George W. Bush: Average President?

James Taranto looks at a new survey ranking George W. Bush 19th out of the 40 presidents who served more than a few months in office.*

How’s He Doing? George W. Bush is “average,” but far from ordinary (OpinionJournal)

Ask someone to describe the presidency of George W. Bush, and “average” is not a word you’re likely to hear. Mr. Bush’s detractors treat him with a level of vituperation unseen since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt; some even blame him for bad weather. His admirers don’t go so far as to credit him when the sun shines, but their affection for him is palpable.

So it may come as a surprise that in a new survey of scholars ranking the presidents, Mr. Bush finishes almost exactly in the middle of the pack. He ranks No. 19 out of 40, and he rates 3.01 on a 5-point scale, just a hair’s breadth above the middlemost possible figure. But this is no gentleman’s C. Mr. Bush’s rating is average because it is an average, of rankings given by 85 professors of history, politics, law and economics.

[…]

If this result reflects the passions of the moment, how will history judge George W. Bush? Today’s opinion polls are no guide: Warren G. Harding was a lot more popular when he died in office than Harry S. Truman was when he left, yet Harding now rates as a failure and Truman as near great.

Here’s one way of thinking about the question: The three great presidents–Washington, Lincoln and FDR–all faced unprecedented challenges, all responded to them boldly, and all succeeded. Mr. Bush has met the first two of these criteria: The 9/11 attacks were his unprecedented challenge; setting out to democratize the Middle East was his bold response. Will he succeed–not just in bringing stability and representative government to Iraq but in beginning a process that spreads freedom throughout the region? That will determine whether he joins the top tiers of presidents.

If he falls short, he may still get credit for trying. The lowest-ranking presidents tend to be not those who aimed high and missed, but those whose administrations were plagued by scandal (Harding, Nixon) or who were passive as crises built (Buchanan, Carter). If Mr. Bush’s vision turns out to have been overambitious, the more salient precedents may be the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon B. Johnson. Both had bold, forward-looking agendas, and both suffered enormous setbacks. Wilson sought to make the world safe for democracy, but America instead turned inward, leaving the world decidedly unsafe for democracy until after World War II. Johnson waged war both in Vietnam and on poverty, with one loss and one draw. Yet neither one is judged a failure in the survey: Wilson is above average at No. 11, and Johnson is average at No. 18. Like Mr. Bush, both are more highly regarded within their own party. Wilson finishes 7th among Democrats and 23rd among Republicans; LBJ, 9th among Democrats and 31st among Republicans.

One thing that is sure to prove irrelevant to Mr. Bush’s legacy is the intensity of today’s Angry Left. FDR faced an Angry Right in his day, but Republicans in the survey rank him the 5th-best president. Even Ronald Reagan, out of office less than two decades, ranks a respectable 14th among Democrats. Mr. Bush is a polarizing figure today, but if his policies prove successful over time, even his detractors will grudgingly come around.

I’m frankly dubious of the merits this survey, which weights the rankings based on the partisan affiliation of the scholars . Hell, I’m dubious of the merits of historians’ surveys of presidential success, period–especially those that include presidents of the last generation. And Bush very much deserves an “Incomplete” at this point, what with three years left in his term and a major ongoing war.

Still, Taranto’s analysis strikes me as about right. Bush has the potential to be a great president simply because he faces great challenges, some thrust upon him (9/11, Katrina, etc.) and some of his own chosing (Iraq and the Middle East reform agenda). If he pulls those off, he’s going to be well above the pack when all’s said and done. If they blow up in his face, then he’ll be judged no better than mediocre.

Taranto is right, too, that current public opinion will not necessarily be reflected in the ultimate judgment of history. If the things set into motion under his tenure work out well, he’ll be judged successful even though a majority opposed them contemporaneously.

*Bush is the 43rd president but only the 42nd man to serve as president, as Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms and is both the 22nd and 24th president. William Henry Harrison and James Garfield died shortly after taking office.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. korgto says:

    he faces great challenges, some thrust upon him (9/11, Katrina, etc.) and some of his own chosing (Iraq and the Middle East reform agenda).

    Please, enough of the Bush bashing blame game! Iraq was not “of his own choosing.” As Bush argued, Iraq had WMDs and was an immanent threat to the safety and security of the US. Saadam supported terrorists who were on the cusp of annihilating the US, which is why it was so urgent to get in there.

    Bush HAD NO CHOICE but to invade Iraq. If he hadn’t we would all be speaking arabic right now and Uday and Qusay would be running the Washington Redskins.

  2. Jim Henley says:

    Could Uday and Qusay score more than 9 points against the Bears?

  3. McGehee says:

    Could Uday and Qusay score more than 9 points against the Bears?

    They’d better, or the offensive line are gonna have a date with the Shred-O-Matic.

  4. ken says:

    I do not think history will think kindly of Bush. He is the first president in history to lie us into a needless war. His presidency will be remembered as a shameful period for a great country.

  5. Fersboo says:

    He is the first president in history to lie us into a needless war.

    Ahem, I thought that was LBJ.

    His presidency will be remembered as a shameful period for a great country.

    I thought that was reserved for Reagan or Nixon. Of course, being the partisan I am, I believe that President Bush has his work cut out for him if his to exceed Clinton in shamefullness.

