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.