The Presidential Rating Game

Guess what? Barack Obama has been rated the 12th best president of all times by 91 professional historians who were queried by CSPAN. The historians rated presidents from George Washington to Obama on several criteria: economic management, pursuing justice for all, relationship with Congress, international relations, and setting an agenda. Obama ranked high on some, especially pursuing justice for all and setting an agenda, lower on others, such as international relations and especially relationship with Congress.

George W. Bush was ranked 33rd, while Bill Clinton came in 15th. Abraham Lincoln was rated first, followed by George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

As someone who taught college-level classes on the American presidency, I have some insights into playing the presidential rating game that these esteemed historians would rather not be understood by hoi polloi.

Americans have always implicitly played the game. We have practically canonized Washington, placed Lincoln high on a pedestal – well, large slices of us north of the Mason-Dixon line – and most of the greatest generation and those born a bit earlier thought FDR hung the moon. (As the son of two unreconstructed New Dealers, I can attest to the last observation.)

I am mainly concerned with a series of presidential ratings that, as best I have been able to ascertain, began in 1948 when Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. asked 55 historians to rate presidents from Washington to FDR. Schlesinger, Sr. conducted another poll in 1962, when he asked 75 historians to rank presidents from Washington to Eisenhower. His son, Arthur, Jr., also a historian, conducted another poll in 1996, in which the presidents rated began with Washington and ended with George Herbert Walker Bush, #43.

Since the early 1980s, several agencies, organizations, and individuals have conducted polls, mostly of historians, but also of some political scientists, that have played the rating game. The 2017 CSPAN poll, for example, was that organization’s third occasion to get in the game.

Occasionally, public opinion pollsters have asked ordinary citizens to play the presidential rating game.

In the main, the polls of academics, especially historians, tend to produce nearly the same outcomes. Washington, Lincoln, and FDR usually are ranked first through third, while the usual suspects, such as James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Franklin Pierce, are at the bottom. Recent presidents such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton do better in public opinion soundings than they do with the scholars.

Despite the hoopla attached to academic ratings of presidents, those rankings are not without criticism. Julian Zelizer, an historian and political scientist at Princeton, for example, has expressed negative views of these rankings. He wrote that “rankings don’t tell us much about presidential history. The rankings are a weak mechanism for evaluating what has taken place in the White House.”

Zelizer identified many flaws in the presidential rankings system. “The first is that presidential reputations vary over time.” He observed that Eisenhower, although rated as a weaker leader in the early days after he left the presidency, was eventually exonerated, and today is considered one of the best American presidents. Recall that the latest CSPAN rankings placed him 5th, just behind Lincoln, Washington, and both Roosevelts. Ronald Reagan is another case of a former president essentially dismissed shortly after he left the White House whose reputation has risen with time’s passing.

Zelizer also noted that presidential reputations change “depending on the context in which presidents are being evaluated.” Harry Truman is an excellent case. Once thought to have been a poor leader, Truman’s standing in the overall ratings has gone up over the years.

Zelizer had three other criticisms. For one, it is unclear what is being measured when the topic of presidential greatness is assessed. Also, presidencies are too complex “to be labeled good or bad.” Finally, academics, as well as Jane and John Q. Public, “are often influenced by their own [political and ideological] biases.” I will return to this topic.

There are other criticisms that can, and should, be leveled against the academic presidential ratings game. First, who should do the rankings: historians, journalists, political scientists? As someone with graduate degrees in History and Political Science, I can see why denizens of each discipline might legitimately get in the game, but I am aware of different disciplinary standards and traditions that are bound to affect a member’s assessments of such a topic.

A related question is what are we to make when different ratings disagree. I don’t mean juxtaposing results of public opinion polls, which are known to be affected by partisan and ideological blinkers, and by how recently an individual served as Chief Executive, and academic assessments. We know, for example, that when ordinary people are polled, and asked to assess presidential performance, that Democrats rate Clinton above Reagan, and Republicans make just the opposite assessment. Perhaps naturally, in public opinion polling, recent presidents tend to come out ahead of those from bygone eras. Finally, for whatever the reason, JFK does much better when Jane or John Q. Public rate him than he does with academics.

