On February 18, 2017, C-SPAN released its “Presidential Historians Survey,” which ranked all presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama. Obama’s rank garnered the most headlines. According to the poll, the country’s forty-fourth chief executive comes in as the country’s twelfth best president, a rating that Obama, at best a mediocre president, clearly does not deserve. The poll overrates Obama, as it does most of the 20th and 21st century Democratic presidents, while underrating recent Republican presidents, especially Ronald Reagan.
The poll rated presidents based upon ten criteria: Public Persuasion; Crisis Leadership; Economic Management; Moral Authority; International Relations; Administrative Skills; Relations with Congress; Vision/Setting an Agenda; Pursued Equal Justice For All; Performance within Context of Times. C-SPAN asked ninety historians to participate, and to its credit, C-SPAN polled more than just the leftists who dominate the historical profession. The list includes Irwin Gellman, author of two sympathetic accounts of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan’s biographer Lou Cannon, and the Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson. Even though the network included a couple of conservative scholars in its poll, the overwhelming majority are liberal Democrats, and Democratic presidents such as Obama and, John F. Kennedy, who ranks eighth, receive much better marks than conservative Republican presidents. The other problem with the poll are the categories on which presidents are judged. Two in particular are designed to help Democratic presidents, particularly those from Woodrow Wilson onward, achieve a high ranking, while downgrading recent Republican chief executives. The two categories, “Pursued Equal Justice for All” and “Performance in Context of the Times” are a way for liberal historians to credit modern Democrats for their supposedly stronger civil rights records while at the same time excusing some of those same Democrats for their less than stellar equal justice policies.
Franklin D. Roosevelt is the clearest example of how a liberal bias colors the responses to equal justice question. Judged by our contemporary standards, FDR had a deplorable civil rights record. He refused to a vocal stand against racial segregation and let Congress know he would not sign a bill making lynching a federal crime. It was Roosevelt who signed the executive order putting over 100,000 Japanese American citizens and nationals into internment camps.
Roosevelt was no civil rights crusader but on the question of “Pursued Equal Justice for All,” he ranks eighth. How is that possible? The leftist historians merge “Pursued Equal Justice for All” with “Performance in Context of Times.” Since notions of racial equality were not as advanced eighty years ago as they are today, they excuse Roosevelt’s actions as merely a product of the times.
Most of the scholars want to find some way of protecting Roosevelt’s legacy because they, like FDR, are “Progressives.” It is no surprise, therefore, that of the top ten presidents in “Pursued Equal Justice for All,” all seven of the most recent Democratic presidents are included: Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Every Republican from Dwight Eisenhower onward is outside of the top ten. But as Irwin Gellman has shown in his book The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961, Ike had a very strong civil rights’ record. Gellman is not alone in his findings, as a number of recent authors have reexamined Eisenhower’s policies. The same is true of Richard Nixon. Joan Hoff, author of Nixon Reconsidered, and one of the historians C-SPAN consulted, detailed Nixon’s unappreciated role in desegregating the southern schools. But John F. Kennedy places above both Ike and Nixon in pursued equal justice for all category, despite achieving virtually nothing in terms of ending Jim Crow. In fact, Kennedy tried desperately to avoid civil rights until he was virtually forced to confront the recalcitrance of bigots like Alabama Governor George Wallace.
Despite his singular lack of accomplishments in civil rights and everything else, Kennedy ranks one spot higher than Ronald Reagan, who comes in at ninth. While a lot of conservatives might be pleased that Reagan is in the top ten, he should certainly be ahead of JFK. Reagan’s eight years were marked by striking successes, especially winning the Cold War and presiding over the largest peacetime economic boom in American history.
Yet, in the survey, Reagan incredibly comes in at sixteenth in “Economic Management.” Even more startling is that Barack Obama gets better marks on his handling of the economy, coming eight spots ahead of Reagan. By any statistical measurement, Reagan left behind a far stronger economy than Obama did. During Reagan’s presidency the Gross Domestic Product rose by 3.5 percent annually, while under Obama’s watch, economic growth was anemic, averaging just over 2 percent. Reagan cut inflation by more than half and his policies created 17 million jobs. When Obama left office in January 2017, a record number of eligible Americans (95 million) were not in the workforce. Such facts were largely ignored by the poll’s historians.
Reagan also gets knocked down because of his perceived lack of administrative skills. In that category, Reagan is number thirty-three on the list. The image of Reagan as a befuddled old man who was controlled by his advisors still persists. But the opposite is true. Reagan’s management style contributed greatly to his success. He surrounded himself with smart and capable counselors. Reagan knew what to prioritize and allowed to his staff to worry about details. Reagan delegated, but he was the one who always made the final decision. That was strong leadership and evidence of a skillful administrator.
Despite getting poor marks in some areas, Reagan still ranks as one of the ten best chief executives. It is likely that most of the historians only grudgingly gave Reagan credit for all his accomplishments. But a clear majority were only too happy to overrate Obama. Of the ninety historians C-SPAN consulted, maybe four or five voted against Barack Obama, while of those who were old enough to vote in 1980 and 1984, I would guess that five at most cast a ballot for Reagan. Unfortunately, the historians allow their political and ideological biases to cloud their judgment and undervalue Ronald Reagan’s legacy while elevating Barack Obama to a status he does not deserve.