Sunday, July 4, 2010

Presidents for the Fourth 3

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

Two presidents fell more than five spots in the new Siena College survey: George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, to a dismal 39th and 32nd, respectively.

Well deserved!  Terrible presidents, both.  I'm not sure that they're in exactly the correct places, but both were, at least in my view, clearly failed presidents -- two people who never should have been in that office, and were quickly and decisively overwhelmed by the job. 

This does bring up a point in rating presidents, and I should make my own point of view clear; to me, what we're looking at is the ability of presidents to do the job.  It's pretty obvious that partisan Democrats, and ideological liberals, would prefer Jimmy Carter as president to George W. Bush -- or, to put it another way, would have voted for Carter over Gerald Ford in 1976, and voted for Carter over Ronald Reagan, even if they were certain that Ford and Reagan were more capable of doing the job of president than Carter.  And they would be quite right to do so (and the same with conservatives and Bush).  As voters, we're at the mercy of the selections that the parties make -- which is a good reason to be active in one's party, in order to affect those selections.  But generally when I'm talking about presidents, it's not whether they're in the party I vote for or agree with me on policy, but whether they're good at doing the job.  That can be a fine line can be hard to distinguish, often, between policies which one just disagrees with and policies that are in some sense (some "objective" sense?  I'll leave that alone for now) a sign of presidential failure.  However, I do think that such analysis is possible.  If you don't, that's fine -- but just be aware that I do think it can be done, and that's what I'm mostly talking about here.

At any rate, both Bush and Carter were terrible presidents...I'm mostly just going to send you to what I've already posted on them (Bush here, Carter here). I'll also say that while it's always difficult to see outside one's own time and place, it's very hard for me to see a significant Bush revival in the future.  Is Bush's record on the economy likely to improve?  Seems unlikely.  Are there important bills passed under Bush that have been overlooked so far?  I'll take suggestions, but I don't really think so.  Will his handling of terrorism look better down the road?  I can imagine (not endorsing it, just saying I can imagine) scenarios in which some of his civil liberties policies are thought to be necessary steps -- but those scenarios would, I think, lead to judging Bush more harshly overall for his failures in his campaign against bin Laden.  It's also easy to imagine that Bush's excesses in the areas of civil liberties will wind up thought of like those of Wilson, FDR, and others, as terrible mistakes.  And if I had to guess, I'd say it's fairly likely that many of the people in the Bush administration, including the president himself, will be thought of as war criminals for implementing a policy of torture.  As for Carter, his ratings are propped up by high scores for integrity (#7) and intelligence (#13).  My guess is that both of these will fall as we move into the future -- they're both helped, I would guess, by his post-presidential reputation, which I'd assume will play a much smaller role in future historian's assessments of his presidency.  So, yes, I'm going to guess that Carter and Bush will continue to be safely in the bottom fifteen for some time.


  1. I'd like to see someone (like Nate Silver, maybe) take these ratings and correlate them with economic conditions during the presidencies in question. Carter made various mistakes -- so did Lincoln, for that matter -- but he became a "failure" only in the aftermath of the second Arab oil embargo. American policies helped bring that on, but they were the policies of several presidents, not just Carter. In fact, you could plausibly argue that the problems flowing from the Iranian revolution were failures of Dwight Eisenhower's. He just happens to get a pass because the chickens didn't come home to roost while he was still in office.

  2. I could see Bush sinking even further. To this point, no one really blames him for 9/11, which could change in the future. It's hard to see a rationale developing that would give him less responsibility for 9/11, unless it turns out that Bill Clinton put Osama bin Laden on the CIA payroll or something.

  3. Jeff,

    Of course, the question is then whether those presidents deserve some of the credit/blame for the economy. As far as Carter...well, hit the link if you want my opinion.


    I think that's wrong, if we're talking about academic historians and political scientists -- I think plenty of the respondents in the Siena survey do give Bush a share of the blame for September 11. I'd say the best chance of Bush sinking further would be revelations about two things: that he was as out of it behind closed doors as some fear, and/or more agencies like the MMS either mismanaged or flat-out corrupt. I think what would help him is if, after a while, the recession winds up being thought of as more similar to 1974-1975 and 1982 than significantly worse, and if Iraq winds up seeming not any better (that's unlikely), but as less significant. And, yes, I think the former (he looks worse) is more likely than the latter (he looks better).

  4. Your link on Carter was interesting, Jonathan, and there is little there that I disagree with. I just don' t think that Carter gets enough (any!) credit for the Camp David Accords in foreign policy, and Reagan is way, way overrated there -- in fact, there wasn't a single foreign policy success that one could point to during Reagan's terms. His foreign policy legacy was the supporting and funding (at the very least) of dark, secret wars in Central/South America, secret dealing with our sworn enemy Iran for illegal and nefarious purposes, pal-ing around with Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and other despicable tyrants, insulting Gorbachev and rejecting efforts at ending the Cold War, gratuitous invasions of tiny countries, incompetently exacerbating the growing problem of Islamic terrorism.

    Carter gets dinged for the hostage crisis, but Reagan skates free for Beirut? And Eisenhower skates for the U-2 incident and doesn't get dinged for digging us way way deeper into the Cold War?

