Two presidency scholars, Justin Vaughn and Brandon Rottinghaus, will release a survey of their fellow political scientists who specialize in the presidency. (They are both friends of mine and Justin and I have written a few papers together) The survey- in which I participated – asks respondents to identify presidents who were overrated and underrated, and to evaluate presidents in several areas. It’s a good effort to systematize scholarly evaluations and compare it to scholars’ perceptions of conventional wisdom. Jonathan Bernstein praised the survey for its emphasis on skill. Bernstein’s piece, and the survey itself, raise good points about the need for scholars to develop transparent and systematic criteria for evaluating leaders.

I’ve written about presidential evaluation here before, and I feel compelled to expand a bit in response to the attempt to systematically evaluate presidential skill. Even when we attempt to develop static criteria for presidential leadership, evaluating presidents is a historical exercise. It requires evaluators to understand the political conditions of the past, and to ask questions about the relationship between historical developments and current conditions. (Throughout the post, I’ll use “we” and “us” to refer to anyone evaluating presidential leadership, scholars/experts or otherwise. My use of this pronoun is also somewhat ethnocentric here and reflects my perspective as an American politics scholar and a U.S. citizen living in the United States.)

Presidential history is American history

Andrew Jackson is probably the classic example of this dilemma. Rottinghaus and Vaughn report that their academic respondents revealed great ambivalence about Old Hickory. He demonstrated a fair amount of strength in skill in getting others to do what he wanted. There’s no escaping the moral downside, though. His treatment of Native Americans through removal policies, especially cruel Trail of Tears, complicates our ability to admire his political successes.

Jackson’s decisions were part of a larger system of nineteenth century policy toward the native population (read more about this in Stephen Rockwell’s book, Indian Affairs and the Administrative State in the Nineteenth Century, which I cannot recommend enough ). If someone else had been president from 1829 to 1837, different decisions might have been made. Would that alternative president – John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, who knows – have brought justice and equality for Native Americans? Probably not. The debate about so-called Indian removal (involuntarily moving communities westward) began before Jackson’s presidency, and systematic abuse of Native communities lasted for many more years after Jackson left office.

Questions about slavery and the mistreatment of African-Americans are similar. The first president to really stake political capital on civil rights was Harry Truman, and some accounts suggest that he nevertheless held racial attitudes that would be objectionable by today’s standards.

Of course past leaders are limited by the prevailing ideas of their historical contexts, and yet of course any rejection of moral relativism should apply across time as well as across space. But when we fail to grapple with racial injustice perpetuated by past presidents, we aren’t giving them a pass for being products of their times. Instead, we are giving ourselves a pass for being products of our history.

In other words, our reaction to the racial wrongs of presidents past tends to be over-historicized. Their ideas were wrong, the logic goes, because of outdated ways of thinking, which, happily for us, have been left in the past. This places historical presidents on a different evaluative grid, and it suggests that these injustices are something we no longer need to worry about. The legacy of these ideas, though, is still very much alive when it comes to disparities in the well-being of different groups in American society. From the standpoint of scholarship, policy, and plain old citizenship, it’s productive to ask whether a particular president made decisions that contributed to racial hierarchy and white supremacy in the United States. Or did a particular president, despite personal imperfections, make decisions that helped mitigate this circumstance, or to move toward greater justice? These questions don’t require us to move the moral goalposts, only to be honest about where current society and leaders – in addition to those of the past – stand in relation to them.

Norms and expectations are a big part of the presidency

I really like Bernstein’s to-the-point phrasing when he says, “I ask how good they were at presidenting, not whether I agree with their policies.” Presidenting, however, is largely a matter of conforming to or defying norms and expectations.

This dynamic contributes to the difference between ratings in retrospect and ratings of the most recent presidents. Presidents who defy the norms of the time by reconceptualizing the power base of the presidency, the acceptable scope of presidential involvement, or the political practices of presidents and aspirants, often face major backlash. Jackson’s presidency is full of examples, as is FDR’s. Lincoln was often working without direct precedent during the Civil War, with little blueprint provided by the norms established by either Jacksonian Democrats or Whigs. Theodore Roosevelt’s pursuit of the nomination through primaries, Jimmy Carter’s efforts to make the image of the presidency less formal, and Obama’s occasional attempts to defer to Congress on policy-making are also examples of presidents who chose to defy immediate precedent and received norms. Eisenhower’s “hidden-hand” leadership might also fall into this category, as it defied the norms established by the communicative and active presidency of FDR. Nevertheless, in retrospect, Ike’s approach might seem, to many evaluators, to have been effective and appropriate.

Mostly, though, the norm violation goes the other way, and presidents get more involved in policy, communicate more directly, and refine more unilateral tools, than their predecessors, which makes them look controversial in their own times and powerful in historical perspective, once the standards they defied have become routine.

Skill is not apolitical

Thanks to a sparsely written Article II, the tools of presidential influence have never been clearly settled. Per the point above, these tactics have been shaped and constrained by informal norms. Tactics for persuading Congress have been especially controversial. Jefferson used his personal friendships and skill at throwing dinner parties to persuade members of Congress to do what he wanted – while maintaining the appearance of a deferential presidency. This worked well for Jefferson but left little in the way of institutional capacity for his successors. Andrew Jackson’s use of the veto on policy rather than Constitutional grounds was a new and disruptive innovation. Speaking directly to the people about policy was also a tactic that evolved alongside changing norms and changing technology.

We see this with contemporary presidents, too. Examples include what many perceived as Bush’s use of ideological patronage as part of his toolkit to accomplish policy goals, and Obama’s use of extensive “ground game” operations and use of electronic and social media. Both of these choices have implications for institutions that will outlast their presidencies, like the executive branch and their respective parties. The way we think about how historical presidents used tactics and resources is often under-historicized.

Evaluating presidents is normative work, which can be uncomfortable for scholars accustomed to empirical research. But the choices often perceived as normative also reflect the need to place presidents in historical context. This means understanding presidential choices as the result of the ideas and constraints of their times – not just products of their raw skill. It also means understanding their impact on the development of American politics. By trying too hard to develop objective criteria, we risk losing sight of the historical component. Thinking about presidential leadership isn’t just a fun game; it’s also an opportunity for reflection about our priorities, values, and expectations.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.