In an earlier post, I pointed out that the usual academic rankings of presidents are flawed. They are flawed because they rely on criteria not in the Constitution’s job description for the president.
As a result, academic rankings consistently overrate liberal activist presidents and underrate those who conscientiously focus on their constitutional responsibilities.
The Constitution lists those responsibilities, and the prior post reproduced that list. It includes such duties as “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” conduct foreign policy and military affairs, and “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”
By contrast, most lists rank presidents on such factors as whether they persuaded Congress to create more programs, whether they changed the country, and whether they “made a difference.” None of these criteria appear in the Constitution.
A good example of the results appear this Washington Post article. It places every modern liberal activist president among the top twenty: Franklin Roosevelt (3rd, after Lincoln and Washington), Theodore Roosevelt (4th), Truman (6th), Clinton (8th), Wilson (10th), Johnson (12th), Kennedy (14th), and Obama (18th). One guesses that Carter is not among the top 20 because he did some conservative things, such as promote deregulation and begin a military buildup after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
If one applies the Constitution’s criteria—the real job description—these rankings change markedly. All the favorite liberal presidents would lose points for their failure to respect the Constitution’s limits on federal power. The Roosevelts, Johnson, and Obama were particularly notorious in this regard.
Similarly, enforcing the laws is another of the president’s core duties, but Clinton committed perjury while in office, and political concerns corrupted law enforcement under several liberal favorites.
Two other core responsibilities are serving as commander-in-chief of the military and carrying out foreign policy. Franklin Roosevelt merits respect for his World War II leadership, but both his foreign policy record and that of Truman are marred by their over-accommodation of Stalin. Johnson’s diplomatic and military efforts in Vietnam fell short by any standards. It is difficult to figure out what Clinton did in foreign policy to merit inclusion in the top 20. Obama’s foreign policy seems to have collapsed on all fronts.
Liberal academics are quick to condemn Nixon for personal failings that infected policy, but several favorite liberal presidents also had failings that impaired their domestic and foreign policy records. Among them were Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton.
Other presidents should, by the Constitution’s criteria, be ranked much higher than they usually are—although not necessarily in the top 20. They concentrated on doing their job and doing it well. They did so not for personal glory, but so Americans could live their lives and control their own destinies. Some of these underestimated presidents include:
- James Madison, for respecting the Constitution to a degree almost unmatched among wartime presidents.
- James Polk, notable for his foreign policy and military achievements.
- Millard Fillmore—who certainly was not in the top 20, but who enforced even laws he disagreed with, promoted international trade, restored diplomatic relations with Mexico, and generally pursued a policy of reconciliation in times of great division.
- Calvin Coolidge, for honest law enforcement, competent (if somewhat romantic) foreign policy, frugal administration, and respect for constitutional limits.
- Ronald Reagan, for his policy recommendations, particularly in the areas of tax and regulation, and an outstandingly successful foreign policy.
- Grover Cleveland certainly belongs in the top 20. As history.com points out, he based political appointments on merit rather than party affiliation, tried to reduce government spending, was a noninterventionist in foreign policy, sought to lower protective tariffs, and was "an honest and hard-working president.”
History.com also tells us that “Cleveland … is criticized for being unimaginative and having no overarching vision for American society” and was “opposed to using legislation to bring about social change.” More reasons, in my view, for including him in the top 20.
There are a few presidents we can agree were very good or very bad. Washington and Lincoln deserve top marks—not for liberal activism, but for their successful efforts to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” during very difficult times. James Buchanan belongs near the bottom for his failure to do so.
One last point: Sometimes a president dies at a time opportune for his reputation. Kennedy’s death certainly prevented further demonstration of his reckless incompetence. And if Lincoln had lived, liberal academics probably would be castigating him today for the same policies of reconciliation for which some now attack his successor, Andrew Johnson.
Rob Natelson, a retired constitutional law professor, is Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver. Since 2013, he has been cited increasingly at the U.S. Supreme Court, both by parties and by justices. He is the nation’s most published active scholar on the amendment process, and heads the Institute’s Article V Information Center. Read more about Rob Natelson here.