Ranking Presidents Is a Game, Not a Science
The latest scholarly ranking of presidents is out, courtesy of the Siena College Research Institute’s “presidential expert poll.” Conducted periodically since 1982, the survey purports to offer a rigorous, data-driven appraisal of presidential leadership; it is one of two presidential rankings that get significant press attention nowadays when they appear, the other being C-SPAN’s survey of historians, conducted four times since 2000. This year, the Siena ranking’s highlights include Franklin D. Roosevelt coming out on top, Andrew Johnson being stuck at the bottom, Donald Trump edging out James Buchanan for the third-worst slot, and Joe Biden landing at a respectable nineteenth despite having been in office only a year when the survey was conducted this spring. (Full disclosure: I participated in the survey.)
Presidential ranking is a fun history game. People love ranking things, and discussing the merits of, say, Zachary Taylor relative to William McKinley is a good way for people who love history to connect with one another. But presidential rankings are rarely just a game. In this case, they’re presented as a sort of social science, a way to quantify leadership with expert opinion. The rankings are reported as the solemn judgment of History, the arbiter of a leader’s success or failure. They’re held out as a guide for presidents making decisions today, as if to say What would the great presidents of the past do? Here are the top five examples to follow.
But presidential rankings surveys are none of those, and when they are so elevated—at least in the public perception, if not explicitly by their organizers—they reveal important conceptual flaws. A presidency isn’t a lab experiment that can be replicated and compared meaningfully across time. Likewise, History doesn’t judge anything; historians do. And though they are experts in particular fields, historians have no special ability to guide the present, let alone predict the future. These rankings should be enjoyed as a game only.
The Siena survey asked experts to rate each president on twenty attributes, including background, party leadership, communication ability, court appointments, domestic accomplishments, and foreign policy accomplishments on a scale ranging from “outstanding” to “poor.” Respondents did not have to rate every president for every category, because who knows anything about Rutherford B. Hayes’s appointments to the federal bench?
Some attributes are maddeningly vague. Take “luck,” for example. Does having good luck make someone a good president? Or does having too much good luck mean he didn’t really show leadership?
A pandemic striking during your term is as unlucky as it gets, yet Donald Trump was rated the sixteenth-luckiest president, and Woodrow Wilson, who presided during the 1918 Spanish flu, was named fifteenth-luckiest. Surely, it’s the way a president responds to events outside of his control that matters, not how he’s treated by fickle fortune.
Even when the attributes are clear, they tend to privilege a modern, energetic president over a nineteenth-century figure who served when the presidency was a different institution. The category “Handling of the U.S. Economy” is the worst offender. It holds up a modern expectation of government involvement in the economy as a constant in American politics. True, politicians have always liked to trumpet promises of prosperity or condemn their opponents’ failures, like the 1840 Whigs who blasted “Martin Van Ruin” for the hard times of the late 1830s. Yet, the idea of the president as singularly responsible for every economic boom or bust is a modern expectation.
It’s not surprising that presidential surveys favor an expansive vision of the president’s duties. A presidential rankings survey was first conducted in 1948 as an “informal . . . poll . . . among my colleagues” by Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., whose goal was to better understand what made a president great.
Schlesinger’s model, of course, was FDR: a strong president who expanded government, took an active role managing the economy, unified the country behind his vision, skillfully handled crises, and aggressively defended the country against foreign enemies.
Presidents cut from the same cloth have tended to win plaudits in subsequent ranking surveys. For example, Woodrow Wilson, despite his overt racism and his questionable commitment to civil liberties during WWI, was consistently ranked as the sixth-best president from the first Siena survey in 1982 until 2010 when he started to drop, but not too far. He is currently number 13.
Presidents with a different approach tend not to do well in these surveys. Restrained Calvin Coolidge clocks in at 32, well behind the assertive James K. Polk (15), who provoked a war with Mexico to grab new land for the United States, setting the stage for the controversy over expanding slavery that led to the Civil War.
But the problem with presidential rankings goes beyond the specific numbers attached to any one occupant of the White House. They give a false idea of what history is and what historians can do.
One vision of historians’ role frames studying and teaching about the past as ways to guide present decision-making. The cliché about those not learning from history being doomed to repeat it has a kernel of truth: Who could disagree that it’s a good idea to avoid past mistakes?
The problem is that a presidency is so complex, so context-specific, and so contingent that it can be extremely difficult to know which lessons from the past might apply to any situation today, even for experts.
In March 2021, President Biden met with a group of historians convened by presidential biographer Jon Meacham, seeking historical perspective on how presidents have dealt with crisis, with examples ranging from George Washington and the Jay Treaty to FDR and the Great Depression. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss, who participated in the meeting, later told Axios that Biden had a chance to be like FDR and LBJ “in terms of transforming the country in important ways in a short time.” With spending trillions on infrastructure and remaking education, health care, and the environment via the Build Back Better program then on the agenda, comparisons to the lions of liberalism seemed apt.
Looking back, though, the historians probably should have also emphasized the dangers of a poorly managed retreat from a foreign war, sky high gas prices, and surging inflation. We don’t know how much time they spent talking about the lessons of the presidencies of Herbert Hoover and Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, but one suspects it should have been more.
No doubt the historians meant well, and it’s easy to second-guess them now knowing how the last year has gone. But that’s exactly the point: historians are best at looking backward. And while historical knowledge is an important part of statesmanship, it is only one part.
Ranking presidents as a way into a conversation about the past and its many dramatic moments can be a good use of historians’ energy and skills. Assigning presidents a precise numerical score that elides the differences between eras and gives the illusion of scientific precision is no way to understand the present or predict the future. There is nothing wrong with asking historians to assess the past. But historians should strive to be clear about when they are venturing beyond their true expertise and sharing their advice and ideas less as historians than as concerned, politically engaged citizens.