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:

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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.

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  1. 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?

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  2. 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.

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  3. 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?

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  4. d-smart says:

    Amen to #1.

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  5. 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.

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  6. sco says:

    How in the world does Grant make the top 11?

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  7. 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.

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  8. 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.

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