Rather, I mean what are we to make when ratings conducted by “professional academics” substantially differ. Compare, for example, the results of the latest CSPAN endeavor, which rated Obama highly, with an earlier poll -- of mostly political scientists -- by the Brookings Institution, who placed him at the bottom of U.S. presidents, by a three-to-one margin.

In addition, as someone who spent an academic career worrying about methodological constancy, what are we to decide when different rating systems use different criteria to assess White House inhabitants, use different ratings scales, and/or ask raters to look at different presidents over time? If, for example, we add a “transformative president” such as Ronald Reagan -- Obama’s words -- to the list of presidents being evaluated, what might that do to assessments of the Chief Executives who proceeded him?

Finally, let’s return to Zelizer’s observation that political biases frequently play important roles in how academics -- and the public -- rate presidents. Readers of the American Thinker know that modern academe is a cesspool of left-wing proclivities. Historians, and, to a slightly lesser extent, political scientists, are known to lean to the Left. A study conducted by a Miami University professor a few years ago found that academic historians’ and political scientists’ political leanings have systematically worked against how Republican presidents have been rated. He observed that, among the historians and political scientists he worked with, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by eight-to-one. Several years ago, the economist Daniel Klein reported that Democrats outnumbered Republicans among historians by 8.5-to-1, and among political scientists by 5.6-to-1. I have seen nothing since that would dispute Klein’s central findings.

I don’t know about the political orientations of the political scientists who belonged to the American Political Science Association’s “Presidency and Executive Politics” section who responded to the Brookings Institution’s queries, but it’s possible their negative assessments of Obama could have been colored by politics.

Suffice it to say that we ought to judge the results of the presidential ratings game with a very large grain of salt.

Guess what? Barack Obama has been rated the 12th best president of all times by 91 professional historians who were queried by CSPAN. The historians rated presidents from George Washington to Obama on several criteria: economic management, pursuing justice for all, relationship with Congress, international relations, and setting an agenda. Obama ranked high on some, especially pursuing justice for all and setting an agenda, lower on others, such as international relations and especially relationship with Congress.

George W. Bush was ranked 33rd, while Bill Clinton came in 15th. Abraham Lincoln was rated first, followed by George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

As someone who taught college-level classes on the American presidency, I have some insights into playing the presidential rating game that these esteemed historians would rather not be understood by hoi polloi.

Americans have always implicitly played the game. We have practically canonized Washington, placed Lincoln high on a pedestal – well, large slices of us north of the Mason-Dixon line – and most of the greatest generation and those born a bit earlier thought FDR hung the moon. (As the son of two unreconstructed New Dealers, I can attest to the last observation.)

I am mainly concerned with a series of presidential ratings that, as best I have been able to ascertain, began in 1948 when Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. asked 55 historians to rate presidents from Washington to FDR. Schlesinger, Sr. conducted another poll in 1962, when he asked 75 historians to rank presidents from Washington to Eisenhower. His son, Arthur, Jr., also a historian, conducted another poll in 1996, in which the presidents rated began with Washington and ended with George Herbert Walker Bush, #43.

Since the early 1980s, several agencies, organizations, and individuals have conducted polls, mostly of historians, but also of some political scientists, that have played the rating game. The 2017 CSPAN poll, for example, was that organization’s third occasion to get in the game.

Occasionally, public opinion pollsters have asked ordinary citizens to play the presidential rating game.

In the main, the polls of academics, especially historians, tend to produce nearly the same outcomes. Washington, Lincoln, and FDR usually are ranked first through third, while the usual suspects, such as James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Franklin Pierce, are at the bottom. Recent presidents such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton do better in public opinion soundings than they do with the scholars.

