Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Question for Liberals


And the same question, again more or less for the holiday tomorrow: which US president has been overrated? Underrated?

To give a sense of how they're rated (critical to questions about under- and overrating!), use this excellent wikipedia page. Oh, and I'll set the same rules for the liberals that I set for conservatives: let's leave Barack Obama out of it.

49 comments:

  1. Kennedy seems overrated. At first glance LBJ seems a bit underrated. But I guess when you factor in Vietnam he's about right. I'm pretty ignorant of everyone from Madison through FDR. But from what little I've read, Grant seems to be underrated.

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    1. JQA is a liberal hero for his strong and eloquent opposition to slavery as a Whig Congressman after his presidency.

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    2. In addition to his strongly progressive racial views (not just on slavery, also with regards to Native Americans), he was also an advocate for expanded public education, infrastructure, arts and science funding, and he helped end the nullification crisis and spoke out against the Mexican American War and other acts of territorial expansion.

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  3. Overrated: Andrew Jackson. It really makes me cringe when he gets held up as a progressive hero.

    Underrated: Well, it's hard for me to claim John Quincy Adams was an underrated president, but I do think he's underrated as an important figure in modern liberalism. I also think James Garfield is underrated as an individual and in his potential to be a great president if he hadn't been assassinated.

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    1. On JQ Adams: agree 100%.

      Are there still progressives who purport to admire Andrew Jackson? On what grounds? Universal white manhood suffrage?

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    2. "Are there still progressives who purport to admire Andrew Jackson?"

      Yes, Sean Wilentz. Basically, he argues that the Jacksonians were no more racist than the Whigs and more sympathetic to the white workingman.

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    3. Interesting. I like Wilentz, but he's got that one wrong.

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    4. There are plenty of progressives who still admire Jackson judging by this historical rankings on the wikipedia page if you accept as I do that a majority of historians are progressives.

      I don't think we should po-poh white male suffrage anymore than we should mock those who supported suffrage but didn't fight Jim Crow. Getting all white males the right to vote was important and is a positive thing on Jackson's ledger.

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    5. I’m not familiar with Wilentz’s argument about Andrew Jackson. But it is true that the working class, particularly in larger cities, tended to be Democratic. They blamed their problems on paper money, state-sponsored corporations and the tariffs designed to prop them up. Because corporations themselves were chartered by state legislatures, urban democrats favored free incorporation to end the monopolistic power this gave them. Their critique was laissez-faire, as opposed to socialist, and they were in many cases more radical than Andrew Jackson himself.

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    6. I thought that Jackson created the Federal Reserve, which was the first step towards a national monetary policy. Getting fairly uniform banking policies throughout the country is a major progressive achievement.

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    7. Anon, the Federal Reserve was created in 1913. Andrew Jackson opposed the national bank of his day, which he believed caused inflation, speculative bubbles and all manner of perfidy and corruption. He also opposed it on Constitutional grounds. You’ll hear similar arguments against the Federal Reserve today.

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    8. The problem is that the National Bank of Jackson's day was a *private* institution, although serving government functions--80% of its stock was owned by private individuals, only 20% by the federal government. So attacking it was not exactly the same as modern attacks on "big government."

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    9. David, the Second Bank of the United States (BUS) was very much a central bank, chartered by the federal government for the purpose of managing the monetary supply. Don’t get hung up over public vs. private. Remember, the British East India Company was technically private, but lead armies of conquest on behalf of the Empire. Likewise in the US, libertarians found that Big Government and Big Finance conspired against the individual. Due to the well-established partisan nomenclature of the day, laissez-faire economics were often described by the term “agrarian.” It’s puzzling to hear NYC news editors and tradesmen talk about their adherence to “agrarian” policies, unless you understand that they’re not really talking about farming.

      If you want to get a taste of Jacksonian thinking on monetary policy, read some of William Leggett’s editorials under “Separation of Bank and State.” His criticism of the BUS for causing the boom-bust of the business cycle by over-expanding the money supply is fundamentally the same as what you’ll hear from Ron Paul today:

      http://www.econlib.org/library/Leggett/lgtDE3.html#Part II, 1. Bank of United States

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  4. Overrated: Reagan.
    Underrated: Polk.

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  5. The Reagan presidency may turn out to be the fatal turning. Not only did this country tip the balance and start definitively on the road to institutionalized selfishness, institutionalized favoritism to the rich at the expense of those in need and the common good, and to the know nothingism that plagues us still, but it reversed the environmental policies of Carter, which if they had continued and expanded, may well have saved us from the now inevitable global heating future.

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  6. Underrated: Taft, Grant, Clinton. You can make an argument that the Whigs are collectively underrated.

    Overrated: Kennedy first. Madison and Monroe. McKinley, by those rankings. Wilson.

    Presidents tend to be ranked more by their times than by their achievements, although FDR and Lincoln stand out even when adjusting for era.

