The Presidents Ranked and Graded: A Q&A With the Author of The Leaders We Deserved

INSERT DESCRIPTIONAlvin Felzenberg

Alvin Felzenberg, author of The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t), wasn’t satisfied with how vaguely, in his opinion, success and failure are defined in presidential evaluations.

So he attempted his own ranking system (which we’ve mentioned before on this blog), grading U.S. presidents based on three criteria: character, vision, and competence; and their handling of three policy areas: management of the economy, approach to national security, and expansion of freedom.

Felzenberg says his intention with grading the presidents and writing a book based on his findings is “not to fix their reputations in concrete, but to provoke discussion.”

He didn’t disclose whom he voted for, but after observing the 2008 campaign, he’d add physical endurance as a grading category.

Felzenberg teaches at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He was the principal spokesman for the 9/11 Commission, and served as an adviser to the U.S. Departments of Defense and State, in several senior staff positions at the U.S. House of Representatives, and as New Jersey’s Assistant Secretary of State.

He has agreed to answer our questions about the book. But first, here’s his presidential report card:

INSERT DESCRIPTION
INSERT DESCRIPTION

Q: In the process of writing this book, what did you learn about other presidential rating methods?

A: In assessing previous “ratings” of the presidents, I was struck by all the uniformity in the rankings. With the exception of Eisenhower, who has moved up considerably in each poll attempted since 1962 on, most presidents see their reputations all but placed in cement for eternity.

Given the plethora of new information that continues to come to light every day, I found this peculiar. I was less bothered by the partisanship that was evident among past graders than I was bothered by their failure to define terms. What do analysts have in mind when they ascribe the terms “great,” “near great,” or “failure” besides a name of a president? Past graders have not said. I try, in this book, to compensate for this weakness.

Q: If you had to add another category for ranking the presidents after this upcoming election, what would it be?

A: If the long campaign of 2008 has persuaded me to add a new category to the six against which I evaluate presidents (character, vision, competence, along with their management of the economy, their handling of national security, and their record on extending freedom), it would be physical endurance. The endless 24/7 cycle of appearances, interviews, fundraising, and all the rest that goes along with running for president that the two top contenders have endured reminds us that the job of president almost demands superhuman qualities.

Q: What past president do you predict President Bush‘s economic policy ranking will most resemble?

A: Good question. The situation in which Bush and the rest of us find ourselves may be truly unique. His critics on the Democratic side of the aisle and in the media did history a great disservice when they likened Bush’s policies to those of Hoover‘s.

First, they were wrong to assert that Hoover sat idly by as the nation plunged into the Great Depression on his watch. He was exceptionally active, promoting precisely the wrong policies. He raised taxes, causing employers to lay people off; increased tariffs, thereby turning what would have been a steep recession into a world-wide depression; and went along with the Federal Reserve’s practice of restricting credit when it should have increased the money supply substantially.

Bush has been no passive bystander. Not only has he avoided these three Hooverian mistakes, but he has followed the opposite course. The Federal Reserve is injecting nearly a trillion dollars to ease the credit crunch. Bush has also held the line against new taxes and restrictive trade policies.

Historians will be spending much time assessing to what extent Bush’s free spending practices contributed to the casino-like atmosphere that has characterized the housing and other markets, and whether all that talk about establishing an “ownership society” enticed banks to lend to people who could not afford the costs of mortgages.

I this area, Republican and Democratic Congresses, as well as Bill Clinton will share in any blame assigned Bush. In the aftermath of Bush, conservatives will have to reassess whether it makes sense any longer to advocate “smaller government” at a time of global terrorism and world-wide financial havoc. I expect some to assert that the question is not “big” vs. “small,” but “what should the federal government not attempt at all?” Cuts in those areas might free up funds to allow it to perform tasks it takes on well. During the Bush years, the impression has grown that government has simply failed at too many things and at too many levels. Given the rate of spending, one can readily understand why so many say the nation is heading in the “wrong direction.”

Q: How do rankings bestowed upon presidents affect history? How can the ranking of one president affect the election of a subsequent president?

A: Rankings — of the kind we have seen in the past — have done little to advance the public’s knowledge of the past; they have actually diminished it by freezing the debates about the achievements of past presidents and whether they were beneficial to the country. They have also, on occasion, mistaken consequence for greatness and failure to attain stated ends as incompetence. Jackson, for instance, was a president of great consequence. Yet his success in destroying the Second Bank of the United States plunged the country into a major depression, while his unchecked insistence on removing Native Americans from lands to which they had been given title by his predecessors remains one of the most sordid acts in all of American history. In some respects, the nation would have been better off had he been less competent in attaining his objectives. Yet Jackson places among the “near-greats” in virtually every survey of historians. He ranks lower in mine.

In selecting presidents, voters more often base their decision on their assessment of the incumbent president than by how historians rank past presidents.

Q: What are the top traits of the best and worst presidents?

A: The best presidents were intellectually curious, were good communicators, advanced a vision that proved beneficial for the nation, availed themselves of the technological innovations of their times to advance their agendas, drew upon the best talent available, and related to people from all walks of life.

The worst presidents were “been there, done that” know-it-alls, were set in their ways, bore grudges, grumbled in public about all the burdens of office, had a limited world-view, and stretched the powers of their office for power’s sake.

Q: What’s the most surprising correlation in presidential traits and ranking you found?

A: The surprises were not in the correlations, but in my research. I found some of the “old favorites” such as Jackson to be particularly wanting, according to my criteria, and others, such as Grant, who has had particularly bad press among presidential historians, to be rather ennobling, if not endearing. My delving into these two presidencies persuaded me that past surveys told us more about those who evaluated the presidents than they did about the presidents.

Q: You mention in the book that the least successful presidents tended to be the most intelligent; how do you explain this?