  6. DaveD says:

    James, I think you are correct in that the ultimate arbiter will be the outcome. Bush’s legacy will be determined by his level of success in the Middle East. He has chosen this as his signature effort. His impact on the domestic agenda will probably be unimpressive. This is unlike FDR who had a profound impact on both world affairs as well as domestic policy – perhaps a truly unique situation for a president to find himself in. I am assuming, though, that Bush detractors will always be writing the history books placed upon the desks of our school children. So, I think a true debate on the significance of his presidency will be fought on the book shelves at Border’s and Barnes and Noble.

  7. whatever says:

    Keep in mind that Lincoln was villified during most of his service – by his own side. I am not saying that Bush will go in the same Pantheon as Lincoln, but just agreeing with James that any views at this point are, at best, premature.

  8. LJD says:

    Very sadly, there may never again be a “great President”. Deeply entrenched partisanship, and unrealistic expectations of the office (from the climate to weather, to personal income…), and the media’s affinity for a shocking headline, have pretty much ended “the good ‘ol days”.

    Still, history tends to look more favorably on Presidents once some time has passed. I was shocked at the outpouring of support for Reagan when he died, from the very individuals who dished out so much hateful criticism.

    We may have different standing in the world as well. We may yet see that Bush was entirely correct about the terrorists, and Iraq. There may be some catastrophe that has the entire world again looking to us for support. Those types of things tend to change history.

  9. LJD says:

    …rather our perspective ON history.

  10. Herb says:

    I learned a long time ago that only time will tell what kind of President we have or how he ranks in history.

    Years ago, I did not think much of Harry S, Truman. I would never have voted for him. Now reflecting on his tenure as President, I think that He was the last real President this country has had, Harry didn’t take crap from anybody and called a spade a spade. He also took responsibility for his actions and lived by “the buck stops here”.

    Eisenhower was pretty good during his first term but a real dud in the second. Kennedy, We are now learning that he wasn’t the “Knight in Shining Armour” he was portrayed to be, Johnson? Even Democrats know he was a lost cause. Bush, a little time will tell us more and Clinton, what can you say?

    Only time will tell how good a President was.

  11. Kappiy says:

    He is the first president in history to lie us into a needless war.

    Wrong! This distinction goes to McKinley. Johnson was also guilty of the same offense.

  12. realist says:

    Unseen since Roosevelt? How about Clinton? Not that long ago those who now say support the presidernt argued we were living in hell on earth and questioned every decision, the attacks on Bin Ladin were “wag the dog.”

    Now we’ve got the nutty leftists making similar noises about Bush, but their numbers and importance is as a direct, popular force less than that of the nutty right. And now we’ve got those who ten years ago were talking about black helocopters and the UN take over while joining militias onboard with George. The chance to call McCain a North Vietnamese agent converted them to the joys of big government.

    The underlying concern among those of us who are becoming increasingly worried are:

    – An Iraq whose south is turning into theocracies many aligned if not allied with our enemy Iran. A west that is turning into the center of a Shia/Sunni war that might end up involving the whole middle east including our oil producing allies.

    – A very uncertain economy with underlying dsfunctions and instablities which quite possibly exceed those of the seventies.

    The response that all is going swimmingly and bad things only happen when liberals and media mention their possibility does not reassure. We fear that for the first time since WWII we may have continued escalating conflict in a strategic center, a place e really, really need and that public, trade and private debt could collapse the dollar and the economy which is currently held together by overpriced real estate.

    I think Bush ad responsibility in creating these 2 situations, though I ordinarily don’t blame presidents or give them much credit for economics, but here he did intervene radically in some dangerous ways. The reappointment of “bubbles” Greensapan was in itself madness. I don’t think if elected Kerry could have done much to stop the situation, but I also know that if elected he would have been subjected to attacks far better organized and more vicious by those who currently argue it’s treason to attack the president.

  13. Tano says:

    A bizarre result.

    GWB the sixth-best president, according to Republicans? Are they serious?

    And the sixth-worst according to Dems. And so he ends up in the middle.

    This is not, in any way, a historical judgement, even though rendered by historians. It is pure passion-of-the-moment recording.

    But a much deeper problem here. Apparently they took the results of an “ideological balanced” set of historians (as opposed to a random sample), then further fudged the numbers by weighting responses to reflect a 50-50 republican-democratic split. How phony! And how unremarkable the result. We all could have told them that if they take a 50-50 Rep-Dem split of ANY group, and ask them to rank GWB, he will end up in the middle – one side considering him great, the other a failure.

    If they truly wanted to know the opinion of historians (for whatever that would be worth), then do a random sample and dont fudge the numbers. Sure, the results may skew lefty, since the academic world skews lefty, but if you dont really want to know the opinion of academics, then dont bother to do the survey at all.

  14. Pat Willey says:

    I am 76 years old and have always been interested in American History. Because our two countries are so closely linked (trade-wise) etc. your President is always of great interest to me and I would like to comment on George Bush. I feel the man lacks in brains and that he is a liar! I cannot believe the American people elected him the last time. Two thousand of your best and finest have died over this man’s lying. Cindy Sheeham has had the courage to cry out on her son’s behalf. She speaks the truth. I don’t like being your neighbor with this man as President. He should be impeached. I rank him at the bottom of the list. America has lost the respect of the whole world because of George Bush