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    1. Why do you think Taft is underrated?

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  7. Oh yes, I definitely think Reagan is overrated too.

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  8. Oh, I forgot Reagan. Silly of me.

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  9. Underrated: Jimmy Carter. If we'd listened to him, we might have slowed the impact of climate change. George H. W. Bush; his restraint in the first gulf war.

    Overrated: Reagan. And Kennedy; particularly the pass he gets on Vietnam.

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  10. Overrated: Definitely Andrew Jackson. Easily the most evil man ever to occupy the White House, he was quite literally a mass murderer, a perpetrator of what today would be called ethnic cleansing (the Indian Removal Act), and an uncompromising white supremacist. (Virtually all the 19th century presidents including Lincoln were white supremacists, but rarely was it as unqualified or unapologetic as in the case of Jackson.) How he gets placed in the top 10 of US presidents in these surveys boggles the mind; it suggests a fundamental amorality in how these rankings are done.

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    1. I've always favored yanking Jackson off the $20, possibly to be replaced by John Adams.

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    2. Kylopod, Does FDR's treatment of the Japanese change your opinion of him? It's probably only modern transportation and logistics that prevented a comparable human tragedy in the 20th century.

      TB- Why Adams? He was a decent president, but it's hard for me to get past the fact that he imprisoned people who criticized him.

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    3. Couves: He did resist pressure from his fellow Federalists for war with France, though.

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    4. David, that's certainly an accomplishment by Adams. It's just hard for me to get over the Alien and Sedition Acts. It's because I otherwise think so highly of Adams that it's hard for me to forgive his use of state power to silence political opponents.

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  11. Overrated: JFK (accomplished nothing domestically, paved way for Vietnam, partly to blame for hottest moment of Cold War), Reagan (created brain dead conservatism, crushed unions, tribune of the plutocrats, ignored AIDS)

    Underrated: George HW Bush (did a masterful job ending the Cold War and enabling the peaceful reunification of Germany, responsible conservative domestically)

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    1. I have mixed feelings about JFK. To his credit, he was more dovish than virtually all of his advisers during the Cuban Missile Crisis--and in that sense may have saved us from World War III. OTOH, the crisis itself would not have occurred if he hadn't bungled the Bay of Pigs.

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  12. Underrated I have to go with William Howard Taft. 1) He's the Cool President that didn't cop out when danger's all about. 2) I do think he really suffered from being compared to TR even though he had a lot of impact with respect to entrenching certain progressive goals above and beyond TR.

    Overrated, I have to go with JFK. I feel that his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis was dangerous and over the top.

    Also, key problem with Presidential Rankings, too much of it relies upon name recognition. No reason why John Adams should be ranked that high considering his actions to crush opposition.

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    1. Brian R.: JFK may have been more dovish than is widely realized in the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is evidence that if need be he would have agreed to a *public* trade of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey for the Soviet missiles in Cuba. See my post at http://groups.google.com/group/soc.history.what-if/msg/31eb44ddc2c5bf98

      And then too one has to take into account that almost all of his advisers were advocating a strike on the missiles and/or an invasion of Cuba.

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    2. I understand that there are a number of forces at work when you think about the crisis, but Kennedy himself exacerbated it based upon his past rhetoric and his previous actions towards Cuba. As your own link seems to indicate, he could have downplayed the significance of this development by pointing out the missiles in Turkey or the existence of submarine launched missiles.

      Furthermore, I feel that Kennedy's actions towards Cuba and the USSR in this instance set a dangerous precedent with respect to how negotiations should take place. I actually think that this notion of standing firm and brooking no compromise has carried over into a variety of different foreign policy events that hasn't necessarily been healthy.

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  13. Lincoln became, and for the most part has remained, an American Christ. This by definition is overrating, because no human being is Christ.

    Among recent presidents, Reagan is not only the most overrated, he retires the crown in that category. However, that's mainly a function of the internal dynamics of the current GOP and conservative movement, and will fade with time. I would expect Reagan to end up being remembered / forgotten on about a par with William McKinley.

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  14. Calvin Coolidge needs to be reassess, in that he was really bad. For example, his economic policies helped create the stock market bubble and thus the Great Depression which in turn helped lead to World War II. Strangely enough Ronald Reagan cited Coolidge as a political hero, which is strange to say the least.

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  15. If I went to Wikipedia, I might make an informed decision. What fun would there be in that?

    Overrated: Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton
    Underrated: Nixon, Carter, Bush Sr

    I'm mixed on Nixon, because I don't have a good handle on how he's seen. Generally, I think liberals tend to overrate him and conservatives tend to underrate him.

    I'm not sure about Kennedy, because to some extent, we really have to give him credit for the Voting Rights Act. But overall, people think much too highly of his presidency.

    Also: I think Lincoln the movie is overrated. Does that count?

