Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ranking Presidents or Rank Presidents

Historians were surveyed, as usual, about their rankings of Presidents.  George W. Bush hits the list at fifth from the bottom and worst President since Harding.  So, Bush has accomplished something--to be the worst in nearly a century.  Woo-hoo! 
Over two hundred presidential scholars ranked the 43 U.S. Presidents on six personal attributes
(background, imagination, integrity, intelligence, luck and willingness to take risks), five forms of ability (compromising, executive, leadership, communication and overall) and eight areas of accomplishment including economic, other domestic affairs, working with Congress and their party, appointing supreme court justices and members of the executive branch, avoiding mistakes and foreign policy.
Interesting criteria--especially the luck factor and avoiding mistakes.  It is not hard to see why Bush would fall so low, given several of these: intelligence, compromising, communication, members of the exec branch (Cheney, Rumsfeld, his Attorneys General), and AVOIDING MISTAKES.  9/11 was not Bush's fault nor was Katrina--bad luck, not unlike Jimmy Carter inheriting stagflation.  But what Bush did with the increased room to maneuver after 9/11 was awful.   Firing the Iraqi army was perhaps the single worst mistake in American foreign policy in the past one hundred years, and it was even worse than I thought as I learned last night that it put Matt Damon at risk in Green Zone.

Of course, Obama is not looking as good as he once was, with the oil spill serving as his Katrina perhaps.  I am more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, however, because the tools at his disposal to handle the oil spill are far fewer than those available to Bush to handle the aftermath of the hurricane.  Also, I am, of course, biased.  I feel bad for the guy, inheriting just a poor set of cards--housing bust, financial sector mess, big deficits, two difficult wars, broken car industry, etc.  I wonder if he will get a lot of credit in the long run for avoiding making things worse via the bailouts and some stimulus.  I do think re-election or not will do much to shape the tale. 

Back to the survey, what I find most interesting are the changes towards the top.  The top five has been relatively consistent although Teddy Roosevelt has been moving from 5 to 2 over the past thirty years (better press now? or just looking like the optimal Republican?).  More surprising is that Monroe and Madison have been jumping up to 6 and 7 on the list.  Less surprising is Kennedy falling off of the top ten.  I am not an historian so I do not know what is changing in the histories of these Presidents, although I would guess that it might be the changes in the historians who are surveyed that might be making a difference.  Otherwise, are there new facts or interpretations that are driving these shifts? 


Chip said...

9/11 wasn't Bush's fault. But on the other hand, it's clear that when they took office, the Bushies immediately downgraded terrorism from the priority that Clinton had placed on it. Remember how they were trumpeting the great new threat was China during the campaign and in the first months? And how terrorism was virtually nowhere to be found? ANd how panicked they were at the time of the 9/11 commission to make sure these facts were kept out of the public eye?

Who knows if anything would have been different had terrorism remained a priority. In this particular case of 9/11, part of it may have been bad luck, but part of it was ideological blinders that led them to what we could call incompetence - I guess that's in the category "mistake". And that incompetence, caused in part by ideological blinders, marked the Bush years the entire time. So his place in these rankings is well deserved.

Tony Kondaks said...

They have a law in Quebec (as they probably do in most jurisdictions) that you can't name a street, municipality, or public institution after a deceased person until a certain number of years have passed. I believe the reason for this law is that there is an overzealousness in the immediate aftermath of a death to honor the dead and that the time ban is to allow us to have a sober second thought on it.

There should be a similar ban on popularity polls on presidents. One inevitably sees a just-retired president fare badly for several years after they leave office.