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.