I think the other president primed for a historiographical re-evaluation is the little remembered Warren Harding. Arthur Schlesinger and the project of post-WWII Cold War liberalism casts a long shadow over popular understanding of a lot of American history, and that project almost requires an underrating of Harding and an overrating of his predecessor Woodrow Wilson. But the Harding administration is an example of the historically rare phenomenon of the civil liberties ratchet shifting in the direction of more freedom. Harding also began the process of raising the status of African-Americans from the low point we reached under Wilson—promoting, for example, an anti-lynching bill that passed the House of Representatives only to be filibustered to death in the Senate.Interesting! I fully agree with him on Wilson, as long-time readers may recall. And I agree on the historiography: Wilson was boosted by New Deal and then Cold War Democrats, who wanted to ground American foreign policy in a story about the total and complete failure of isolationism. New Deal-era historians, too, were hardly eager to emphasize either civil liberties or race, since neither was particularly an FDR strength (although he wasn't nearly as awful as Wilson on either count). Moreover, Wilson's mobilization looks better if you're seeking a patriotic precedent for FDR's National Recovery Administration. One can overstate the extent to which the Blue Eagle version of the New Deal was fascistic, but it's not wrong, in my view, to say that it shared some family resemblance to Mussolini, even if it's more third cousin once removed than it is sibling -- and so if you're a historian trying to Americanize it, playing up Wilson makes a lot of sense. Of course, on the biggest issue, New Deal and Cold War historians were eager to see American entry into World War I as an easy call, thinking through FDR's difficulty in moving the nation to war in 1939-1941. However, the facts of 1914-1917 aren't even remotely similar, and in fact I've never really heard a convincing argument for why anyone should think of Wilson's path to war as a success.
Now, as for Harding...I think I more or less agree. Harding sat dead last in the first three Siena surveys, and third-to-last in 2002 and the brand new edition. As far as I know, Harding was pretty much of a dud as a president, but bottom five does seem like overkill to me. I'm confident that the Buchanan, Pierce, and Andrew Johnson richly deserve their spots in the bottom five. Beyond that, I think that I'd prefer to fill the bottom spots with more active and consequential malfeasance than what Harding did. I'm fairly confident that Harding was safely below average, but beyond that, I don't really know. But I'm open to argument, here; if anyone has anything to recommend on Harding, I'd be interested in adding it to my reading list. In exchange, I'll recommend Al Stewart's solid track, "Warren Harding", which may not be as good as TMBG's better-known "James K. Polk," but I do think Stewart gets into the head of what it must sometimes feel like to be president: "I just want someone to talk to. To talk to. To talk to."