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.
|Present Overall View||14.5||27|
|Handling US Economy||15.5||25|
|Avoid Crucial Mistakes||18.5||23|
|Foreign Policy Accomplishments||19.5||26|
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:
|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.
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.
|Handling US Economy||100.00|
|Willing Take Risks||42.00|
|Present Overall View||34.00|
|Foreign Policy Accomplishments||-1.00|
|Avoid Crucial Mistakes||-5.00|
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.