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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But consider the cost of that effectiveness: Wilson's policies arguably helped foment World War II, and they certainly led to bigger and more aggressive government. Johnson's policies helped create welfare dependency as an American way of life. And Bush's policies both dragged us into an unnecessary war in Iraq and, with the addition of Medicare's prescription drug benefit, provided for the greatest expansion of government in recent history. All three were effective; all three were wrong.Skip to next paragraph
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Presidents also are frequently evaluated on how they respond to crises – rather than whether they could have prevented them. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt are consistently ranked among America's greatest presidents. All three served during periods of great turmoil: the Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression/World War II.
But why not give extra credit to presidents who keep us out of war? Ulysses S. Grant, for example, who kept us out of war with Spain in 1869-70 during a rebellion in Cuba, is generally rated lower in the history books than William McKinley, who took us to war against the same adversary for similar reasons in 1898.
Let's be honest: Sometimes what a president doesn't do is more important than what he does.
Martin Van Buren, for example, deserves high marks for acting with restraint during the economic panic of 1837, which prevented a deeper depression and allowed the market to correct itself. Compare that to the bail-everybody-out policies coming from Washington today.
He also avoided several wars, thus preserving limited government and restraining executive power. Compare that to the aggressive and activist policies coming from Washington today.
Calvin Coolidge lacked charisma, generally avoided government intervention, and served during a time of peace. He is known today as Silent Cal and is all but ignored by historians. I consider him among America's best chief executives.
We need to judge our presidents not by who they were, how they led, or how they governed, but by what they did. If they upheld the Constitution and enhanced peace, prosperity, and liberty, they should be ranked high. If they detracted from these important qualities, they should be judged more harshly.