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Friday, April 24, 2009

The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game

Alvin Felzenberg, like many thoughtful scholars, has a beef with the way historians have evaluated American presidents. Ever since 1948, the year of the first Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. poll, historians have ranked American presidents and published the results. In the case of Schlesinger’s poll, a select group of historians ranked all presidents (except for those who died early in their terms) as Great, Near Great, Average, Below Average, or Failure. The results were compiled, publicized, and taken as gospel by many journalists and professors. The high ratings for Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and the low ratings for Calvin Coolidge and Ulysses Grant, sent the message that activist presidents were the ones to be admired.

Felzenberg argues that “the popularization of Schlesinger-style surveys . . . freed journalists, political commentators, museum curators, and students of all ages from having to offer evidence in support of their opinions.” He adds, “An enduring limitation to the usefulness of presidential surveys has been bias on the part of the evaluators.” Those are good points.

In The Leaders We Deserved, Felzenberg attempts to circumvent those problems by urging historians to use multiple criteria in their evaluations. He specifically suggests six areas: character, vision, competence, economic performance, foreign policy, and their efforts to preserve and extend liberty. By asking historians to assign grades to presidents in all six areas, Felzenberg wants to force them to use more evidence and less bias in formulating their evaluations.

Practicing what he preaches, Felzenberg uses these six areas to do his own rating of the presidents. He has chapters on each of his six areas, and he presents and defends his ranking of the presidents on a one-to-five scale in each. His conclusions in part mesh with previous surveys. Washington and Lincoln are still at the top, and Hoover and Nixon are tied for 34th place toward the bottom. The surprise comes when Ronald Reagan finishes third, Eisenhower fifth, Grant seventh, Coolidge 12th, and Lyndon Johnson falls to 27th.

Such results (and the discussion that precedes them) are refreshing and thoughtful. Felzenberg, with his multiple criteria, adds to the debate on evaluating presidents and exposes the simplicity of the Schlesinger poll and other surveys as well.

Biases, however, quickly creep into Felzenberg’s own ratings. He gives George H. W. Bush a five on character (on a one-to-five scale) even though he promised no new taxes but increased the income tax anyway. Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, by contrast, receive a one on character, but Felzenberg has little specific evidence to defend those low ratings. Perhaps the lack of success during their presidencies spills over in Felzenberg’s mind into their character ratings.

A more serious question of judgment is when Felzenberg gives Franklin Roosevelt a rating of three on economic policy but James Madison only a one. After a blizzard of interventionist programs, FDR had almost 20 percent unemployment six years into his presidency. His treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, confessed in May 1939, “We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. . . . I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started. . . . And an enormous debt to boot.”

If FDR’s economic performance rates a three, Madison’s rating of one is just as puzzling. Whatever one thinks of his conduct of the War of 1812, Madison relied on bonds to pay for it instead of higher taxes, which might have become permanent after the war. He also insisted on state, not federal, spending for canals, which helped the U.S. government balance its budget so expeditiously that it soon had a federal surplus rather than a debt. Is it accurate to suggest that a president who doubles the national debt and has 20 percent unemployment rates a three, but one who cuts costs and paves the way for a federal surplus deserves only a one?

A similar problem occurs when Felzenberg gives FDR a rating of four in “preserving and extending liberty,” while Grover Cleveland gets only a two. Cleveland vetoed 414 bills during his first term (twice the total vetoes of all his predecessors) in part to ensure that individual liberty was preserved from political encroachment. On the other hand, FDR signed numerous bills and issued many executive orders that violated the rights of citizens. Cleveland doesn’t deserve his low score and FDR doesn’t deserve his high one.

Historians will always quibble about their judgments. By insisting on evidence and on multiple criteria, however, Felzenberg’s book has advanced the art of evaluating American presidents.