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  16. Underrated: Ulysses Grant (because of his support for Radical Reconstruction)
    Overrated: Woodrow Wilson (for his cowardice in segregating the Army)

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  17. It's an interesting question because, even in the wikipedia page, there's really no established metric upon which to base judgement. Are we looking at achievements while in office? Legislation successfully turned into effective laws and policies? Difficult decisions made at potentially dangerous moments in American history? Or are we basing this on how well that President's policies and achievements line up with our own policy preferences?
    It's interesting that Calvin Coolidge is mentioned. I had absolutely no opinion of him (I probably wasn't even sure if he was a President or a celebrity or what) until a few years back Sarah Palin started to trumpet him as this great, underrated President. Then (I think) Rachel Maddow (or some other liberal pundits) went off on Coolidge and all the problems with his Administration. Thus, I decided to group Coolidge in the "overrated" and "disastrous" Presidents. I suppose that goes into the political science study of how rank-and-file members of a political affiliation are taught how to think by political party leaders.

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    1. Good points.

      Regarding Coolidge, his record as Governor of Massachusetts was apparently something for progressives to admire. A while back, MA Democrats (including Kerry) tried to reclaim his reputation on that basis. It didn't really fit neatly into any sort of party narrative, so I'm not surprised that it didn't catch on.

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  18. One other point about Jackson which progressives should applaud (except of course those who hope that Texans follow through on those secession petitions...): his firm rejection of both nullification and secession in the famous Proclamation on Nullification. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/jack01.asp

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  19. You know, for underrated I'm going to go with George W. Bush. I think he deserves a lot of credit for TARP that he doesn't get, mainly because everyone hates the program, and because he did not play a big role publicly on it. But TARP was essential to preventing another Great Depression and it worked. It was mostly designed by people he put in office, and when they came out with a radical plan by the standards of his party's ideology, he helped sell it to his party in Congress and gave McCain the cover to support it too, so it didn't sink under the weight of presidential electoral politics.

    Most of the stuff that led to the collapse (financial deregulation, absurd income inequality) were the products more of Reagan than of his work in office, and its hard to say that it could have been prevented by the time he took office.

    That doesn't excuse anything else he did, of course, but he deserves to be more of a third quartile president than fourth. Imagine if Buchanan had handled the secession crisis well enough to avert the Civil War? Where would he be? That's where GW Bush should be.

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    1. I give you credit for taking an unconventional view. But I am going to disagree rather heartily.

      Bush took the largest surplus in American history and turned it into the largest structural deficit in history, the ramifications of which are still with us.

      Throw into the mix the worst foreign policy decision (war with Iraq) in generations, and you have a truly disastrous presidency. I am glad he found his inner Keynesian in time to keep us from the abyss, but for my money, he has to go below William Henry Harrison, who for me separates between the ineffective and not memorable presidencies and the actively destructive ones.

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    2. Another thing Bush did that I never hear my fellow liberals talk about: AIDS relief in Africa. That was huge.

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  20. I'd have to say that Warren G. Harding was underrated. Before anyone protests, let me immediately add that I'm well aware of the scandals of his administration and don't claim he was a good president. But it is absolutely ridiculous to rate him--as some historians do--lower than Pierce or Buchanan, who helped bring about the Civil War! Nothing Harding did was one-tenth as harmful. And if his cabinet included Fall and Dougherty, it also included very able men like Hughes and Hoover.

    The Harding administration was by no means devoid of accomplishments: the creation of the Bureau of the Budget (previously, each department simply submitted its projected expenses without reference to an overall plan); the freeing of Eugene Debs and other political prisoners; the conclusion of separate peace treaties with the Central Powers, etc. And then there's the Washington Conference, which will remain controversial, but its critics who think it gave Japan too much fail to recognize that in the 1920's there was simply not enough popular support in the US for an arms race with Japan.

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  21. Underrated: Chester A. Arthur. The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was a monumental accomplishment. Especially considering that Arthur's entire career was based on benefiting from the spoils system, and he stuck a knife in the back of his political allies by championing this law.

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    1. Never would have happened without my pick, James Garfield!

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  22. Overrated:
    George Washington (I'm mostly just being a curmudgeon. Yes, he was wise and set a lot of fabulous precedents and emancipated his slaves--post mortem, of course--but part of his "greatness" seems to me about an alpha male being in the right place at the right time. He wasn't the intellectual equivalent of some of the other FFs.)
    Andrew Jackson (He was really bad dude, as others have pointed out.)
    Ronald Reagan (Two words: Iran Contra.)

    Underrated:
    George HW Bush (He had the courage to walk back on the fiscally foolish "No new taxes" pledge. And he just generally conducted himself with a restraint that puts modern Conservatives to shame.
    Jimmy Carter (I just don't think he was as bad as all that. Kind of the inverse of George Washington--he was not the ablest leader, but mostly in the wrong place at the wrong time.)
    Richard Nixon (He would be considered a flaming liberal today...Shucks, he CREATED the EPA.)

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