Monday, July 5, 2010

Presidents for the Fourth 6

I did overrated, so I guess it's time to talk about underrated presidents in the new Siena College survey experts.

Once again, I'll just by looking at the other similar surveys.  Who does worse by Siena than they do elsewhere?

Start with Ronald Reagan, who Siena has at #18 (he was at 17 last time around for them, in 2002)..  Reagan's been doing a bit better than that in other surveys...he's been around 10th in most of these things over the last fifteen years.  Siena has William McKinley at #21, about half a dozen spots lower than the other surveys.  Neither Siena nor last year's CSPAN survey like Rutherford Hayes very much (#31 and #33); Hayes usually comes in mid-20s.  That one seems like the flip side of moving Grant up, no?  And Siena is down on Benjamin Harrison, placing him at #34 while most others have him at or above #30. 

Who do I think is underrated?  Well, I've already said that I think putting Washington at #4 is awful -- comparisons are tricky enough that I'm not going to complain if he's #3, but I usually place him right at the top -- and yes, I see a very large gap between the third and fourth spots, so I think putting any of Washington, Lincoln, or FDR fourth or lower is a major mistake.

Who else?  Siena places George H.W. Bush at #22, and Gerald Ford at #28.  I think both of these men, neither of whom I think was really cut out to be a president, could both be a bit higher.  Bush really was a conservative, interested in preserving the status quo and managing necessary change wisely.  That worked well for him in the major events of his presidency, the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union.  It worked out less-well in the Middle East, especially, I think, with respect to Iraq, and it generally worked out badly for him with regard to the economy, where Bush will get credit from deficit hawks for long-term responsible management, but he did little about short-term suffering.  I also think Bush...well, he wasn't quite a demagogue, but I think that he really didn't have much commitment to democracy.  That he's remembered for looking at his watch during his debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992 is appropriate: he never gave much indication that he cared what ordinary people thought about things, apparently having as little regard for the activists and grass-roots interest within his own party has he had for those of the other party. 

The things is: the events in Europe was really very important, and one can imagine all sorts of ways they could have gone wrong; Bush deserves, in my view, enormous credit for it.  He's hurt in these sorts of ratings because ideological conservatives -- or should I say "conservatives" -- have decided to give Ronald Reagan all the credit for the end of the Cold War.  I may do a separate item about Reagan, but for now I'll just say that to me, everyone from Ike through Reagan was just carrying out the strategy established during the Truman administration, so if anyone gets credit for winning the Cold War is should be Truman.  Bush, however, had a very different and difficult challenge, and I've never seen an argument against giving him very high marks for it.

As for Ford: it's hard to think of anyone else who had worse luck in the situation he inherited.  A mess of an economy, the last stages of losing a war, a Congress completely aligned against him, and his predecessor and half his administration in legal trouble.  And, of course, no president has ever taken office with less of a mandate from the people.  Sure, mandates are largely fictional, but sometimes fiction helps.  Let's just say that there wasn't anyone in Congress who even considered the possibility that he owed his election to Gerald Ford.  Given all that, I think Ford acquitted himself reasonably well. 

Of course, with Ford, all anyone is really focused on is the pardon.  I think it was the right thing to do; I think that the trial of Richard Nixon would, in fact, have consumed the nation.  Nixon famously tried to argue that one year of Watergate was enough, and he was wrong about that as long as he was in office, but once he was gone I think there's a fair argument to be made that two years of Watergate was, in fact, enough.  Yes, Nixon richly deserved prison, but the nation deserved a functioning political system, and the pardon helped that to happen.  So overall, on Ford, I think he did well with what he faced, and that's really all anyone can ask of a president.


  1. I agree with you on HW, he was a perfectly competent, albeit flawed president. But Ford, Jonathan. The pardon aside, we have disagreed on that before. But you are giving Ford a pass for his godawful stewardship of the economy, -- he invented stagflation and the "rebate"-- his travails with Congress, the "swine flu," his completely lackluster performance, and generously pump up his ratings because of his bad luck. Yet for those very same reasons you downgrade Carter to among the worst. At least Carter had the Camp David Accords where Ford had the Fall of Saigon. What's up with that?

    (BTW, thanks for hosting this spirited and interesting debate on our nation's 234th. It's been fun.)

  2. And thanks for the comments...I'm not responding to everything, but it's all been interesting.

    I agree with what Barry said elsewhere about Saigon. I don't think Ford had a hell of a lot of choice, but I'll give him credit for not trying to prolong things.

    As for the economy...well, he took office in August 1974, and (checking NBER) the recession went from November 1973 to March 1975. Yes, the economy stunk, and I'm not saying that he was brilliant about the economy, but he's not responsible for the Fed he inherited, or Nixon's wage & price controls, or the oil embargo...Siena rates him 36th and Nixon 25th on the economy, and I think that's nuts. Even if you give Nixon full credit for big picture international economics stuff, overall I'd put him below Ford, not way above him.

  3. I'm 28 and over the years I've thought that it would have been better had there been a trial for Nixon. I'm not sure what the result would have been. I'm not sure that my own consideration doesn't derive from my having never lived through that time and the possibilities of political collapse that others can more clearly see.

    While we had some work done on changing congress and some work done on changing the security powers of the president I'm not sure enough of was done. So I wonder if there had been a full accounting of what had been done then we might actually have seen change that would have made many of the political disasters of the past thirty years less possible.

  4. The survey participants have a fairly obvious liberal bias. Best illustration of this is they rank Bush's court appointments 41 out of 43. What you think of Bush's court appointments is just a straight ideological test.

    But even--frankly especially--from the liberal point of view, it is indefensible to say that, whatever you think of Roberts and Alito, they are worse than the Taney Court. And the people who did these rankings somehow managed to say just that (Jackson's court appointments are 27th--the man appointed Taney and two other Dred Scott votes!). The participants also ranked Fillmore's judicial picks below Jackson's (Fillmore's one SC pick dissented from Dred Scott).

    I am deeply unimpressed by how this survey was constructed, and by the answers given. I think people who are interested in this sort of thing deserve a lot, lot better.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?