From Van Buren to Bush, a better way to rank US presidents
Did they uphold the Constitution, and promote peace, prosperity, and liberty?
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The problem with most rankings is not that they're subjective, but that they're based on the wrong criteria, such as charisma, intellect, communications skill, leadership, or management style.
Some presidential scholars emphasize effectiveness or how a president responded to a crisis. Bland men in boring times rarely achieve much note.
It's time to rethink the way we rate presidents. An effective president is not necessarily great, or even successful, if he effectively implements policies that are bad for the country.
Presidential rankings should be based on different standards: Did the president uphold the Constitution, and have an agenda that contributed to peace, prosperity, and liberty, and was he reasonably adept at getting that agenda implemented?
Presidents cannot take credit or be blamed for what they inherit when they take office. If they at least try to move the country in the right direction – as Jimmy Carter did when he proposed a top-to-bottom review of federal programs and government spending, known as "zero-based budgeting "– they deserve more credit than presidents who go along with things that are wrong.
Indeed, Carter, who is underrated as president, reduced government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) faster than any other modern president, began deregulation of many industries, and nominated Paul Volcker to serve as Federal Reserve chairman. He was The main architect of the "tight money" policies that helped trigger the Reagan and Clinton booms.
The late historian Stephen Ambrose, biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower, argued in his book "Eisenhower: Soldier and President," that an author's partisanship distorts the attempt to rate the effects of presidential decisions. A "more fruitful" way to judge a president, Mr. Ambrose wrote, is to assess "how well he did in achieving the tasks and goals he set for himself at the time he took office."
Such valueless judgments are the opposite of how historians should judge our presidents. By Ambrose's standard, any president with the skill – or the favorable conditions – to get his programs enacted could be labeled a good or great chief executive, even if the programs hurt the country. Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush would all rank high in such a system, because they were all reasonably effective in getting (misguided) policies implemented.