He wasn’t flashy, but by the Constitution’s stated criteria, Democrat Grover Cleveland was an excellent President. More recent Democrats, not so much . . .
A version of this essay first appeared in the April 2, 2022 Epoch Times.
Every so often you read about a survey in which scholars rate the performance of previous American presidents. A good example is one recently conducted by C-SPAN. You can see its presidential rankings here.
The C-SPAN survey awards the top two positions to Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, respectively. There are some good reasons for placing those two presidents at or near the top. Below that, however, the C-SPAN ratings—like the results of most other surveys (such as this 2015 one from the Washington Post)—are largely detached from reality.
For example, is it really credible that the top 20 presidents of all time should include six of the last seven Democrats? Yet that’s where the C-SPAN results place them: Franklin Roosevelt ranks third; Harry Truman, sixth; John F. Kennedy, eighth; Barack Obama, 10th; Lyndon Johnson, 11th; and Bill Clinton, 19th. The only modern Democrat not to make the top 20 was Jimmy Carter (26th).
You might argue that the challenges of the modern world make it easier for a president to be great. Then why are only two of the ten Republicans who served during the same period in the top 20? (Dwight Eisenhower, fifth; Ronald Reagan, ninth.)
The C-SPAN ratings reveal many other anomalies: Why does Clinton, who disgraced the White House, rank 19th when Grover Cleveland, whose terms were models of integrity and common sense, places at only 25th? Why does Kennedy, whose presidency was a failure on almost every front, win the eighth spot—when James K. Polk, whose presidency was a brilliant success, ranks just 18th? Why was the inconclusive presidency of Eisenhower superior to that of Reagan, the winner of the Cold War?
Reasons for the Anomalies
I think there are two primary reasons for these anomalies. First, when you limit participation to academics, your pool is overwhelmingly left-of-center. Liberals and leftists value big government, and naturally they like presidents who share their agenda. Second, these surveys generally ask respondents to judge presidents by criteria that do not measure presidential performance well. They include questions such as whether a president “made a difference” (changed America in some way), “achieved his goals,” or had “vision.” Not surprisingly, when you ask liberal academics to respond to such criteria, inferior presidents like JFK and LBJ end up in the top 20.
One way of reducing the bias is to assure respondents of absolute anonymity, so they can answer without fearing retaliation from the campus authoritarians. An even better way is to extend the pool of respondents beyond the universities to include scholars in independent policy centers. Many conservative and moderate scholars have left or avoided academia for these “think tanks” so they can work in intellectual freedom.
Just as important, however, is asking the respondents to rank the presidents by more objective criteria.
The Constitution Offers More Objective Criteria
To decide whether a person has done well or poorly in a job, you need to examine the job description. Otherwise, your performance assessment will suffer.
By way of illustration: Suppose Jane Smith is the chief executive officer for a business firm. She dresses well, charms the shareholders, and takes over the responsibilities of other officers. Do those attributes make her a good CEO? No. To determine whether she is a good CEO, we’ll want to know if she runs the firm efficiently and honestly; hires talented people, puts them in the right positions, and keeps them happy; turns a good current profit and makes the correct decisions necessary for future profits.
The president has a job description, also. It appears in the specific document that creates the position: the Constitution of the United States. A successful president does the following things well:
- “Faithfully execute[s] the Office … and … preserve[s], protect[s] and defend[s] the Constitution of the United States.”
- Signs and vetoes bills, using responsible criteria.
- Serves as Commander in Chief of the armed forces.
- Enforces the laws faithfully.
- Grants pardons in appropriate circumstances.
- With some congressional input, conducts foreign policy. (This is a summary of several more specific responsibilities.)
- Appoints and commissions judges and other officers, sometimes subject to Senate approval and sometimes not.
- Nominates a qualified person to fill the vice presidency when there is a vacancy.
- Provides Congress with information on the condition of the country (“State of the Union”).
- Recommends to Congress “such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
- In certain circumstances, convenes and adjourns Congress.
