Friday, January 25, 2013

On historical rankings of presidents

Nate Silver has an interesting piece attempting to forecast how historians will ultimately rank Obama, based on what we know about his presidency thus far. I don't know if he intended this, but Silver did an excellent job undermining the value of these rankings altogether. Reasonable people, of course, may disagree about whether a president was good or not, but we generally have faith that the historians who contribute to these rankings know this material a lot better than we do and aren't misled by myth and hagiography. Silver's post suggests that this faith is misguided.

Note this section:
There were five presidents who died during their first terms. It is hard to know how to rank them, particularly William Henry Harrison, who survived for just 32 days into his presidency. However, when asked to do so, historians have viewed four of the five unsympathetically. The exception is John F. Kennedy, whom the historians rank ninth overall. 
I recognize this might be an unpopular position, but one can ask if there is some inconsistency here: whether Kennedy has been ranked so highly based more on his potential than his actual accomplishments.... Harrison, who accomplished almost literally nothing, is not regarded as average but instead as the fourth-worst president. (Put another way, only three presidents’ accomplishments are regarded as having been worse than nothing.) If that is the measure, it is hard to see how Kennedy is ranked similarly to Dwight D. Eisenhower by the historians, when Eisenhower had a very popular and productive presidency and served for almost three times as long.
I think it would be quite fair to just omit William Henry Harrison from such rankings -- how can we have any idea how he would have fared? -- but to rank him among the worst presidents just seems silly (and rude). And Kennedy is a whole other issue. Why is he considered the ninth best president of all time? His accomplishments while alive were fairly meager, and while he may have claimed many of the successes that Lyndon Johnson won had he survived 1963 and won reelection the following year, he likely would have had many of the same problems that befell LBJ, notably the Vietnam War. Is it possible that presidential historians have fallen for the same post-mortem hagiography on JFK that the public has?

I don't know what an ideal presidential ranking system would look like. I suppose my fantasy ranking would somehow factor out economic performance, the partisan makeup of Congress, and other factors largely out of the president's control, and just assess how well the president managed to enact his agenda. But, of course, we'd also need to assess whether that agenda was actually good for the country -- both Bushes convinced Congress to endorse war on Iraq, but were both those actions good ideas? -- and that's a lot squishier.

I don't mean to bash historians. (Some of my best friends are historians! Seriously!) I'm sure that ranked lists trivialize much of what historians do. But if you're going to rank presidents... well, I'm just not sure we're really learning anything from these lists.

Update: I had somehow missed Andrew Rudalevige's excellent post on this same subject. Definitely worth reading.


  1. I think it would be helpful to rank Presidents against something–so that they all have an equal chance…[excluding Harrison]. Now let us recall Skowronek, who might preempt the conversation by [correctly] arguing that the different political times do not allow this ranking to happen, since they all have different opportunities…which leads us to the next question: Can we rank Presidents according to their “possibilities” in office. …right, it gets time-consuming, but now let us examine why it would be helpful.

    Say, all Presidents have had the “opportunity” to diminish authoritarianism by increasing liberalism (equal opportunity de jure in economics and politics (Hartz)). President Obama, for example, just decreased authoritarianism and increased liberalism by allowing women to serve in combat roles–and he is taking on Gay Rights. This is similar to Truman, who opened up the military to Blacks–and JFK was a predecessor (before being assassinated) to Civil Rights–so LBJ had the political capital to engage Civil Rights–increase liberalism (equal opportunity) and decrease authoritarianism (unequal opportunity).

    Yet, I am particularly interested in republicanism; which has always been “American.” So, I might look at the political times during the President’s tenure and see what possibilities that President had to increase republicanism (which would decrease authoritarianism and even liberalism)–changing the American culture to become “more American.” That, my friend, is helpful.

    I also write about "ranking presidents" here:

    Great Post!

  2. Good points especially about just ignoring WHH. About JFK, it is hard to remember now but Kennedy's leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis in all likelyhood averted a war that could have killed tens if not hundreds of millions of people. We of course will never know what might have happened but given what we now know about the situation, there were over a hundred nuclear weapons in Cuba and much of the Pentagon's and CIA's leadership were pushing for an invasion, Kennedy certainly deserves some credit for getting the missiles out without war. The Berlin Crisis is almost totally forgotten today but it could have also led to a shooting war between the US and USSR as well and Kennedy deserves credit for averting that too. Does that make him 9th best? I don't know, but I think if historians want to credit JFK with something they should focus on those achievements not potential achievements if he had not been assassinated. Personally I think preventing global nuclear war is an achievement of an odder of magnitude bigger than civil rights legislation or creating Medicare (not that those kinds of things aren't big achievements) but that's just me.

  3. Longwalkdownlyndale, I totally agree that JFK behaved admirably and effectively during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that should certainly figure into the rankings. But it's hard to know whether to treat the missile crisis as some exogenous shock (to which JFK responded well) or as the product of earlier choices made by JFK. For example, would the crisis have happened if the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion never happened? I don't purport to be an expert on this period in American history, but I'm just wondering the best way to evaluate this sort of thing.

  4. I agree that the rankings of the presidents who died in office does show how the rankings are inconsistant. Look at Harrison and Garfield, both died shortly after entering office, so they should be ranked equally.

    I think historians give JFK the benefit of the doubt, but they have no such sympathy for Harding, who actually served a shorter term.

    Of the 5, I would say Taylor showed the most potential, he had made no mistakes in his term, and he was the only president before Lincoln to actually try to stop the spread of slavery. He stated he would sign the Wilmont proviso if it passed, and he wanted to immedietly admit New Mexico & Utah as states, knowing the would come in as free states.