A: I would put it in a slightly different way. While the most successful presidents were certainly people with above-average intelligence, the presidency has not been a place where intellectuals or ideologues have excelled.

Fortunately, we have had relatively few such people as president. The ones we have had met with frustration when those over whom they governed or with whom they were destined to share power did not perform in ways these presidents anticipated they would. Human nature had a way of getting in their way.

Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover, for instance, found themselves (or thought themselves) incapable of finding advisers as smart as they; nor were they particularly good at bringing out the best in those they considered their intellectual inferiors.

Each could have been said to have consulted his “brain trust” each morning while shaving before a mirror. Jefferson was at his best when he set his ideological predilections aside (as during the Louisiana Purchase), and at his worst when he set out to prove himself in the right (as he did during the Embargo Crisis). Madison, perhaps the most intellectual of the presidents and the most brilliant, put ideological consistency over common sense — to the great misfortune of the nation he led. (On his watch, the strongest power on earth torched the White House.)

Q: How has your rating system been received so far?

A: Quite well. I have been successful in starting a prolonged discussion as to what it means to be a great, or even a successful, president. While some may quarrel with the grades I assign particular presidents, most who have read the book have welcomed the invitation to assess the presidents themselves, rather than blindly accept the conclusion of the “experts,” which was, after all, the intention of many surveys.

Q: Who are you voting for?

A: As a writer and as a public official, I have taken many stands on issues of the day over the years. Readers can easily discern where I came out on them by hitting a few buttons on their computers. Having already voted, I would be happy to defend my choice either here or in some other venue at another time.

For our purposes here, I will confine my answers to what I had to say in the book, in which I make every attempt to be even handed. Readers should know that of the post-World War II presidents, I rate Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan the highest — although not in this order.

Q: You discuss F.D.R.’s policies in the book: What was his smartest move? His worst?

A: On the economic front, there were really two Franklin D. Roosevelts. First, there was the Roosevelt who rallied public confidence; restored faith in the nation’s political, economic, and banking systems; and used the economic crisis as a catalyst to enact beneficial public policies (such as TVA and infrastructure repairs) and safeguards against what he termed the “vicissitude” of life. In the latter category would fall programs with which he is most associated today: social security, unemployment compensation, and other, including some more controversial, entitlements.

Then there was the second Roosevelt. As he would have wanted, we will call him F.D.R., the “great experimenter.” This Roosevelt’s zigging and zagging often exacerbated the problems before him. Under F.D.R., the Federal Reserve, save for a short interval, continued the tight money policies it had imposed under Hoover.

F.D.R. never completely abandoned his ideological preference for balanced budgets; well after Keynes‘s writings about the occasional need for deficits as a means of stimulating economic growth had become well known well into World War II; when heavy spending and increased borrowing finally lifted the nation from the Great Depression; and well after other nations had begun to recover.

Moreover, F.D.R.’s heavy intervention into the economy — often on behalf of organized labor — did not sufficiently cause overall unemployment rates to fall. The downturn in the economy late in F.D.R.’s second term, after a slight uplift in his first, caused F.D.R. to doubt whether his first seven years in office had been a success. I will not quarrel with that assessment.

Finally, it is time presidential evaluators took F.D.R. to task for his failure to admit more refugees into the United States when there was time (and some political support) to do so, his callous ordering of the internment of Japanese Americans, and his refusal to support Congressional efforts to make lynching a federal crime. I do.

All said, the point should be made that at a time when freedom and democracy were in retreat in so many corners of the world (the U.S.S.R., Italy, Germany, Spain, etc.), the American people turned to Franklin D. Roosevelt, while their counterparts, echoed by some within the United States, were flirting with or embracing fascism or communism. Faults and all, Franklin D. Roosevelt never lost his faith in democracy or in the good sense of the American people. His greatest achievements, of course, were his handling of world events leading up to World War II and his performance as commander in chief during that war.

Q: You mention that a good indicator of a good president is life experience. What experience/hardship would you want your ideal candidate to have had and why?

A: This is the easiest of all your questions to answer. In order to be a successful leader of a nation as diverse as the U.S., a president must be able to empathize with those in whose name he exercises power.

Truman’s experience as a captain of an unruly unit during the World War I and as a haberdasher afterwards helped shape his character. (Some say he spent too much time talking politics with customers, when he could have been selling them suits.) Lincoln learned much about his fellow citizens as a postmaster, grocer, and especially as a lawyer, riding circuit and mesmerizing his fellow travelers at taverns and inns with jokes and stories. F.D.R. found his polio to be the great “equalizer” between himself and the afflicted.

What matters most is not the hardship any particular president encountered, but how he responded to it and the impact it had on him. Some, like F.D.R., emerged stronger from it. Others, like Jackson, were permanently scarred by it — emotionally as well as physically.

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

 

COMMENTS: 90


  1. steve pesce says:

    Is it me, or does it look to everyone else like you could slap any numbers in there and place the presidents in any order as long as Lincoln is at the top and pass it off as meaningful?

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  2. AC says:

    Character and Vision might help get somebody elected, but is it really fair to give those equal weighting to actual policy accomplishments when handing out grades after the administration is finished?

    Put another way, without knowing how they would do in office, Carter and Nixon would be a mismatch. Carter was just a nice guy, while Nixon was a megalomaniac. Looking backward, though, we get the benefit of seeing that neither were any good, but Carter ties for the worst average.

    His personality may make him a better candidate, or perhaps even a better person, but I don’t think that makes him a better president than 8 others.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. Bobby G says:

    How the heck did George Washington not get a “5″ on “Preserving and Extending Liberty”?

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  4. discordian says:

    Great timing on this one becuase I was arguing best/worst presidents the other day with a friend.

