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The Portrait of a Failed Presidency
The Top 10 US Presidents
In January 2013, New York Times journalist and statistician Nate Silver composed a composite list of previous presidential rankings by scholars. The top 10 of the (then) 43 people to have held the office are listed here.
01. Abraham Lincoln
02. Franklin D. Roosevelt
03. George Washington
04. Theodore Roosevelt
05. Thomas Jefferson
06. Harry S. Truman
07. Woodrow Wilson
08. Dwight D. Eisenhower
09. John F. Kennedy
10. Ronald Reagan
Best of the American Presidents?
Who was the best person to hold the office of the President of the United States? Can such a thing truly be measured? To the right is the list of the top ten best Presidents, as compiled by Nate Silver (the man who revolutionized statistical analysis for presidential elections). This list is a statistical aggregate; Mr. Silver used hundreds of scholarly rankings of the Presidents to create a blended picture. Do you agree with this list? I don't.
Woodrow Wilson, for example, is a man whom I view as one of the most vile and inhumane individuals to ever hold that hallowed office. But history disagrees with me. Typically, historians look at a few of his achievements and rank him as being among the best people to serve as President. They ignore the fact that this man methodically unraveled all of the racial integration that had taken place up to that time; there is an argument that can be made that he — as President from 1913 - 1921 — caused the explosion of racial tension in the 1960s. But this article is not about Woodrow Wilson, nor is it about racism.
This article is about how we view the men and women that hold high office, and why you cannot jump to such extremes of while the person is still there... perhaps not even for a few decades.
The Bottom 10 US Presidents
In January 2013, New York Times journalist and statistician Nate Silver composed a composite list of previous presidential rankings by scholars. The bottom 10 of the (then) 43 people to have held the office are listed here.
34. Benjamin Harrison
35. Herbert Hoover
36. John Tyler
37. Millard Fillmore
38. George W. Bush
39. Andrew Johnson
40. William Henry Harrison
41. Warren G. Harding
42. Franklin Pierce
43. James Buchanan
Worst of the American Presidents?
Who is the worst person to hold the office of President of the United States? Like 'best', this is an extreme measure that cannot (in my opinion) be placed on an individual for years, even decades, after they leave office. To the right is the bottom ten Presidents, as compiled by Nate Silver (see Best?, above). Do you agree with this list? I don't.
Most of these are Presidents who were ineffective. George W. Bush was a lot of things; ineffective was most certainly not one of them. I disagree with a great deal of things President Bush did in office. In fact, by some measure, I might even place him at the bottom of the list for being extremely effective at moving this country in the exact wrong direction.
President George Walker Bush cannot be elected again; he will most likely never hold public office again. Since he left office in 2009 many people have tried to gauge his Presidency — they would like to tell you if his Presidency is a success, or a failure, or something in between. In my opinion, this is a futile practice. After all, it takes time to gauge these things. We will not know if George W. Bush's was a great Presidency, or above average, average, below average, or failed Presidency for a long, long time. I say this with some confidence; it will take time for history to provide us proper perspective.
I know that many do not feel that this is the case. They feel that such a judgment can be made now. Some believed it was possible to make that judgement while he was in office and we were all living in the midst of the events that would eventually shape our views. But I need only to point to President Dwight David Eisenhower to show how this is patently not true.
While in office, many felt that 'Ike' did little to nothing (other than play golf). History has shown us, however, that his was an invisible hand approach to administration that was surprisingly effective. This took time. This took perspective.
A Hypothetical US President
Let us look at this from a different angle. Allow me to explore what we might expect to see in a hypothetical President's performance. Suppose, for example, we had a President that:
- Prior to his election to the highest office in the land, was a mediocre man of business, and by some measures, even a failure. Some would look at his business record and even use it against him in the Presidential campaign.
- During his first election into office, did not garner even a simple majority of the votes, yet managed to take office anyway. The election would sharply divide the nation, causing loud and fervent outcries that would impact the country and its views for many years to come.
- During his second election into office, fared much better in the percentages. Still, the divisions continued to run deep. In fact, the entire Presidency seemed to hinge and ground itself on one issue: an extremely unpopular war.
- He entered into war on false pretenses. In fact, some would even characterize it as an outright lie. As the impact of this misstatement (or lie) continued to grow, over the course of the war, the reasons for starting and continuing a policy of stay the course would morph the initial lie into something that sounded a bit more noble. The fact that this shift in the purpose of the conflict took place would not go unnoticed by the press; but, at least for a while, it would be embraced.
