Ranking Presidents: Categories, Contexts, and Consequences

Upon the conclusion of Donald Trump’s presidency last week, a number of journalists ranked Donald Trump as America’s worst president. Some political scientists are even taking time away from their research agendas to discuss former President Trump’s rank, generating interest and controversy. Historians have also been divided on the activity since Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. published the first poll in Life in 1948. Bancroft Prize winner James T. Patterson opined that “Polls such as these are silly exercises that reveal more about the biases of historians (most of whom are liberals) and about the times than they do about the ability of individual Presidents.” Yet, presidents are conscious of their rank in history and factor it into policy decisions. And we could hardly stop people who live through presidencies from ranking them if we tried. So if political scientists do not do it, the historians will, and accurate evaluations depend on more than one line of expertise.

Below I argue that ranking presidents is fraught with questions that may never be answered, but warrant a dialogue. Social scientists are better suited than others to uncover the context long-term results of a presidential administration. But assessing a presidency is a normative judgement as well as a positive judgement, and neither social scientists nor the voters that presidents serve share universal norms. Ballpark estimates within categories can provide the same incentives to politicians without the crudeness of forced precision.

Which policy categories matter the most?

Assigning precise GPAs, as some rankings do, averages together holistic judgments based on gut feelings together with people assigning quantitative weights to different aspects of a presidency. Who gets to decide whether, say, fiscal policy at home is more important than international relations? Do we change the weights when current events make certain categories more salient? Averaging them all together is like having a singular Yelp rating at a bar that serves food, where the people who value the food rate it differently than the people who value the beverages. Averages within categories are more useful to patrons opting for one or the other.

If one is not using a strictly utilitarian calculus, one needs to make a judgement about how important one category of policy is compared to another. President Trump helped to make white identity politics more mainstream, but his policies led to fewer worldwide deaths than George W. Bush, who initiated the longest wars in U.S. History.

To avoid these conundrums, a more precise ranking system might rank each president along different categories rather than offer a single overall ranking. Some rankings have done that, even if they also offer an overall ranking.

Should presidents be judged in the context of their times?

If presidents are judged by a timeless standard of morality, slaveholders behaved worse than any presidents since the Civil War. Most earlier presidents were probably more sexist than modern presidents, even if the sexism took a different form than modern sexism.

Additionally, not all presidents have had the same opportunity to solve problems, since they had different powers and different world events. John F. Kennedy, reacting to the Schlesinger poll, complained “Only the president himself can know what his real pressures and real alternatives are. If you don’t know that, how can you judge performance?”[1]

If the point of rankings is to encourage good policy by modern standards, we should rank presidents according to whether they took steps in the modern direction given their options at the time. Very few people come across well by standards decades or centuries later. Since presidents cannot possibly meet the future’s unknowable standards, a timeless standard of value might lead them to give up on being on “the right side of history.” But if future generations venerates presidents of the past for progress relative to their context, they encourage good behavior. Abraham Lincoln’s support for deporting the freed slaves fails modern ideas of racial equality, but freeing the slaves was a step in the direction of the same standards. This does not mean presidential evaluations are subjective – only that we should applaud people who accomplish finite improvements despite falling far short of modern standards.

Intentions or consequences?

Ethicists are highly divided on whether individuals should be evaluated by their intentions or the consequences of their actions, or some combination of both. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., recalls that Kennedy considered consequences more important. “For Kennedy,” he wrote, “the measure of presidential success was evidently concrete accomplishment. Presidents who raised the consciousness of the nation without achieving their specific objectives ought, he seemed to think, to rate below those, like Polk and Truman, who achieved their objectives even if they did little to inspire or illuminate the nation. Ironically, historians feel that Kennedy himself comes off better when measured by the TR-Wilson rather than by the Polk-Truman standard.”      