    And then I'll give credit to Nixon for China, but Ford at #27 despite the Fall of Saigon? I mean, what else did Ford do in foreign policy besides the Fall of Saigon. And why isn't he down there with Carter among the worst Presidents. Wasn't "stagflation" on his watch?

    And I'll give G Herbert Walker B some credit on the foreign policy front.

    And Lincoln is #5 in foreign policy accomplishments? What was that about?

    I don't get these ratings in foreign policy. And that's kind of an important one, especially when you tease out "luck" and "avoiding crucial mistakes" as standalone elements.

  5. Lincoln's foreign policy, vis-a-vis GB and France was quite brilliant, as was his restraint of Secretary Seward concerning the latter's Cuba option. Almost certainly it is too early to rate President George W. Bush, but almost certainly his scores are too low. To argue that he had a failed presidency is a bit of a stretch, but many, many academics simply despised him. I can agree that he will permanently remain thought of as below average, but to stick him in a class with Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, John Tyler, and perhaps James Madison is pushing it.

  6. I will be looking forward to a clear, comprehensive, unbiased evaluation of the Bush presidency in the fullness of time. I can't think of a single significant accomplishment of the Bush administration. It was a dismal, abysmal failure in all respects. But perhaps it is too soon to see how all that abuse of power and incompetence turns out in the long run. I'm betting that a fair accounting of his presidency will stick him at the absolute bottom of any presidential list in the future.

    I'll give him Liberia. And he gets partial credit for his AIDS and malaria work in Africa, though those policies were marred by the ideologues he sent over to implement what was otherwise admirable policy. The do-not-call list. No Child was flawed and has ultimately proved to be a failure. In fact, I can't think of a single domestic or foreign policy issue of significance that I'd call successful. Not a single significant accomplishment.

    The fact that he is a war criminal and his policy of torturing US prisoners alone ranks him below Johnson, Pierce, Buchanan, Harding, Hoover. The rampant violation of of the Constitution in every respect, from the Bill of Rights and habeas corpus to the Commerce clause to Separation of Powers to allowing Cheney's so-called Fourth Branch is far, far beyond any other president's skirting of the law. His handling of the economy was worse, the corruption and incompetence of his appointments -- of those 20 categories he will come in dead last in all but maybe family background, his dad was a decent president, and then he surely gets a couple of points for #9 Willing to take risks -- though do you take off points for recklessness, bad planning, incompetent execution? And then, relationship with Congress, well sure, the two worst Congresses in the 50 years I've been following politics - the 108th and 109th, but sure, they did what he wanted them to do, which was give him a pass for the criminality and corruption, and placate the radical right. So maybe a couple of points there.

    But sure, I'm willing to consider a broad, fair, unbiased evaluation of his presidency. Nobody ever wanted him to fail, at the outset.

  7. "And then I'll give credit to Nixon for China, but Ford at #27 despite the Fall of Saigon? I mean, what else did Ford do in foreign policy besides the Fall of Saigon. And why isn't he down there with Carter among the worst Presidents. Wasn't "stagflation" on his watch"

    Ford did not 'do' the Fall of Saigon; the fact that the government of S. Vietnam didn't have an army willing to fight for it did that quite nicely.

    As for Carter, he inherited a Middle East situation which had already resulted in one oil crisis, and was heading into another.

  8. I have trouble putting Bush and Carter in the same sentence. Carter was not a good president. Bush was an actively bad president. It's quite possible I'm blinded by my leanings (partisan, ideological, or just plain personal, as Bush represents the rejection of all things academic), but I still find myself thinking that Bush chose to push fantastically stupid policies. Carter simply was an awful politician. But, I have trouble saying that his failures to accomplish stuff caused TOO much damage. Some, yes, but not enough to argue the next presidents had to pick up the pieces. Bush is leagues worse; Obama (and, likely, whoever gets elected in 2012 as well) will be mopping up damage to American politics and the presidency for years.

  9. Matt,

    That's the problem with rating, isn't it. I think both Bush and Carter were just really awful at the job -- but, for a variety of reasons, it seems that Bush's mistakes were more costly. That might be because underneath it all Carter had better instincts; it might be because of their governing coalitions; and it might be just luck. I don't know.

  10. I think that touches on what separates Bush from the other terrible Presidents- he actually DID things, huge things, monumental things...that were almost uniformly terrible. Most of the rest of them simply failed in the face of titanic challenges.

    Pierce couldn't navigate the growing North/South divide. Harding and Grant did nothing about the corruption in their administrations. Ford and Carter couldn't rally public or Congressional support for their policies. Even Buchanan's disastrous policies were basically just NOT doing anything about the south.

    But Bush, hoo boy. I think it'd be hard to argue that the tax cuts, NCLB, Medicare Part D, the Patriot Act and TARP were "minor" bills, or that his proposed SS and immigration reform would've been, had he ever gotten them off the ground. Nor can you argue that the War on Terror is a minor skirmish, or that Iraq is merely a blip. These were all major initiatives, and even the ones that WEREN'T complete disasters were pretty poorly managed and executed.


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