At Politico Arena, the question of the day is:
A new Siena College poll ranks Barack Obama as the 15th best U.S. president (landing him below Bill Clinton, ahead of Ronald Reagan). Franklin Delano Roosevelt earned top honors, while Andrew Johnson was last. Pollsters say Obama is high on imagination, communication and intelligence, but weak on background. On your list of best presidents, where would President Obama land? Who was the best president, and who was the worst?
Of course Obama ought to be given an incomplete. But he got a Nobel Peace Prize purely on spec. He does now have 18 months of presidential action, and he has already done many things that establishment political scientists like. Presidential scholars love presidents who expand the size, scope and power of government. Thus they put the Roosevelts at the top of the list. And they rate Woodrow Wilson – the anti-Madisonian president who gave us the entirely unnecessary World War I, which led to communism, National Socialism, World War II, and the Cold War – 8th. Now there’s a record for President Obama to aspire to! Create a century of war and terrorism, and you can move up from 15th to 8th.
George Washington, who made real the Founders’ dreams of a free republic, should surely be rated first. That he is not speaks volumes about the interests and values underlying this survey.
In his book Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty, Ivan Eland gives high grades to presidents who left the American people alone to enjoy peace and prosperity, such as Grover Cleveland, Martin Van Buren, and Rutherford B. Hayes. The fact that you can’t remember what any of those presidents did is a plus. At the bottom he places Wilson, Truman, McKinley, Polk, and George W. Bush. Bush is also rated near the bottom by the Siena poll. But when current passions have faded, and the next generation’s establishment presidential scholars reflect on Bush’s expansion of federal power and executive power, Bush will start rising in the rankings.
I’m also amused by the presidential scholars’ ranking of Lyndon Johnson 1st in the category of relations with Congress. LBJ was known for his vulgar, arm-twisting, threatening, corrupt manipulation of a huge congressional majority. One would hope that congressional scholars might rate higher a president who recognized the constitutional limitations of the executive branch.