On Historical Rankings of Presidents

Nate Silver has an interesting piece attempting to forecast how historians will ultimately rank Obama, based on what we know about his presidency thus far. I don’t know if he intended this, but Silver did an excellent job undermining the value of these rankings altogether. Reasonable people, of course, may disagree about whether a president was good or not, but we generally have faith that the historians who contribute to these rankings know this material a lot better than we do and aren’t misled by myth and hagiography. Silver’s post suggests that this faith is misguided.

Note this section:

There were five presidents who died during their first terms. It is hard to know how to rank them, particularly William Henry Harrison, who survived for just 32 days into his presidency. However, when asked to do so, historians have viewed four of the five unsympathetically. The exception is John F. Kennedy, whom the historians rank ninth overall. 

I recognize this might be an unpopular position, but one can ask if there is some inconsistency here: whether Kennedy has been ranked so highly based more on his potential than his actual accomplishments…. Harrison, who accomplished almost literally nothing, is not regarded as average but instead as the fourth-worst president. (Put another way, only three presidents’ accomplishments are regarded as having been worse than nothing.) If that is the measure, it is hard to see how Kennedy is ranked similarly to Dwight D. Eisenhower by the historians, when Eisenhower had a very popular and productive presidency and served for almost three times as long.

I think it would be quite fair to just omit William Henry Harrison from such rankings — how can we have any idea how he would have fared? — but to rank him among the worst presidents just seems silly (and rude). And Kennedy is a whole other issue. Why is he considered the ninth best president of all time? His accomplishments while alive were fairly meager, and while he may have claimed many of the successes that Lyndon Johnson won had he survived 1963 and won reelection the following year, he likely would have had many of the same problems that befell LBJ, notably the Vietnam War. Is it possible that presidential historians have fallen for the same post-mortem hagiography on JFK that the public has?

I don’t know what an ideal presidential ranking system would look like. I suppose my fantasy ranking would somehow factor out economic performance, the partisan makeup of Congress, and other factors largely out of the president’s control, and just assess how well the president managed to enact his agenda. But, of course, we’d also need to assess whether that agenda was actually good for the country — both Bushes convinced Congress to endorse war on Iraq, but were both those actions good ideas? — and that’s a lot squishier.

I don’t mean to bash historians. (Some of my best friends are historians! Seriously!) I’m sure that ranked lists trivialize much of what historians do. But if you’re going to rank presidents… well, I’m just not sure we’re really learning anything from these lists.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.