Many presidents had seemingly noble intentions but left a mess in their actions or failures to act. President Woodrow Wilson hoped to avoid another world way by offering Fourteen Points of Peace as the basis for an end to World War I. Germany felt betrayed when it surrendered expecting Wilson’s points and got the Versailles Treaty instead. Wilson put most of his eggs in the League of Nations basket, seeding future discontent by allowing other countries to keep their colonies and treat Germany harshly. The League of Nations failed to prevent another World War and the Versailles Treaty helped German nationalism to thrive.

Evaluating presidents by their consequences alone feels unsatisfying as well. By displaying the terrifying power of atomic warfare, President Harry Truman unintentionally helped prevent direct war between the great powers for generations. Mutually assured destruction created an unprecedented period of peace in Europe. But Truman’s stated intention was only to shorten the war and save lives, and some argue he had less noble motives. Do presidents deserve credit for accomplishing more than they promised or expected?

Public opinion also moves in the opposite direction of the articulated ideologies of presidents. Opinion polls show that Americans became more liberal under President Reagan, more conservative under President Obama, and more supportive of immigrants’ rights under President Trump. It would be odd to credit President Trump for awakening Americans to immigration rights, but by engendering opposition to his policies, that is a real consequence of his presidency.

Philosophers have been debating consequentialist and nonconsequentialist morality for centuries and I cannot resolve the debate here. Anyone making their ranking public should be clear about whether they are judging by a) intentions; b) consequences when they are intended; or c) all consequences, whether intended or unintended.

Ranking Trump

With these caveats in mind, I will try to rank the consequences of the Trump presidency in different categories, relative to his context.

First, let’s consider Trump’s record on race. His rhetoric emboldened white nationalists and conspiracy theorists, and made their positions more viable in a major political party. In terms of policy, Trump issued a travel ban that intentionally discriminated against Muslims and separated migrant children from parents at the border. He also turned away refugees that might have avoided oppression or death if the U.S. provided safe haven. Future policies along these lines seem likely as long as Trumpism remains strong in the Republican Party. Trump signed the First Step Act, which reduces legal penalties that disproportionately harm minorities, but this law seems unlikely to even out the balancing scale.

Still, Trump’s deplorable actions on race were smaller in scale than Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan’s southern appeasement, Andrew Johnson’s interference with Reconstruction, Calvin Coolidge’s Immigration Act of 1924, or Franklin Roosevelt’s[2] Japanese internment. Some of these policies were controversial or unpopular even in their own time. Outside of Southern California, a majority of people interviewed by the government opposed Japanese interment.[3] Johnson’s “Swing Around the Circle” tour against Radical Republicans and civil rights was repudiated in midterm elections. Based on these considerations, Trump’s record on race was worse than most presidents, and perhaps worse than any president since the Civil Rights Movement. But ranking him at the very bottom seems to downplay how much damage other policies did in their time.

In foreign policy, Trump has hollowed out the federal bureaucracy and jeopardized our relationship with allies in Europe and Asia. As much as Trump claimed that he would stand strong against China, he destroyed Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have facilitated a multilateral check on China’s capabilities. Trump was ready to withdraw troops from Syria on the eve of ISIS’s destruction and caused great harm to our allies in Syria. Still, it is difficult to compare these setbacks to full scale wars that have gone badly for America and the world.

More time and research are needed to estimate how many lives would be saved from a different national policy towards COVID; for starters, the death toll continues to climb. Although the US surpasses most other countries on a per person basis, it also has different structural features. Its size and privacy protections made a national testing/tracing policy infeasible, and public health policies vary across states more than most democracies. Some of the deaths can be blamed on the Center for Disease Control’s early failures to ensure reliable testing. But whatever the death toll ends up being, the relevant comparison is how many deaths occurred under Trump’s statements and policies relative to different policies (e.g., a nationally mandated lockdown), and how that compares to avoidable deaths at home and abroad under other presidents. Avoidable deaths from military actions are just as bad as avoidable deaths from disease. The question is whether Trump will be at the bottom or near the bottom in an “avoidable deaths” category.