- He fired his most trusted military leader, and put in another individual of questionable qualifications and/or popularity.
- He arranged the arrest and subsequent jailing many people without using due process.
- He sponsored and managed to pass legislation that would drastically reduce the civil liberties of honest, hard-working Americans. Some would see it as making it more difficult to openly criticize the Presidency, while others would see this as a blatant violation of our rights. This legislation was deemed a requirement (by the office of the President) to more effectively fight the war effort and for Homeland Security. Despite his arguments, the Constitutionality of the legislation would come into question on several occasions.
- He had many opportunities to end the conflict peacefully, or at least get American Troops out of harm's way. The President could also have avoided the conflict all together — after all, many of his advisers, and members of Congress felt that the reasons for going to war in the first place were suspect. Yet, despite opposition in Congress, in public, and in the press... he decided to engage in, continue with, and press on with an unpopular conflict headstrong. Some would see this as an indication that he had no desire to find a graceful exit to hostilities.
- Even as the number of dead American soldiers continued to climb, the President continued to preach that this was a war that must be won. Victory, it would seem, was the only outcome acceptable to him. This opinion would be expressed even after many experts deemed the conflict not winnable!
- This conflict would last longer than the American Involvement in World War II.
It's a pretty grim picture, isn't it? Was this Presidency a success or a failure? Well, history has told us that this was not only a successful Presidency, it has often been considered the greatest Presidency in American History. The hypothetical President above is, in fact, Abraham Lincoln.
- Abraham Lincoln, the business man, was not all that successful. He made a modest living. But his early political fights were filled with failure. He was not as much a failure as many have presumed since; but you can read more about that on your own.
- Abraham Lincoln's first election to President came with 39.8% of the popular vote, and 180 of a possible 303 electoral votes. His election divided the nation to the point of literally splitting it in two.
- Abraham Lincoln's second election was a larger majority vote. However, his policies were still not all that popular. And the war was not getting any better in terms of popularity.
- Abraham Lincoln claimed that the people at Fort Sumter fired upon a ship that was sent there from the north. This was not true. Furthermore, he knew this was not true. He used this as a way of painting the early parts of the war with an I had no choice tint to it. Although it is true that Lincoln's primary concern was preservation of the union, the latter parts of the war became about emancipation of the slaves in the south. This shift in the war's purpose was not missed by the press or the public; but it was embraced for a while.
- Abraham Lincoln fired many a General who, for the most part, failed to fight. He put General Ulysses Grant in charge of the Union army — and this was not really seen as a good thing by many involved. General Grant was a belligerent alcoholic, according to some. And he was none too successful at first on the battlefield; in one battle, he managed to lose over 9,000 men in less than an hour!
- Abraham Lincoln had as many as 13,000 people arrested on what most people claim were dubious charges. In fact, some of his most vocal critics would call these arbitrary arrests. Still, he was not shutting down the presses, or holding the tongues of his political rivals. He even restrained some of his commanders from becoming overzealous. There was even a hint that Lincoln might postpone the 1864 election!
- Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus; first in some select areas, then nationwide. This was largely seen as unconstitutional. Still, Lincoln argues that this was needed to hold down insurrections. For those that are not familiar with the writ of habeas corpus, click here. This, in conjunction with the 13,000 arbitrary arrests made the civil liberties of Northern Americans quite suspect.
- Abraham Lincoln had many opportunities to end the war; he could have avoided it all together. But each opportunity for a peaceful solution was less than a victory for the North. And so it was rejected. This, despite the fact that he had employed compromises in nearly all of his career prior.
- The civil war lasted longer than American involvement in World War II.
Who was the Best? The Worst? Why?
I invite you to state who you think the best and worst Presidents have been in the comments. Don't just give a name; tell me why you think this person deserves recognition.
Do not get me wrong: I am not suggesting that George W. Bush is the next Abraham Lincoln. I am merely pointing out that, just as it is far too soon to call his Presidency a success, it is just as early in pronouncing it a failure. This has long been the view of the left; the right has the same issue when it comes to Barack H. Obama (and their idolotry of Ronald W. Reagan).
President George W. Bush did his best. He did things I wish had never happened and failed to do many things I wish he had done. President Barack Obama is doing his best. He has done things I wish had never happened and has failed to do many things I wish he would do. But a full understanding of these Presidencies will require time. It will require perspective.
How about we cool the rhetoric, advocate for what we want, act like adults, and stop yelling at the top of our lungs only those things we are against?