    And I am pretty much “right” on the top and bottom few according to Mr. Felzenberg’s report card.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. Eric T. says:

    I’m certainly not as educated on historical presidents as I should be, but I’d like some justification for giving a rating of 5 to both Lincoln and Washington for their economic and foreign policies.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  6. Jeffrey says:

    Felzenberg may be unbiased in his book/rankings (I have no reason whatsoever to believe he isn’t), but how can you take FDR to task and not Reagan?

    Modern conservatives have a Reagan fetish. It’s odd.

    He’s spot on with putting Clinton so low. Modern liberals should know that he didn’t really do that much. He was just…kinda…there. Granted, I suppose that’s better than mucking everything up like W. But that’s a pretty low bar! Clinton’s nothing special. At all.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. JoeQ says:

    Reagan a “5″ in economics? He shredded more than few Federal regulatory institutions that oversaw things like the environment, banking (the S&L scandal), Wall Street (remember the Junk Bond), the air lines (where billions in personal pensions were raided), and always told us “Government is the problem). It was his staunch believes in trickle down economics that led us to where we are now.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  8. Andrew says:

    I think anyone who publishes such a book should be obligated to disclose how they voted in, say, the last 5 elections. I think Clinton is criminally low. I’m not saying he should be top ten; but in the lower half … really?

    I would also like to know what character means. Presumably Clinton is docked for his infidelity. However it appears that Reagan is not docked for giving states’ rights speeches outside symbols of racism- apparently neither racism nor the willingness to garner votes using racism is a character defect?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  9. Dan says:

    To inject some partisan politics here, 6 of the top ten in this list are Republicans with only two being Dems.

    I’m glad someone is assigning some blame to Congress and Clinton in this current economic mess… What’s that Mr. Clinton? No capital gains taxes on real estate? Sure, I’ll buy a couple homes!

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  10. Adam says:

    #1 Steve is right. Mr. Felzenberg might as well provoke discussion by asking what would happen if Eleanor Roosevelt could fly.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  11. alexgloc says:

    Bobby G,

    since I’m from Western Pennsylvania, I might say “Whiskey Rebellion”.

    But how about “he owned slaves while he was President”?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  12. hh says:

    Downgrading FDR’s character is understandable based on the two examples you cite. However, granting top scores to Truman, the only president to use nuclear weapons, and who used them on civilians, and Ford, whose sole contribution to American history is his pardon of Nixon, is astonishing. There are many people in this country who believe Reagan made bigotry acceptable again, but I suppose that is my ideology colliding with yours.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  13. Killing Swine says:

    First, I should like to know by what measure ‘preserving/extending liberty’ is tallied. Second, how are you evaluating economic policy? A top score for Reagan in both categories makes me suspicious. Aren’t we ready to put trickle-down economics into the dustbin of failed policies yet? And isn’t individual liberty at odds with a rising inequality gap, a consequence of Reaganite economic policy? Though liberty and equality are not identical, they are certainly correlated.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  14. discordian says:

    Hey you kids! Write your own book if you disagree!

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  15. Geoff from Ohio says:

    Mr. Felzenberg would appear to have far too much time on his hands. We humans love to categorize and rank things, all kinds of things, by all sorts of different criteria, and then claim that we have accomplished something meaningful. That doesn’t mean we have.

    I have to be honest; the only President I care a fig for is whichever one is currently in office, and whatever his (or her) “ratings” might be is of no concern to me.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  16. Paul K says:

    Most of these rankings are so subjective as to be as meaningless as what he is trying to replace. What is the definition of “character” and do you mean in terms of “on the job” or your perception or the perception of those at the time they were president. Vision is even more absurd. Is an ungrounded-in-reality vision higher than a pragmatic one? It appears so from the values given.

    Even the latter three, which should be more objective have a serious problem: you have to measure them in the context of their time and the situation of the time.

    I think he could have used a random number generator and ended up with as valid a table (just keep Lincoln and Washington on top and no one will notice).

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  17. SKV says:

    The only reason I can imagine Clinton being ranked so low on character would be the infidelity issue, which I think is irrelevant to governing … but if that’s the criterion, how about George Herbert Walker Bush, who had a longtime affair with a woman in the State Department? Why does he get a pass?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  18. Bobby G says:

    @ JoeQ (#7),

    I don’t understand how lower taxes leads us to a credit crisis. I’d attribute it more to government financial cushioning of national credit agencies lead by the banner of an administration that increased government spending/thought the economic solution was a few stimulus checks. I’m sad to say this administration called itself Republican with such un-Republican economic policies.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  19. Frank says:

    I agree with #8 Andrew. Clinton was certainly a flawed president but you’re telling me he’s ranked lower than Coolidge the stiff, or Grant the drunk, or Ford, whose presidency was only 2 years?

    I think Clinton is underestimated in vision, competence, and even character. Clinton was no different than Kennedy in terms of infidelity was Kennedy gets a higher character grade? Second, how do you define character? If you cheat on your wife but pull millions out of poverty/welfare, that’s low character? Or if you tell Gorbachev in public to tear down a wall but ignore the needs of millions of people in your country, that’s high character?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  20. d-smart says:

    Amen to #1.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  21. Tom says:

    Here’s an idea: how about judging the presidents by how they affect the country in the long run?

    In that case, Reagan – with his illusion of trickle-down-economics, promotion of deregulation, inflation of the national debt, creation & support of the mujahedin (incl. bin laden), publicly supplying weapons to Iraq and covertly selling weapons to Iran (to finance the contras) – should be at the very bottom of the list.

    Oh, and the first thing he did when he got in office was to remove the solar panels Carter had installed — just another example of his extreme myopia.

    Actually, how about just including intelligence as a factor?

