Siena Presidential Scholar President Rankings: Are They Biased?

The Siena Research Institute asked 238 presidential scholars to rank each president from 1 (best) to worst (43) in nineteen different categories, plus one overall ranking. A complete list of the rankings is here.

Before peering inside the numbers, let us remind ourselves that the presidential “scholars” Siena polled are academic, intellectual scholars, which are, of course, the best kind of scholars to have. So, with this in mind, who do you think came in worst? No, it wasn’t George W Bush—he was fifth from the bottom—it was Democrat Andrew Johnson, a man who, it must be admitted, would make a strong run for the bottom of many lists.

To the numbers! Here are the median ranks for each presidential character (all Whigs and Federalists and George Washington were classified as Republicans; so was Teddy Roosevelt, who called himself one; Democratic-Republican Jeffersonians were classified as Democrats). Remember: lower is better.

Trait Democrat Republican
Party Leadership 12.5 27
Executive Appointments 13.0 28
Domestic Accomplishments 13.0 26
Communication 13.5 28
Imagination 13.5 28
Executive Ability 13.5 27
Overall.Rank 13.5 27
Ability Compromise 14.0 25
Willing.Take.Risks 14.0 27
Court Appointments 14.5 28
Leadership.Ability 14.5 26
Present Overall View 14.5 27
Overall.Ability 15.0 27
Relationship Congress 15.5 27
Handling US Economy 15.5 25
Intelligence 16.0 28
Luck 16.5 24
Background 18.0 25
Avoid Crucial Mistakes 18.5 23
Foreign Policy Accomplishments 19.5 26
Integrity 21.0 22

By some miracle, the Democrats score better rankings for every single trait. Stalwart and trustworthy Democrats even bested Republicans for Integrity: we will call this result Kennedy’s Revenge. Democrats—like most academics—were rated twice as smart as Republicans. Even blind luck favored the party of Obama and Carter! Interestingly, luck only favored long-dead presidents (see below).

How about the bests and worsts? Here they are:

Trait Best Worst
Party Leadership Democrat : F. Roosevelt Democrat : A. Johnson
Communication Democrat : F. Roosevelt Democrat : A. Johnson
Handling US Economy Democrat : F. Roosevelt Republican : Hoover
Foreign Policy Accomplishments Democrat : F. Roosevelt Democrat : L. Johnson
Overall Rank Democrat : F. Roosevelt Democrat : A. Johnson
Background Democrat : Jefferson Republican : Harding
Intelligence Democrat : Jefferson Republican : Harding
Relationship.Congress Democrat : L. Johnson Democrat : A. Johnson
Ability Compromise Republican : Lincoln Democrat : A. Johnson
Overall Ability Republican : Lincoln Republican : Harding
Domestic Accomplishments Republican : Lincoln Democrat : Buchanan
Integrity Republican : Lincoln Republican : Nixon
Executive Ability Republican : Lincoln Republican : Harding
Present Overall View Republican : Lincoln Democrat : Buchanan
Court Appointments Republican : T. Roosevelt Democrat : A. Johnson
Willing Take Risks Republican : T. Roosevelt Democrat : Buchanan
Imagination Republican : T. Roosevelt Republican : Harding
Luck Republican : Washington Republican : Hoover
Executive Appointments Republican : Washington Republican : Harding
Leadership Ability Republican : Washington Democrat : Buchanan
Avoid Crucial Mistakes Republican : Washington Republican : Nixon

Few would argue against Lincoln’s and Washington’s top spots; even Teddy Roosevelt’s best qualities are relatively undisputed. But the top spots occupied by Teddy’s cousin are more controversial, especially his handling of the U.S. Economy.

On the negative side, all would say that Nixon didn’t manage to avoid making a crucial mistake, which knocked down his integrity rating some. But, of course, that was because his scandal became known during his time in office. Kennedy’s scandals, for example, the press forgot to report until years after his death, and even then the sad stories were always recalled with a warm chuckle.

What about a time bias? An example of a time bias is when a scholar lets more recent events color his views more strongly than older events. For example, present-day scholars might treat presidents who they voted for less harshly than they would treat long-dead presidents who were of the same party.

In plain English, most professors, by about 8 to 10 to 1, vote for Democrat presidents—all polls agree on this. Further, academics, as is well known, are not friendly towards Republicans. But time cools passions: they hate George W Bush more than Ronald Reagan, and they hate Reagan more than Ford, and so on. Thus, they might rate more recent Republican presidents lower than older Republican presidents.

Is there any evidence for this? You bet. Take a look at these rankings by time (marked by the last year each president served), broke apart by Party. This is the ranking of Handling the U.S. Economy, plotted through time. Somehow, Democrats are improving, yet Republicans are worsening! Even President Obama scores high here, coming in at number 17; four higher than Reagan. Well, that’s what an education can do for you.


US Presidents by party handling US economy

The difference between Republicans and Democrats was largest for this trait. Here is a sorting of the disparity in ratings through time. Positive numbers (the scale is arbitrary, based on the difference in the slopes of regression line with time) indicate that Republicans are getting worse and Democrats better through time. That is, high positive numbers indicate scholars are rating more recent Republicans as worse than their Republican predecessors; and they are also rating more recent Democrats (whom they likely voted for) as better than their predecessors.


