For example, is it really credible that the top 20 presidents of all time should include six of the last seven Democrats? Yet that’s where the C-SPAN results place them: Franklin Roosevelt ranks third; Harry Truman, sixth; John F. Kennedy, eighth; Barack Obama, 10th; Lyndon Johnson, 11th; and Bill Clinton, 19th. The only modern Democrat not to make the top 20 was Jimmy Carter (26th).
You might argue that the challenges of the modern world make it easier for a president to be great. Then why are only two of the ten Republicans who served during the same period in the top 20? (Dwight Eisenhower, fifth; Ronald Reagan, ninth.)
Reasons for the AnomaliesI think there are two primary reasons for these anomalies. First, when you limit participation to academics, your pool is overwhelmingly left-of-center. Liberals and leftists value big government, and naturally they like presidents who share their agenda. Second, these surveys generally ask respondents to judge presidents by criteria that do not measure presidential performance well. They include questions such as whether a president “made a difference” (changed America in some way), “achieved his goals,” or had “vision.” Not surprisingly, when you ask liberal academics to respond to such criteria, inferior presidents like JFK and LBJ end up in the top 20.
The Constitution Offers More Objective CriteriaTo decide whether a person has done well or poorly in a job, you need to examine the job description. Otherwise, your performance assessment will suffer.
By way of illustration: Suppose Jane Smith is the chief executive officer for a business firm. She dresses well, charms the shareholders, and takes over the responsibilities of other officers. Do those attributes make her a good CEO? No. To determine whether she is a good CEO, we’ll want to know if she runs the firm efficiently and honestly; hires talented people, puts them in the right positions, and keeps them happy; turns a good current profit and makes the correct decisions necessary for future profits.
- “Faithfully execute[s] the Office ... and ... preserve[s], protect[s] and defend[s] the Constitution of the United States.”
- Signs and vetoes bills, using responsible criteria.
- Serves as Commander in Chief of the armed forces.
- Enforces the laws faithfully.
- Grants pardons in appropriate circumstances.
- With some congressional input, conducts foreign policy. (This is a summary of several more specific responsibilities.)
- Appoints and commissions judges and other officers, sometimes subject to Senate approval and sometimes not.
- Nominates a qualified person to fill the vice presidency when there is a vacancy.
- Provides Congress with information on the condition of the country (“State of the Union”).
- Recommends to Congress “such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
- In certain circumstances, convenes and adjourns Congress.
How Using the Correct Factors Alters the RankingsIf we apply the Constitution’s job description, Washington and Lincoln still rank very high. Lincoln, for example, carried out his duty to enforce federal laws under uniquely challenging conditions—and considering the difficulty of the task, he made relatively few mistakes.
Otherwise, however, the rankings would change markedly. Most recent presidents would lose points for their failure to respect the Constitution’s limits on federal power. Clinton would lose points for allegedly committing perjury while in office, thereby personally violating his duty to enforce the law. Several modern presidents would rank behind their predecessors because they allowed political concerns to corrupt law enforcement. My guess is that this is one reason Richard Nixon is only 31st in the C-SPAN survey, despite his pursuit of many policies liberals favor. But other recent presidents also were responsible for corrupting law enforcement, including Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Clinton, and Obama.
- Polk’s brilliant foreign policy achievements probably should place him in the top 15 among all presidents.
- Franklin Roosevelt wins points for his World War II leadership, but should lose them for his over-accommodation of Stalin. (Harry Truman, whom the C-SPAN survey implausibly ranks sixth, made the same mistake.)
- Lyndon Johnson ranks 11th in the C-SPAN results, but his diplomatic and military failures should lower that significantly. Johnson certainly should not outrank James Madison (No. 16), who successfully fought the War of 1812 against a great power and respected the Constitution’s limits while doing so.
- In light of the relative success of their respective foreign policies, the C-SPAN rating of Obama (10th) is absurdly high and that of Donald Trump (41st) is absurdly low.
Some Other Ranking ChangesI can’t give you a completely new scorecard based on the president’s constitutional job description. But I can suggest some additional changes.
- Grover Cleveland belongs in the top 20. As History.com points out, he based political appointments on merit rather than party affiliation, tried to reduce government spending, sought to lower anti-consumer tariffs, and was “an honest and hard-working president.” The same source also tells us that “Cleveland ... is criticized for being unimaginative and having no overarching vision for American society” and was “opposed to using legislation to bring about social change.” More reasons, in my view, for including him in the top 20.
- Similarly, Calvin Coolidge should be in the top 20 for honest law enforcement, a competent (if somewhat romantic) foreign policy, frugal administration, and respect for constitutional limits.
- Millard Fillmore enforced laws he disagreed with, promoted international trade, restored diplomatic relations with Mexico, and generally pursued a policy of reconciliation in times of great division. He deserves to be rescued from historical contempt (C-SPAN’s survey places him at only 38th), and promoted to a rank near the middle.
- Obama and Clinton both should be demoted further for disregarding the Constitution’s limits on federal powers and misusing law enforcement agencies.
- Woodrow Wilson traditionally has been a favorite among academic liberals. But growing acknowledgment of his failures has resulted in a drop in his C-SPAN rankings over time. Wilson now stands at 13th. That is still too high: He disregarded constitutional limits, implemented racist policies, involved us in a war that only tangentially affected our national interests, and pursued an ineffective foreign policy after that war.
- Lyndon Johnson belongs in the bottom five. I’ve mentioned his foreign policy failures. In addition, his abused the law enforcement power and pushed through unconstitutional domestic programs with results that ranged from wasteful to disastrous.
The early death of Lincoln (ranked first in the C-SPAN survey) also contributed to his reputation: One reason often cited for Lincoln’s greatness is his policy of magnanimity toward the defeated South. His successor, Andrew Johnson, certainly had his own faults. But if Lincoln’s generous policy was a mark of his greatness, then perhaps Johnson deserves to be ranked higher than 43rd for trying to continue that policy.