    Reagan was an embarrassment to the country.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  22. sco says:

    How in the world does Grant make the top 11?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  23. Fawad says:

    This is utter claptrap at least as presented in its summary form here. It is certainly important to establish a set of criteria to judge the greatness of Presidents but these headline categories do nothing of the sort. The ratings are so subjective as to be virtually meaningless. Unless you specifically define what constitutes “competence” or economic policy success you can slap whatever rating you feel like. The economic ratings for example seem to match with how the country was doing at the time. If doing well the sitting President seems to get the credit even if his policies had long term adverse effects. Reagan gets high marks from Felzenberg in economic policy and foreign affairs but lower on competence. This makes no sense. What is competence but effective management of domestic and foreign policy.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  24. ElleninCA says:

    This exercise looks like a cheap gimmick to me, though I suppose it has some value if it stimulates a long-overdue head-on discussion of what we think makes a great president. But, I think that discussion makes sense only if we consider the historical context: Who was a great president for his (some day her) time?

    I never have been able to understand the admiration of pundits and historians for Ronald Reagan. He was the President above all who unraveled the social compact that holds our country together. “Dare to be greedy” was the implicit slogan of his administration. You don’t have to be your brother’s keeper. Just get yours and you don’t have to care about the other guy, because somehow magically the benefits of wealth will trickle down. Reagan’s politics of selfishness did terrible damage to our social fabric, and we see its results in the economic debacle we face today. Finally, under an Obama Administration, I believe we are going to have a chance to stitch our country back together. We are all in this together. How other Americans are doing does matter. We are individuals who have responsibility for ourselves and responsibilities toward each other. E pluribus unum.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  25. Mark R. says:

    I’m with #1 Steve too. Seems about as illuminating as one person’s restaurant reviews.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  26. tah says:

    These ratings are totally subjective. The economy was doing great when Clinton was in office, how would he get a 3? And as for his character, basing it on fidelity seems idiotic – sure it was more publicized than any previous presidents, but in general isn’t it fairly agreed most presidents have had affairs? I mean, he has the same character rating as Jefferson, who owned slaves he produced children with. And as they say…no one died when clinton lied – unlike one Bush, G.H.W. on the list.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  27. Tom says:

    FDR gets a 5 on Defending National Security????

    He did his best to get us into WWII, where we lost 400,000 dead and millions wounded or driven insane, but left us totally vulnerable to a surprise attack.

    I’d give him a 2 rather than a 1, since he did get the peacetime draft instituted.

    His “performance as commander in chief” during WWII?

    The war was done by the US amazing production capacity, which produced planes and tanks faster than the Germans could destroy them, and the courage of our poor soldiers, who believed they were preventing an invasion of the US and making the world safe for democracy.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  28. A. Welsh says:

    What a breath of fresh air to see someone with moderate-left politics set politics aside and grade the Presidents according to reality. In response to the comments bashing Reagan: Cutting taxes in half leading to millions of new jobs while at the same time crushing the USSR economically = 5 points on economic policy. Clinton should have been a 3 on economic policy. We had economic growth, though we now realize that was due to the tech bubble. It would be intellectualy dishonest to give him credit for that since it was a house of cards. Raised taxes = -1 point. If he started with 5 points, we would now be down to 4. NAFTA led to millions of jobs outsourced. -1 point. Now at 3 points.

    Bush will get a 2 on economic policy when he is added to the list. Gov’t spending -2 points. Market turmoil -1 point. Loose credit standards -1 point. The only thing that will keep him from a 1 is tax cuts (+1 point).

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  29. mg says:

    Before reading the interview, I took a look at Mr. Felzenberg’s presidential score card. I then scanned the interview looking for some justification for Reagan’s average of 4.5, but there is none.

    To the 5 in character, I respond the Iran-Contra Affair and Reagan’s refusal to provide funds for AIDS research. To the 5 in vision, I answer Star Wars defense. And to the 5 in economic policy, we must remember who announced the trickle-down theory on which every Republican president since has based economic policy – with the catastrophic results we’re seeing today.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  30. Edward Mensah says:

    I question to whole ranking based on the very high scores given to Reagan, especially on economic policy. Mr Felzenberg must be a right wing deregulation-loving economist. Didn’t Alan Grenspan recently confess that his faith in the capacity of markets to self-regulate was misplaced? I thought Greenspan was brave to have made that statement. Reagan was the God father of deregulation. Look where it got us. And Mr Felzenberg gave him a score of 5.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  31. chris says:

    From fec.gov (as suggested by the author), all of Mr. Felzenberg’s donations this election cycle are for McCain (see below). What makes this new system unbiased anyway? Mr. Felzenberg develops his own rating criteria and then proceeds to rank presidents according to same by himself? wouldn’t this approach naturally reflect his own preferences?

    FELZENBERG, ALVIN DR.

    UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA/PROFESSOR/WRITER

    1. 12/31/2007 $250 John S McCain

    2. 01/08/2008 $100 John S McCain

    3. 05/31/2008 $250 John S McCain

    4. 05/24/2008 $15 John S McCain

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  32. Dave says:

    JFK tied for 7th? He gets a 4 on Competence + Defense, Nat’l Security & Foreign Policy? Did the Bay of Pigs Invasion not factor in to the rankings somehow?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  33. James says:

    Is this a joke? Zachary Taylor, who served for only two years and did a poor job at that, ranking seventh, ahead of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson? Sheer madness.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  34. Lisa says:

    I must disagree with the suggestion that Mr. Felzenberg, who worked in two Republican administrations and was an early supporter of Ronald Reagan, has moderate-left politics. I think his list betrays a distinct bias to the right. There’s no doubt in my mind that he voted Republican in the last five elections.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  35. James B. says:

    I really get a kick out of lists like this one. There are two types: those that think Reagan was awesome, and those that see him for what he was.

    This fella obviously thinks Reagan was awesome. Maybe in ten years people will finally see the GOP’s false idol for what he really was.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  36. Robert Savage says:

    Reagan a 5 on character!! Iran-contra hello!

    Any President active while there were slaves in the US does not deserve anything better than a 2 on Preserving and extending Liberty!