These are the real measures of a president’s performance. A good president defends the Constitution and respects its limits, recommends and signs beneficial bills and vetoes bad ones, competently enforces the laws, appoints appropriate people to office, is an effective military leader, and conducts a wise foreign policy.
Except as included in those duties, there is nothing on the list about “vision” or “making a difference” or “changing America.”
How Using the Correct Factors Alters the Rankings
If we apply the Constitution’s job description, Washington and Lincoln still rank very high. Lincoln, for example, carried out his duty to enforce federal laws under uniquely challenging conditions—and considering the difficulty of the task, he made relatively few mistakes.
Otherwise, however, the rankings would change markedly. Most recent presidents would lose points for their failure to respect the Constitution’s limits on federal power. Clinton would lose points for committing perjury while in office, thereby personally violating his duty to enforce the law. Several modern presidents would rank behind their predecessors because they allowed political concerns to corrupt law enforcement. My guess is that this is one reason Richard Nixon is only 31st in the C-SPAN survey, despite his pursuit of many policies liberals favor. But other recent presidents also were responsible for corrupting law enforcement, including Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Clinton, and Obama.
The Constitution emphasizes the president’s military and foreign policy responsibilities. Accordingly, military and foreign policy performance should weigh heavily in surveys. Thus:
- Polk’s brilliant foreign policy achievements probably should place him in the top 15 among all presidents.
- Franklin Roosevelt wins points for his World War II leadership, but should lose them for his over-accommodation of Stalin. (Harry Truman, whom the C-SPAN survey implausibly ranks sixth, made the same mistake.)
- Lyndon Johnson ranks 11th in the C-SPAN results, but his diplomatic and military failures should lower that significantly. Johnson certainly should not outrank James Madison (No. 16), who successfully fought the War of 1812 against a great power and respected the Constitution’s limits while doing so.
- In light of the relative success of their respective foreign policies, the C-SPAN rating of Obama (10th) is absurdly high and that of Donald Trump (41st) is absurdly low.
Some Other Ranking Changes
I can’t give you a completely new scorecard based on the president’s constitutional job description. But I can suggest some additional changes.
- Grover Cleveland belongs in the top 20. As History.com points out, he based political appointments on merit rather than party affiliation, tried to reduce government spending, sought to lower anti-consumer tariffs, and was “an honest and hard-working president.” The same source also tells us that “Cleveland … is criticized for being unimaginative and having no overarching vision for American society” and was “opposed to using legislation to bring about social change.” More reasons, in my view, for including him in the top 20.
- Similarly, Calvin Coolidge should be in the top 20 for honest law enforcement, a competent (if somewhat romantic) foreign policy, frugal administration, and respect for constitutional limits.
- Millard Fillmore enforced laws he disagreed with, promoted international trade, restored diplomatic relations with Mexico, and generally pursued a policy of reconciliation in times of great division. He deserves to be rescued from historical contempt (C-SPAN’s survey places him at only 38th), and promoted to a rank near the middle.
- Obama and Clinton both should be demoted further for disregarding the Constitution’s limits on federal powers and misusing law enforcement agencies.
- Woodrow Wilson traditionally has been a favorite among academic liberals. But growing acknowledgment of his failures has resulted in a drop in his C-SPAN rankings over time. Wilson now stands at 13th. That is still too high: He disregarded constitutional limits, implemented racist policies, involved us in a war that only tangentially affected our national interests, and pursued an ineffective foreign policy after that war.
- Lyndon Johnson belongs in the bottom five. I’ve mentioned his foreign policy failures. In addition, his abused the law enforcement power and pushed through unconstitutional domestic programs with results that ranged from wasteful to disastrous.
One last point: Sometimes a president dies at a time opportune for his reputation. Kennedy’s death certainly prevented further demonstration of his reckless incompetence.
The early death of Lincoln (ranked first in the C-SPAN survey) also contributed to his reputation: One reason often cited for Lincoln’s greatness is his policy of magnanimity toward the defeated South. His successor, Andrew Johnson, certainly had his own faults. But if Lincoln’s generous policy was a mark of his greatness, then perhaps Johnson deserves to be ranked higher than 43rd for trying to continue that policy.