Ranking Presidents: The Problem of Evaluative Questions

When we talked on Friday afternoon about the kinds of questions that historians ask, the trickiest category seemed to be what Philip Gleason called “evaluative question”: What does this mean? Was it good, right, just, etc.?

As an example: check out the newest edition of C-SPAN’s ranking of American presidents. First attempted at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, then reprised after George W. Bush, this newest version coincides with the end of the Obama administration. You can read the full methodology here, but in brief: C-SPAN asked over ninety distinguished historians, political scientists, journalists, and other presidential observers to rank all forty-four presidents (not the current one) 1-10 on ten different categories of presidential performance, from Public Persuasion to Crisis Leadership to Relations with Congress.

Mount Rushmore

From left to right, the 2nd, 7th, 4th, and 1st rated presidents according to the new C-SPAN survey – Creative Commons (Dean Franklin)

In other words, the participants were asked evaluative questions about a certain segment of the American past. Their collective answer is fun to read through, and good at sparking heated conversations. (“Is JFK really the 8th greatest president?”) And some of the changes since 2000 and 2009 reflect shifts in presidential historiography: e.g., U.S. Grant started way down at #33 when the survey was first conducted, but he’s now up to #22, the top half of the table — no doubt because historians now tend to view his staunch support of Reconstruction much more positively (a shift I touched on Friday).

But this exercise also reveals two of the problems with evaluative questions that came up in our discussion:

1. As Aidan suggested, it’s hard to answer such questions about the very recent past. For example, do we really have enough distance from the presidency of Barack Obama (#12) in order to assess his performance? It’s notable that in 2009 George W. Bush started off in the bottom ten (#36), but he’s already jumped three spots — and made especially significant upward moves in the categories of Public Persuasion (+11), Relations with Congress (+9), and Pursuing Equal Justice for All (+5). That suggests that historians are already reassessing his time in office, just eight years later.

(Perhaps because they’re responding to the current political context, in which the current Republican president sounds and acts quite differently from Bush 43 and Bush 41.)

2. Like all history, this exercise is inherently subjective — and so prone to criticism that it reflects partisan politics more than thoughtful scholarship. Not only do different historians rate the same president differently, despite having the same evidence, but I’m not sure that they rate each of these categories equally — or even agree that they’re all significant categories.

And each historian brings her own presuppositions to the exercise. For example, if you’re a conservative who is suspicious about the expansion of executive power or government regulation, you’re probably going to disagree strongly with the high rankings of progressive Democrats like Franklin D. Roosevelt (#3) and Lyndon Baines Johnson (now at #10). By the same token, progressives might admire Woodrow Wilson for helping usher in reforms that paved the way for FDR’s New Deal, but his record on civil rights, women’s rights, and civil liberties probably led them to rate him lower. (He has dropped two spots since 2009, and five since 2000. We’ll return to the case of Wilson in late March or early April.)

What strikes you most about the rankings? How valuable is this kind of exercise?

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2 thoughts on “Ranking Presidents: The Problem of Evaluative Questions

  1. One thing that immediately struck me from this article was the rating of the Presidents leading up to the American Civil War during the mid 1800s. Almost all of them rank at the very bottom of the C-SPAN rankings. James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, and Millard Fillmore in particular (43, 41, and 37 respectively out of 43) all rank in the bottom 10. Based on my current knowledge of the period leading up to the Civil War, it make sense as most of theses Presidents did a poor job while in office. That being said, one of the big problems in ranking President’s arises within this view. Buchanan, Pierce, and Fillmore may not have done a great job in office, however, the times in which they led the nation were not conducive to success in office. The country was strongly divided and it was nearly impossible to do anything without upsetting a large percentage of the population. For this reason, I think that these rankings cannot be a definitive resource for evaluating the quality of Presidents. While they are very entertaining to look at and read about, and they do give a general idea of who the best and worst Presidents are, there is much more to each presidency than the rankings can share, and I did not even begin to scratch the surface on how time changes opinion.

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