    I guess Reagan deserves a 5 for National Defense, after all he did save us from Grenada! Reagan’s vision was entirely cold war and by the time he showed up the USSR was the hollow shell it was bound to be because it had a failed world view. Reagan is far down the list. This guy is biased.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  37. Adam Hammond says:

    I agree with a theme in these comments. This rating scheme looks like a veiled attempt to justify a preconceived ranking of a few modern presidents. The historical rankings may be correct (or not) – they are just a backdrop. I think the whole exercise was concocted to score modern political points. Perhaps reading the book would change my mind, but I’m certainly not inclined to spend my money or time on it.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  38. Kenneth Kaplan says:

    It’s such a good joke, I can’t miss this opportunity.

    A journalist is interviewing George Bush in the last days of his term and asks how Bush thinks he’ll be judged by history. “Well, I don’t put much stock in that judgment-of-history stuff” he says. “It goes up and down all the time. People used to say that Herbert Hoover was the worst President we ever had, but you don’t hear that anymore, right?”

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  39. Stephen says:

    Maybe Clinton’s character is so low compared to other cheating Presidents because he lied to nation about not having sexual relations with that woman. OOPS he did.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  40. misterb says:

    In the computer industry, we call exercises such as this putting whipped cream on a roadapple. A blatantly ideological individual dresses his personal opinion up with a couple of random numbers and calls it scientific.

    If he really wanted to do a scientific study, he would enumerate desired outcomes after a set period of years, and then measure how well those outputs were achieved. I think that an exercise like this would come up with a ranking of presidents that no one would agree with, probably a sign that it is in fact unbiased.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  41. John Wells says:

    This has to be the most idiotic rating system I have ever seen. Absolute purified drivel. Grant, a 5 in vision? Are you kidding me? Is he evaluating Grant at Vicksburg or Grant in the Whitehouse? And Jackson’s numbers, bah, I can’t stand it. If Felzenberg is an historian … oh never mind. These ratings are a ridiculous waste of time. You would get a far far better view of history from any second grade class after nap time.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  42. jeffreytg says:

    Lincoln a 5 on liberty? More proof that the victors write the history books. Let’s see:

    suspend habeas corpus- check

    Ignore judicial rulings (Ex Parte Merryman) – check

    By force shut down opposition newspapers- check

    Prevent states who voluntarily joined the union from leaving the union- even though no where in the Constitution does it say that any state signing onto same can never leave.- Check

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  43. Buck Batard says:

    Unfortunately the ratings scores are biased a great extent by an ideological component.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  44. rm-rf says:

    one more thing – presidents rated objectively on character and vision? – what does that mean? what stupidity… how do you objectively rate a person’s “character”, do they loose a point if they committed infidelity? or bombed if some country in order to get a leg up in the polls?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  45. jdtutt says:

    How is Reagan number three? How did he get a rating of 4 on extending/ preserving liberty? Was his Latin American record entirely ignored? Reagan was convicted of supporting terrorists in Nicaragua by the World Court. His Latin American policies alone make him one of our most despicable presidents. Putting a war criminal at number three is hardly moving away from letting “evaluators’ idealogical preferences” shining through

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  46. C Munoz says:

    What happened to Cleveland’s 2nd stint as President? Or is his rating suppose to reflect his service from both 1885-1888 and 1893-1896?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  47. Beth says:

    Lincoln a five for preserving and extending liberty . . .. Seems like someone should have done their homework and checked out Ex Parte Merryman and Lincoln’s actions subsequent to the issuing of the Opinion.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  48. jblog says:

    “The economy was doing great when Clinton was in office, how would he get a 3?”

    Two words: dot-com bubble.

    By the time he left office, the false economy was collapsing.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  49. muD says:

    I congratulate him on establishing criteria and explaining the why of his argument.

    I would like to know a few things. For example, does a President get credit for his policy’s lasting effects? Does FDR get credit (or blame depending on your viewpoint) for Bretton Woods? It is easy to focus on the Great Depression, but he was in charge when the economic framework of the postwar world was laid out. And speaking of cold war frameworks, does Truman get credit for the Cold War structure that successfully avoided a WWIII? And does Clinton get credit for the good times of the nineties? Despite these good times having their roots in the Presidency of Bush Sr? And does Clinton get any blame for the tech bubble burst he did very little to try and stop?

    Then there is the question of weighting. A horse that wins a $10K claiming race by ten lengths is inferior to a horse that wins a Grade I stakes by a nose. FDR gets a 3 for economic policy and Eisenhower gets a 4. FDR was elected three years into the Great Depression and then had to pay for not only the US’s share of WWII but also had to carry the allies along. Then there was that Bretton Woods thing. Eisenhower had to sell a world still trying to rebuild from global destruction all the goods it could afford. Is Felzenberg claiming that if FDR had been a President during good times he would have gotten a -10 for economic policy, whereas Eisenhower would have gotten a +20 if he’d been President in the thirties?

    And finally, would you please have a military historian assign scores, or at least get a say, in Defense rankings. Lincoln is not a 5. He filled the Union ranks with political generals while passing over West Point graduates. The confederacy was allowed the breathing time it needed to build and commit to a war economy. The war dragged on longer and hundred of thousands died needlessly because of his incompetence. The parallels between Bush Jr. and Lincoln on the handling of the military in a war are scary.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  50. will says:

    This is a very pro-war ranking scheme. What do Coolidge, Harding, Hoover, and Carter have in common, to get such low rankings for national defense? They kept the country out of war. The worst imperialists, like McKinley and Polk get 5s for national defense. Though at least LBJ and Madison get 1s, presumbably for starting stupid wars.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  51. Jon Kay says:

    These rankings are truly odd and a little silly. Reagan and Kennedy in the top tiers?!? At best Reagan was rigidly doctrinaire about his worldview (although settled for less at the bargaining table) and Kennedy did virtually nothing during his administration, preferring to duck the big issues of the day. Nixon was by far a more pragmatic (albeit psychological disturbed) and intellectually curious president. I presume Clinton received bad marks for his sexual indiscretions. I am not familiar with Felzenberg but I would rank him quite high on lazy thinking.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  52. duward in atlanta says:

    Grant at 7? A 3 in competence as related to being president? A favorite of mine, but as a general…not a president. As for Lincoln, he cannot be blamed for the pool from which he was able to draw his commanders. Remember, Lee was recruited, but went with VA.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  53. JEP says:

    Reagan gets a 5 for character??? What would he get if he didn’t illegally sell weapons to Iran and fund the contras and right wing death squads in Central America? But apparently he didn’t cheat on his wife, so he’s got that going for him. Which is nice.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  54. doppleclutch says:

    Why aren’t the presidents also evaluated separately on their post-presidential careers?

    These categories seem biased towards Republican talking points–”Preserving and Extending Liberty” sounds like “It’s Morning In America”.

    How about a category for “Protection and Defense of the Constitution of the United States?”

    Why does Reagan get a 5 for Character when his administration is knee deep in trading weapons to terrorist states for US hostages?

    Does toppling democratically elected governments in South America warrant a “4″ for “Preserving and Extending Liberty”?

    Though Carter had a troubled presidency, he is not given enough credit for raising Human Rights as a Foreign Policy issue (does this count towards “Extending Liberty?”). His post-presidency work is much admired worldwide and should be factored into the Report Card. Bush I basically collected monies for speaking engagements for questionable entities, and the jury is still out on Clinton’s post-presidency career.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  55. D Sims says:

    The hagiography of Reagan continues to astonish me. Leave aside the ethical questions surround Iran-Contra. His economic policies were smoke-and-mirrors. They led to annual deficits for federal government spending in excess of 4.5% of GDP in four of his eight years in office. H.W. Bush then managed the feat twice. According the Office of Budget and Management, no other administrations between 1948 and 2004 have done this even once. http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2009/pdf/hist.pdf

    And how does one assign a numerical value to character and vision? Overall, these rankings start with a set of vaguely defined and subjective criteria, fail to apply even those sketchy standards with quantitative rigor, and produce a pointless result. SABRmetrics it ain’t.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  56. Tunga Kiyak says:

    I had no idea who Alvin Felzenberg was, but the moment I glanced at the ratings, it was clearly obvious that he was a conservative Republican. Indeed, just a little Googling (as Mr. Felzenberg suggested we do in his interview) verifies that fact clearly.

    I agree with many of the criticisms above. These rankings seem only as useful and objective as restaurant reviews published in newspapers or on the web: based on personal preferences and biases…

    There is not much justification of the rankings (my hope is the book has more of it), but the choice of dimensions, the way they are weighted, and the scores given suggest a complete subjective approach. For example, from where I stand, the “Character” dimension seems to have been solely introduced so that G.H.W. Bush (having a score of 5) can be ranked above Clinton (with a score of 2). Character getting the same weight as Economic policy is laughable at best. The fact that the only policy issues considered are Defense and National Security, Economics, and Liberty also show a distinct conservative bias. Where are social issues (women’s equality,and civil rights)? And social programs (education, healthcare, poverty)?

    Then there is Competence… Isn’t the goal of the whole index, seeing which President was more competent? So, how do you include that as a dimension in a ranking that’s supposed to end up measuring that exact same thing?

    These rankings would fail to pass any kind of proper academic or scientific analysis.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  57. Jim says:

    Reagan was a dunce who mindlessly promoted supply side economics which is largely, if not entirely, responsible for this current crisis, the historic disparity in wages, the succession of bubbles, and any number of innane policies. He interpreted the theory in a way that the economists who created the theory disagreed with and he turned his perverted interpretation of that theory into a religion now feverishly celebrated by the right. (In fact, much of what McCain says about the economy is just this sort of gibberish.) In short, this ranking is hogwash.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  58. Eric says:

    @27 Are you seriously saying we would be better off as a country if we had not entered WWII? Beyond pulling us out of the depression, we would have been involved in a totally different type of cold war afterward (maybe not so cold with Hitler in charge). In addition, while we were trying militarily (I know we were providing economic support to the allies) to stay out of it, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Germany approached Mexico to try to get them to attack us. How do either of those events amount to FDR “trying his best to get us involved.”

    @9

    Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Grant and McKinley would not recognize the Republican Party of today as the same one they were part of, so it really says nothing in particular about the current ideologies of either party (given how much they both have changed over time) by the number of “top ten” presidents from each. If you look post party-realignment during FDR’s time, you end up with two republicans and two democrats.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  59. talmans says:

    This is nonsense but it does provoke discussion since I can’t leave with out commenting on how lame it is. I agree with the author that a president needs to be empathetic, in tune with the times and have a vision. I totally disagree with his method.

    While presidents are, simultaneously, protagonists and victims of their times they are essentially administrators of the departments of government. Their leadership and the results for each department should be the criteria. This applies to how well the country functioned during their terms and after.

    Truman created the Marshall plan that re-industrialized europe and japan after wwII. This started 50 years of prosperity and kept us out of another major war. That alone should be a 5 for vision, competence, defense and economic policy. He also had the good sense to listen to his top advisors like George C Marshal.

    Heck, the first 6 presidents created the government, the justice department, navy, defense department, central bank, etcc. All students of history. These things held the union together when states wanted to go their own way. Most decisions stood a 200 year test of time. We’re still arguing about the same stuff today. How they don’t all rate 5′s for vision, competence, liberty, defense across board makes no sense to me.

    Carter created the department of transportation and tried to set us on a course for energy independence. Seems like good vision to me.