Despite the hoopla attached to academic ratings of presidents, those rankings are not without criticism. Julian Zelizer, an historian and political scientist at Princeton, for example, has expressed negative views of these rankings. He wrote that “rankings don’t tell us much about presidential history. The rankings are a weak mechanism for evaluating what has taken place in the White House.”

Zelizer identified many flaws in the presidential rankings system. “The first is that presidential reputations vary over time.” He observed that Eisenhower, although rated as a weaker leader in the early days after he left the presidency, was eventually exonerated, and today is considered one of the best American presidents. Recall that the latest CSPAN rankings placed him 5th, just behind Lincoln, Washington, and both Roosevelts. Ronald Reagan is another case of a former president essentially dismissed shortly after he left the White House whose reputation has risen with time’s passing.

Zelizer also noted that presidential reputations change “depending on the context in which presidents are being evaluated.” Harry Truman is an excellent case. Once thought to have been a poor leader, Truman’s standing in the overall ratings has gone up over the years.

Zelizer had three other criticisms. For one, it is unclear what is being measured when the topic of presidential greatness is assessed. Also, presidencies are too complex “to be labeled good or bad.” Finally, academics, as well as Jane and John Q. Public, “are often influenced by their own [political and ideological] biases.” I will return to this topic.

There are other criticisms that can, and should, be leveled against the academic presidential ratings game. First, who should do the rankings: historians, journalists, political scientists? As someone with graduate degrees in History and Political Science, I can see why denizens of each discipline might legitimately get in the game, but I am aware of different disciplinary standards and traditions that are bound to affect a member’s assessments of such a topic.

A related question is what are we to make when different ratings disagree. I don’t mean juxtaposing results of public opinion polls, which are known to be affected by partisan and ideological blinkers, and by how recently an individual served as Chief Executive, and academic assessments. We know, for example, that when ordinary people are polled, and asked to assess presidential performance, that Democrats rate Clinton above Reagan, and Republicans make just the opposite assessment. Perhaps naturally, in public opinion polling, recent presidents tend to come out ahead of those from bygone eras. Finally, for whatever the reason, JFK does much better when Jane or John Q. Public rate him than he does with academics.

Rather, I mean what are we to make when ratings conducted by “professional academics” substantially differ. Compare, for example, the results of the latest CSPAN endeavor, which rated Obama highly, with an earlier poll -- of mostly political scientists -- by the Brookings Institution, who placed him at the bottom of U.S. presidents, by a three-to-one margin.

In addition, as someone who spent an academic career worrying about methodological constancy, what are we to decide when different rating systems use different criteria to assess White House inhabitants, use different ratings scales, and/or ask raters to look at different presidents over time? If, for example, we add a “transformative president” such as Ronald Reagan -- Obama’s words -- to the list of presidents being evaluated, what might that do to assessments of the Chief Executives who proceeded him?

Finally, let’s return to Zelizer’s observation that political biases frequently play important roles in how academics -- and the public -- rate presidents. Readers of the American Thinker know that modern academe is a cesspool of left-wing proclivities. Historians, and, to a slightly lesser extent, political scientists, are known to lean to the Left. A study conducted by a Miami University professor a few years ago found that academic historians’ and political scientists’ political leanings have systematically worked against how Republican presidents have been rated. He observed that, among the historians and political scientists he worked with, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by eight-to-one. Several years ago, the economist Daniel Klein reported that Democrats outnumbered Republicans among historians by 8.5-to-1, and among political scientists by 5.6-to-1. I have seen nothing since that would dispute Klein’s central findings.

I don’t know about the political orientations of the political scientists who belonged to the American Political Science Association’s “Presidency and Executive Politics” section who responded to the Brookings Institution’s queries, but it’s possible their negative assessments of Obama could have been colored by politics.

Suffice it to say that we ought to judge the results of the presidential ratings game with a very large grain of salt.