Trait Time Difference
Handling US Economy 100.00
Executive Appointments 84.00
Court Appointments 83.00
Imagination 76.00
Intelligence 71.00
Communication 60.00
Domestic Accomplishments 51.00
Overall Ability 48.00
Willing Take Risks 42.00
Integrity 41.00
Ability Compromise 37.00
Leadership Ability 34.00
Present Overall View 34.00
Overall Rank 30.00
Executive Ability 25.00
Foreign Policy Accomplishments -1.00
Avoid Crucial Mistakes -5.00
Background -11.00
Luck -14.00
Relationship Congress -23.00
Party Leadership -47.00

Our scholars think that the more recent Republican presidents are growing worse at Executive and Supreme Court appointments, Imagination, and nearly every other trait. They do not think there is any real difference between Foreign Policy Accomplishments and Avoiding Crucial Mistakes.

But these profs do think Republicans are growing more nefarious: Party Leadership is negative, which means more recent Republicans are higher ranked than older Republicans. More recent Republicans are exerting more control over their parties! Can you say Cheney? Current Republicans are also controlling Congress better. They are also luckier: what else could account for their success but luck?

The answer, then, to the headlines question is: yes.

16 Comments

  1. Very interesting, if no surprise, and not a word about statistical significance! Excellent.

    Is there any way of looking at the rankings of Historians by whether they vote D or R? What about the rankings of those who were dumb enough to rate the current President, when surely a “too early to tell” is the appropriate response?

  2. One interesting correlation not mentioned: What about times when the White House and Congress were controlled by different parties? For example, L. Johnson gets top marks for working with Congress. But wasn’t the Congress (where Johnson had been Senate Leader) under Democrat control? The same with F. Roosevelt during the WWII era. In contrast, R. Reagan handled the Democrat controlled Congress during the PATCO strike (and subsequent firings; further R. Reagan also got the T. O’Neill controlled Congress to reduce overall taxes creating the single greatest economic growth period in American History.

    Need more research.

  3. Bernie,

    Excellent questions; unfortunately, they don’t provide the data on who voted for whom.

  4. I have about as much confidence in the professorial opinions expressed in this survey as I do in the integrities of the College’s governing board and the state office holders of its home state. Not much.

    Excellent fodder for posts and discussions; but lousy material upon which to rely. Just another reason to distrust academics.

  5. SeniorD:
    Your expectations are way too high. I think this delphi type approach simply captures prejudices and relative ignorance. For example, by definition shouldn’t Presidents who failed to be re-elected automatically drop to the lower end of the list – unless there is some strong counter-argument? Similarly, shouldn’t Presidents whose parties received increased support during mid-term elections receive higher rankings than those who who lost support? Seems to me that your approach of looking for empirical markers of how their contempraries saw them has validity – despite its time-boundedness.

  6. The only good President that you chaps have ever had was Washington G. Even dear old King George III eventually concluded that Washington was a great man. Though I suppose one could make a case for Harding.

  7. On second thoughts, one could make a case for Eisenhower too, and Reagan. Even Truman. But as for the rest……

  8. dearieme:
    The US has had moreorless the same number of great Presidents as Britain has had great PMs – barely enough to make up for the duds.

  9. Public employees should not be allowed to vote. Acceptance of a government-funded job, pension, or welfare check should trigger automatic rescission of all voting rights for that person and their dependants.

  10. This ranking makes me think of the history professor at my now ex-college and his assessments of FDR. FDR, simply summarized in his opinion, was the most brilliant man of all time. He was smarter than any economist or businessman even though he had no experience in either–proved by his handling of the economy and his approach to taxation during the 1930s. He was a better strategist than any of his generals during World War II, even though he had no experience here either–proved by the North African Campaign. And on and on ad nauseum. The scholars involved in this ranking obviously concur, and probably have no better evidence.

    It occurs to me that a view of FDR as “godlike” is an amalgam of personal prejudices and Arthur Schlesinger’s version of FDR. We are not likely to get a realistic view of FDR until Schlesinger is long gone, his books are out of print, and college history professors have to find new material for their courses.

    In North Korea one can read newspaper accounts of how Dear Leader visited the Pyongyang Zoo, and saved a group of children from a bear on the loose. I view most of the slobbering over FDR as something similar even if it is a tad more sophisticated–simply substitute “Laissez Faire” for bear.

  11. Hey, I just looked at the table showing worsts and bests, and it is, or would be, hilarious. FDR for handling the economy is best, but Hoover is worst, and amazingly FDR just took programs Hoover had already concocted and put them into action! I guess FDR should be listed under “luck”; but no, here we find Washington — and his lucky winter at Valley Forge of course. How about Lincoln and ability to compromise–wow, think of how many Americans might have died during the Civil War without all that compromise! What a fabulous mess this ranking is.

    I apologize to all for getting so worked-up about this ranking, but it brings back memories of the ninnies in PolySci and History during my occasional tours of duty in academia.

  12. Good call, Doug M. My list shows A. Johnson to be a National Union member, which I suppose is Republican, Washington to be a Federalist (is that Republican?), Jefferson to be a Democratic-Republican…what a mess.

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