    Seems like we doc them for short term mistakes and overlook the long term wins.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  60. PaulK says:

    @48 jblog: “Two words: dot-com bubble.” – are you joking? The dot com bubble was a bubble because the dot coms had no impact on the economy (GDP) and was just stock-market hysteria (bidding up companies that were in fact generating no revenue or profit).

    The economy got into trouble after Bush came into office in large part due to a huge drop in consumer confidence, caused in large part by: a messed up election, wall street crashes from the dot coms, increasing imports and the impact on local companies, etc. The economy was strong during Clinton’s years as measured by GDP and consumer confidence, which is the only way to measure it.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  61. Ryan says:

    Awful lot of Reagan haters on here…guess you don’t have to understand economics to read an “economics blog.”

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  62. bunnyblaster says:

    I wonder if they will publish a comprehensive meta guide on presidential rankings. Also tag the information of changes over time would be very nice.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  63. 40for60 says:

    Giving Reagan a 5 in economic policy pretty much destroys the credibility of this ranking system, unless you consider raising taxes on individuals earning less than $35k (by raising FICA tax rates more than the benefit of lower tax rates) and racking up enormous deficits is sound policy.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  64. Pat says:

    I think the real desire here was to be revisionist more than anything else. Anyone can right a book about Abraham Lincoln, but if you write Abraham Lincoln: was he gay? you get a lot more copies sold. The other important thing to note is that this is a one man book, while those previous ranking’s he aims to prove false were based on polls of several hundred professors. One man’s opinion is about as relevant as this: http://www.theonion.com/content/opinion/stegosaurus_is_my_second (though not as funny)

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  65. Dan says:

    I can think of a couple of better questions.

    1) Does this book serve any useful purpose at all?

    2) Why is it on Freakonomics? Have we run out of interesting people to Q&A?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  66. makeitemphatic says:

    What a wack job this guy is. little more than an apologist for late 20th and early 21st century Republicans.

    G.H.W. Bush on the same ranking as Jefferson and Adams? Cleveland with Chester A. Arthur and marginally above Harding? Nixon with a 2 in vision? No method of assessing L.B. Johnson’s domestic contributions?

    And Reagan. Sheesh.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  67. William Conlow says:

    This is a joke. You’re on an economics blog. Are you going to tell me that the “Economic Policy” score should be higher for Calvin Coolidge than FDR? Ever heard of the Great Depression. Also, your Republican Party ideology is not only out of fashion, but nearly comical the way you give President Reagan and President Clinton the same ranking for “Competence” when it is universally understood fact that Reagan was developing Alzheimer’s while still in the Big Chair. Weak, Weak, Weak.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  68. Ed says:

    There is still way too much bias as to how the numbers are assigned, so this system is just as biased as ranking presidents by someone’s gut impression. In addition, equal weight for all these criteria is probably unnecessary. For example, character gets equal weight to foreign affairs. Not so sure that is the balance I care about. Second, one’s perception of a grade is colored by what is important to you as an individual. Given the whole Iran-Contra affair, I sure would not give Reagan 4′s and 5′s in character and extending freedom.

    People’s perception of a president’s effect on the economy are also warped by how things go during their term. For example, Clinton probably does get too much credit for how things went during his term and Carter gets worse marks than he should because of the oil crisis. What presidents do to affect the economy long term really should be the measuring stick we judge presidents by. For example, the G.I. bill championed by Truman is responsible for us having the educated work force that drove our economic engine in the the 50′s, 60′s, and 70′s yet Truman is given a 2 for the economy and Reagan is given a 5 despite the fact the economy did well under him because of drops in oil prices and a huge national debt. The economic grade also doesn’t seem to take into effect how the middle class does under each president. In fact, from my reading of the interview, FDR was graded down because he paid too much attention to something as silly as worker’s rights.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  69. King Politics says:

    A better maker is asking how presidents responded to 1. Defining events, and 2. Whether or not they grew their party. That’s sign of success. Do Americans believe in you and your message even after you’ve left office?

    http://kingpolitics.com

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  70. Tom says:

    Gee, I wonder if you’re a Republican.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  71. Jayson Virissimo says:

    The fact that FDR gets a 4 in “Preserving and Extending Liberty” makes this whole thing look like a joke. He locked people up in prison camps because they were Japanese, for crying out loud!

    Also, Clinton is way lower than other much less worthy presidents.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  72. Doug says:

    @58 If you’re looking for how FDR was doing his best to pull the US into WWII, maybe you should look at the freezing of assets, blockades and economic pressures that he put on Japan. That along with cutting off their oil basically backed them into a corner – from the Japanese perspective, they could either attack the US or be forced to abandon the war altogether due to lack of funds and resources.

    There are stories about the European front too… he wanted to go to war, but knew it was unpopular.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  73. Richard T. says:

    This table looks like it was created by a right-winger. Reagan’s economic policies merit a “5″? The man ran up the largest deficits in the history of the world. Look it up.

    Jefferson and FDR get a “3″ for character, while Reagan and Ike get a “5″? Hmmm.

    This looks like some FOX news phone-in survey.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  74. Dolla says:

    Tyler ahead of Nixon? OKAY

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  75. Nemo says:

    “He didn’t disclose whom he voted for…”

    He doesn’t need to; the ranking leaves little to the imagination.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  76. ascendingPig says:

    How could you possibly give Lincoln, the first President to officially suspend first amendment rights in an emergency and among the first to imprison his political opponents for protesting his war, a 5 in preserving and extending liberty? The only reason he could have anything above a 0 is that he freed the slaves, and that legislation was only introduced essentially to punish rogue states.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  77. Blorf says:

    Nixon rightly deserves a 1 in economic policy and character, but giving him only a 3 in foreign policy is just silly. If someone could cogently explain how Washington deserves a “5″ in economic policy, I’d like to hear it.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  78. Steve says:

    Dubya should get 3 for the first category and 1 for the rest – giving him a 1.33 average for bottom.

