The Bright Coast

Progressive Thoughts from San Diego Alums on Law, Politics, and Culture

Ranking the Chief Executives: 2009 Presidential Leadership Survey

Posted by demkid on February 16, 2009

For President Lincoln’s 200th birthday, it was appropriate that the latest historical ranking of now 42 former presidents had Abe in the first position.  This C-SPAN 2009 Historians Presidential Leadership Survey was the first major scholarly ranking in four years, and is a follow-up to the same survey from 2000.  Perhaps more interesting than Lincoln taking the top spot (as has been the case in the majority of presidential rankings over the years) was the fact that our most recent former president was ranked for the first time.  I was actually quite shocked at where the 65 historians placed George W. Bush, just a month after leaving office.  These historians put President Bush in the 36th position, meaning they felt he was the 7th-worst chief executive in the history of this country.  For some context, this puts Bush nine spots below Richard Nixon, and just three spots away from William Henry Harrison, whose presidency lasted a mere 32 days!  Now, I’m one of the first to say that it was a crappy eight years under Dubya, but such a low ranking truly astonishes me.  Bush does note that his biggest accomplishment was keeping this country safe after 9/11 (which I agree is an accomplishment, but the degree is debatable), and he was, in fact, re-elected (ok, again debatable), but he’s the lowest-ranked two-term president in the survey. 

What’s really interesting is that the C-SPAN survey breaks the overall number down further into individual leadership characteristics.  These are: public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision/setting an agenda, pursuit of equal justice for all, and performance within the context of his times.  As historian Edna Medford noted, “Lincoln continues to rank at the top in all categories because he is perceived to embody the nation’s avowed core values: integrity, moderation, persistence in the pursuit of honorable goals, respect for human rights, compassion; those who collect near the bottom are perceived as having failed to uphold those values.”  Meaning, the historians basically said, “Hey Georgie…you suck!!”  President Bush did best in equal justice, vision, and crisis leadership, but he still ranked 24th, 25th, and 25th in these categories respectively.  For the fun part, he ranked second from the bottom in international relations, and third-to-last in economic management, mere tenths of a percent ahead of Hoover.  Ouch.

I do have a feeling that Dubya’s ranking will improve (perhaps only slightly) as the years go on, and of course a lot depends on how things turn out in Iraq and the broader Middle East.  Also, as has been noted, presidential rankings depend a lot on what’s going on in America at any given time, and it’s generally difficult to have an accurate assessment of any president who recently left office.  That being said, it will be interesting to see how history (historians?) treat President Bush in the future.

Aside from the overall Bush number, there weren’t very many significant changes from the 2000 survey.  Rutherford B. Hayes dropped seven spots (why no love?), President Grant rose ten, and Bill Clinton gained six positions to number fifteen overall (perhaps a good sign for Bush that historians may judge him less harshly a decade from now.)  Bill is now the third-best president for economic management, and fourth-best for equal justice.  However, there’s no saving him in the moral authority category, where he currently sits in 37th place, but just two spots below George W.  Fancy that!

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4 Responses to “Ranking the Chief Executives: 2009 Presidential Leadership Survey”

  1. euandus said

    I’m not sure W’s rating will move up. I think almost all presidents have been too partisan to preside effectively.

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