On economics, Trump failed by the standards of both conservative and liberal economic ideology. Most economists deplore protectionism in general and Trump’s trade restrictions in particular, though they were smaller than their controversial counterparts in the 1920s. Economic liberals opposed Trump’s sizable tax cuts and proposed cuts in social programs. For economic conservatives, Trump promised to protect Medicare, Social Security, and access to health care in the 2016 campaign. Even if he ignored these promises in office, he showed how little they mattered to many Republican voters, portending a future in which Republican politicians focus on social rather than economic conservatism.

The best case for ranking Trump dead last may be his lack of respect for democracy and the Constitution, if one considers them a precondition for progress in all other categories.

James Madison claimed that the “a reliance on the people,” through free and fair elections, is the primary restraints on government abuse. Madison continued on with the importance of checks and balances as “auxiliary precautions.” Other presidents have eroded checks and balances by initiating undeclared wars or unilateral executive policies giving presidents the first-mover advantage. Ranking Trump on this category is fraught with apples to oranges comparisons.

However, Trump’s lack of respect for the integrity of elections is in a class by itself. He threatened to use presidential power to overturn state results in the Electoral College. If he succeeded, all incumbent presidents/parties would have unfair advantages over parties out of power. Close runners-up might include Richard Nixon, who used the powers of office to spy on his opponents, or Lyndon Johnson, who was wiretapping Nixon while he still planned to run for reelection.[4] The Pentagon Papers showed that Johnson and Nixon also routinely lied about the Vietnam War. But Trump lied about his own election and jeopardized the peaceful transfer of power.

Many presidents we evaluate as good helped pave the way for Trump’s policies by increasing unilateral executive power and fixating so much public attention on the president relative to other political actors. Even Republican presidents who enlarge their office are rated highly, despite Democratic Party bias in presidential rankings. In a polity where power was more dispersed among national political figures, presidential rhetoric and policy would have less capacity to accomplish what <insert your favorite president> did but also less capacity to do the harm <insert your least favorite president> did.

Saying that a president is first, last, or 23rd assumes a common agreement about the importance of intentions, consequences, and weights on different policy categories. There isn’t one. Nonetheless, I have laid out a basis for saying that Trump is lower than most presidents in different categories that people care about. Claiming that presidents are in the ballpark of the best or the worst might be a way to hold their feet to the fire without resorting to contrived exactitude.

[1] Quotes about the Schlesinger Poll were originally obtained from the now inactive link http://www.britannica.com/bcom/magazine/article/0%2C5744%2C237511%2C00.html

[2] For a different take on Roosevelt on Race, see Kevin McMahon’s Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race. McMahon stresses Roosevelt’s Fair Employment Practices Commission, even though his arm needed to be twisted, as well as his judicial appointments.

[3] Attorney General Francis Biddle wrote in 1962 that “The Department of Justice, as I had made it clear to him [Roosevelt] from the beginning, was opposed to, and would have nothing to do with, the evacuation…I do not think he was much concerned with the gravity or implications of this step…Nor do I think that the constitutional difficulty plagued him. [219] …It may even be doubted whether, political and special group press aside, public opinion even on the West Coast supported evacuation. A confidential report from the Office of Fact and Figures on March 9, 1942 showed that, outside of Southern California, less than one half of those interviewed favored internment of Japanese aliens, and only 14 percent the internment of citizens of Japanese ancestry. That feeling against the Japanese did not go very deep would appear from the fact that within a year or two after the war, Congress was outdoing itself to make reparation[224]…The President…could probably have withstood the popular pressure [for internment] without loss to the tenacity of his leadership-pressure of a highly vocal minority in the West [226].” From In Brief Authority (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1976, Reprint of 1962 edition).

[4] Johnson found out Nixon was committing treason by discouraging Vietnam from negotiating with the president, but could not go public with the information without revealing that he was spying on an opponent

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