Monday, September 16, 2013

Q Day 7: Evaluating Presidents?

Dan asks:
When evaluating presidents, what weight do you give to the actual policies they pass or support? Can someone be a "good" president while supporting policies that are morally awful?
It's a hard question to answer. I try to evaluate them based on policy "success" in which success means that it worked...but what works and what doesn't is, admittedly, not always an objective call. I mean, sometimes is it: losing a war is generally objectively less successful than winning a war -- or avoiding a war. And it's at least somewhat possible to objectively characterize winning and losing a war, isn't it? But even there it's dicey (did the US win the Gulf War? Seemed so at the time, but if it set up an unstable situation which made the Iraq War -- and perhaps the September 11 attacks -- more likely, then is that policy success?). And when it gets to domestic policy, it's even more difficult.

Nevertheless, that I guess I'd say is that I look at process, and at policy success; if a policy is enacted, accepted, and generally considered successful, then it counts as policy success. I try, in this, not to impose my policy preferences, but the obvious critique that any observer is going to impose his or her own policy preferences on what counts as success is a perfectly fair one. The only question is: is there anything better?

Meanwhile, longwalkdownlyndale asks:
Who do you think are the most overrated and underrated presidents, other than Wilson and Carter who you've written about a bunch in the past. 
I've written on this in the past...The overrated president recently has been JFK, who does well in scholar surveys and very well in popular polling. I think TR is a bit overrated. Wilson, obviously. I think on balance Nixon is overrated...there's a school of thought that he was good on policy even while being a crook, but that tends to overlook both Congress's responsibility for much of what gets credited to him...and Vietnam. Reagan is overrated these days; he has a fair chance to catch JFK for most overrated, I suppose.

Underrated? I'm with those who pick Grant. I'm not really a Harding booster, but I'm willing to buy the notion that he's underrated, since he's often considered a bottom-five president and I don't see how he rates that low. I think Ford is a bit underrated.

All that said, there are two huge disclaimers necessary. First: the "ranking the presidents" game is fun, and I'd argue that it helps us to think about the presidency...but it's a game, not a science or even a serious study. And, just as important, the question of overrated/underrated turns mostly on how presidents are, in fact, rated. JFK is overrated in my view as the 10th greatest president, and insanely overrated as a top-5 president...but he's just fine as a middle-ranked president. So knowing whether he's over or underrated depends a lot on an accurate assessment of the rankings.


  1. Here's a thought, how would just considering their times in office impact evaluating Presidents from the "Founding Generation." I could see a strong argument for downgrading Washington for example from greatest third or fourth or something like that.

  2. I don't know, a President who prevented nuclear apocalypse and questioned and slowed the nuclear arms race with the breakthrough test ban treaty, who advocated civil rights and immigration rights knowing that his party would lose the South, etc. sounds pretty great to me.

    Here's another criteria: what did they start? Even if they didn't live to finish it, or it wasn't accomplished in their terms? I think greatness also includes presidents who articulate and advocate for great changes that later transform society or geopolitics etc. in some important way. Obama's second term is turning out to be this.

    Of course presidents would rather enact the changes they advocate, but sometimes it isn't possible without time passing. Sometimes it is crucial that they do enact changes, which was the case with FDR both in the Depression and the runup to World War II. He boldly advocated when he had the votes in Congress, but when he was hemmed in by isolationists and knew if they won, the country was in mortal danger, he prevaricated, probably exceeded his constitutional power, etc. And even then it's not clear that if the Japanese hadn't been foolish enough to attack, that he would have prevailed. Still,he did, and that makes him to me the greatest President at least of the 20th century. But I would argue JFK is next. (I'm not a Truman fan. Like LBJ, his best accomplishments were derivatives of the previous president.)

    1. On the flip side with JFK, he was embarrassingly dilatory on civil rights until June of 1963 when, basically, he was shamed into giving one great televised speech on the topic. I don't recall anything significant happening on immigration during JFK's administration. It wasn't until 1965 that immigration reform passed (his brother Ted's first great legislative accomplishment) and was signed by LBJ (who was the one who knew Democrats would lose the South).

    2. JFK is on record about Democrats risking the South for a generation because of civil rights, though he didn't think it would happen immediately. Both in Congress and as President he was involved in all major attempts to end the racist injustice of quotas in immigration. He wrote a book, "A Nation of Immigrants" in 1958 in support of this, which was reissued in 1964. Every President was "dilatory" on civil rights until they added to accomplishments in that area, usually under pressure that would counter the strong pressure to go along with segregation etc., and JFK did more before and after that speech than just talk about it. More to my point, he set the terms of the changes that would come.

  3. That's the nicest thing I've ever read about Harding. To combine this question with your baseball writing, who is the Warren Harding of baseball?

    1. In a just world, it would be Joe Carter.

      In the world we have to live in...Dave Kingman?


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