    I also am convinced that Reagan is one of the 3 WORST presidents in the 20th century. His economic policy was a joke but those extolling his virtues are always the corrupt scumbags who benefited by his incompetent policies that inflated the stock market at the expense of real investment.

    On defense, he never saw an opportunity to waste money on procurements that he didn’t grab because it created jobs for Republican supporters while the deficit spending could pass its costs on to the poor and future generations.

    He demonstrated absolutely no vision where it counted. As a result, energy policy is in a shambles and the country has effectively de-industrialized by at least 50%. See if anyone wants to buy U.S. paper any more!

    And anyone who lets his wife’s consulting of astrologers influence policy has little character. (Unfortunately, this is more and more of a problem as the fundamentalist imbeciles gain influence with so many politicians)

    Its almost tempting to give Dubya a 2 for economic policy since he inherited Reagan’s mess and it crashed on his watch, but he was a true believer – so no, he deserves his 1.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  79. Nicholas Vahlkamp says:

    It’s pathetic, no tragic, what parades for scholarship today. AS IF Prof. Felzenberg has any credibility as an impartial arbiter of these categories, their ratings, or an intimate knowledge of each president’s performance! I’m tempted to say “I know know Doris Kerns Goodman, and you’re no D.K.Goodman!”…But then even she wouldn’t have the chutzpa to profess such an extensive knowledge of all the presidents. AS far as I’m concerned, this whole article is little more than a vehicle to sell Felzenberg’s book. I guess we just get the political science scholarship we deserve!

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  80. Charles says:

    Steve – so wrong, so uneducated on so many fronts. So so so Steve. I disagreed with Reagan on a few fronts, but the guy got it done like no president in my lifetime. Just be up front and say you are a liberal and you don’t like him rather than prove you ignorance.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  81. Smitty says:

    This scale is questionable. I suppose I need to buy the book for all the particulars, but a few comments based on my first glance:

    - In order to accurately rate, we need to base our grading higher on performance, not results. Results are suggestive, but not conclusive, because many factors remained outside the control of these Presidents.

    - If we use Lincoln as a benchmark, we can more easily rate the rest.

    - Putting any of the last 5 Presidents in the top 5 is a big mistake, as the history has not yet entirely been concluded on their activities.

    - Progress must be measured also by the success of that President to push the country forward, which does not imply Liberal or Conservative thought, necessarily, but enlightened decision-making ability.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  82. Bonnie B says:

    Reagan’s economics a 5? Two words: trickle down. Two more: indiscriminate deregulation.

    Reagan’s character a 5? As Governor of California he shut down the state mental hospitals during that devastating period of homelessness, promising community facilities that were never planned and never materialized. Working in a downtown office in a major city, I witnessed the horrific consequences consistently ignored by those in positions of responsibility. In particular by the man most responsible, Governor Ronald Reagan. About a week after each hospital was closed came a new wave of our most helpless citizens, without resources and homeless. Now our most helpless victims. As far as I’m concerned there’s a special, very deep circle in hell for those responsible.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  83. Joel says:

    The analysis of pre-1900 presidents strikes me as completely arbitrary. I’m not going to get into discussion of bias (it is plainly evident).

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  84. Mike M says:

    George H.W. Bush > Reagan

    Any fool can lower taxes. It takes a strong constitution to raise them though. Reagan made a mess, Bush cleaned it up, and Clinton took the credit for the following expansion.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  85. Leslie Reid says:

    I am glad to see that at least one other person has commented on the ratings criteria. Personally, I am dismayed that “management of the economy, approach to national security, and expansion of freedom” are the only chosen policy criteria on which to base the effectiveness and competency of a president. I would think that things like health care and education would be on the list given the importance that so many place on them.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  86. Balaji viswanathan says:

    I’m surprized by the fact that Zachary Taylor is placed pretty high in the list (no. 7) when he hardly ruled for 14 months, and without too many achivements to his name. Do you believe that the public had enough chance to evaluate his abilities and character given the short duration?

    Also, I’m surprized by the low points given to Jefferson in almost all the qualities. While Nixon was not great character you have also given him low points in policy, competence etc, which might not be correct.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  87. Dave says:

    First, the practice of applying numerical values to subjective criteria and then throwing them in a blender to provide numerical rankings is a bit suspect from the start (yes I’m looking at you Robert Parker). Are we supposed to think it more objective because there is a number associated with it?

    Second, it is interesting and brings discussion, which is more attainable goal rather than reaching a definitive conclusion.

    Third, other than Jefferson, he seems to agree with Mt. Rushmore.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  88. Mark says:

    Didn’t have time to read through all the interesting blogs – but the subjectivity really seems stunning. For instance, character (including personal character vs professional charater). I certainly would like to know more about how this is assessed – for instance – Reagan may have been loved – but can you truly provide him a 5 for character? Dysfunctional family relationships,Iran-Contra lies or convenient memory lapses, on and on.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  89. Ricky says:

    Yea, Ellenin, Obama is doing an outstanding job of stiching our social fabric back together.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  90. Kshitij Tiwari says:

    I am impressed by your knowledge of the presidency of USA. But, on the whole, in making this list, I think you gave unnecessarily high preference to the character of the presidents rather than their actual achievements while in office. A good character is not the biggest deciding factor, because a good character is meaningless unless you back it up with action.

    For example, while I agree that Franklin D. Roosevelt deserves harsh criticism for his negligence towards lynching, I think that when it comes to achievements, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan don’t come close to him.

    And it’s beyond me how you can give Reagan full marks in handling of economy. We are lucky that Reagan got only 8 years in office because his policies would have ultimately resulted in Great Depression II (which is evident by the fact that when George H. W. Bush adopted economic policies very similar to Reagan’s, there was a recession again).

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0