Rating the Presidents

Alex Massie has conducted an informal survey and came up with lists of The Most Over-Rated US Presidents and The Most Under-Rated US Presidents. Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter* topped the respective lists.

These ratings are in comparison to a 2005 survey of eminent historians. The respondents to Massey’s survey, then, presumably thought Reagan was somewhere below the 6th best president of all time and Carter higher than 34th. It doesn’t necessarily follow that the respondents thought Reagan a bad president or Carter a good one.

My guess is that current events greatly influence these things. Reagan looks less stellar with an incredibly unpopular president of his party in office. Carter’s reluctance to use military force despite an invasion of our sovereign territory doesn’t look so bad while we’re mired in two long wars.

George Washington was in charge of a tiny federal government with very limited power over 13 states along the Eastern seaboard. Yet he always tops these surveys, mostly for actions that took place before he was president. And how many presidents preside over the Civil War or WWII? Dwight Eisenhower was considered a mediocre president (22nd out of 34 in the Schlesinger poll) when he left office but is now ranked in the top 10 in virtually every survey. How can that be? George W. Bush was ranked 19th in the historians survey conducted by the WSJ in 2005. They’d probably rank him closer to 39th today. I’m not sure what either means.

I continue to find rankings of presidents, who faced remarkably different sets of circumstances, rather silly. These things are useful as debate starters but we really shouldn’t take them too seriously. They’ll be substantially different a few years hence.

*UPDATE: Dave Schuler notes that I’ve (somehow) misread the Underrated survey and that Dwight Eisenhower topped that list with Carter coming in second. This is actually more puzzling, since Eisenhower was already at #8 on the WSJ list. Either the respondents weren’t carefully looking at the list and just think Eisenhower is generally underrated or some other factor is at work. It’s frankly hard to conceive how Eisenhower could be much higher on the list, let alone why. And I think he was a pretty good president.

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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. Dave Schuler says:

    Fashions in these things come and go. 40 years ago I’d’ve said Truman was a highly underrated president. His star has risen over the years, unrealistically in my view. Now I think he’s overrated.

    Now I think that Eisenhower is a highly underrated president.

  2. Bithead says:

    Reagan looks less stellar with an incredibly unpopular president of his party in office.

    Reagan is always unpopular with most Democrats. HOW unpopular seems to depend on how much foam is around their muzzles at a given moment.

  3. just me says:

    I would also say it is hard to rate a whole package.

    And the reality is that this kind of system is subjective anyway. I agree that current events influence a lot of the rankings at least with presidents from the last 30-40 years. A little bit of space makes a difference.

  4. capital L says:

    Nice to see the Napoleon of the Stump James K. Polk at 3rd on the under-rated list.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I note that my pick for most underrated president, Eisenhower, is actually the #1 most underrated president on Alex’s list (Carter is second). I’d pick LBJ as second most underrated although. Many of the accomplishments commonly attributed to Kennedy are more properly assigned to Johnson.

    Unfortunately, the reassessment of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson will have to wait until the death or retirement (whichever comes first) of Baby Boomer historians.

  6. George Washington deserves to be high up on the list simply for resisting the pressure to become a king and for voluntarily leaving office after two terms.

  7. floyd says:

    There were two presidents that would have greatly improved American history, given the chance.
    Each was under-rated by not being elected to serve four more years.
    Andrew Johnson and even more importantly Herbert Hoover.