The C-Span Ranking of Presidents

C-Span just released a ranking of US Presidents based based on a survey of historians, journalists and other scholars. Obama came in 12th.

Here is the survey’s description of the process used to generate the rankings:

C-SPAN’s academic advisors devised a survey in which participants used a one (“not effective”) to ten (“very effective”) scale to rate each president on ten qualities of presidential leadership: “Public Persuasion,” “Crisis Leadership,” “Economic Management,” “Moral Authority,” “International Relations,” “Administrative Skills,” “Relations with Congress,” “Vision/Setting An Agenda,” “Pursued Equal Justice for All,” and “Performance Within the Context of His Times.”

Surveys were distributed to historians and other professional observers of the presidency, drawn from a database of C-SPAN’s programming, augmented by suggestions from the academic advisors. Ninety-one agreed to participate. Participants were guaranteed that individual survey results remain confidential. Survey responses were tabulated by averaging all responses in a given category for each president. Each of the ten categories was given equal weighting in arriving at a president’s total score.

I looked through the overall rankings and some of the rankings by category. Having co-authored a book on ranking Presidents, I have a lot of quibbles with the rankings. But many of them would be controversial. So I thought to myself – is there a simple way to decide whether this list has merit?

Here’s what jumps out at me. Take a gander at the list by economic management. Note that Teddy Roosevelt came in 4th place in that category. (First, second and third were Washington, Lincoln and Clinton. I find that to be borderline insane in and of itself. However, since Washington and Lincoln are names the public can recognize and Clinton was recent, I will not discuss them so as to avoid controversy.) TR also came in 4th in that category in the two previous surveys in 2009 and 2000 so it seems that ranking is pretty stable.  The, ahem, experts surveyed seem to be pretty sure TR belongs right up there.

Now here’s the problem. TR was President from September 1901 to March 1909. He did some effective things on the economy – some of his Square Deals, the Trust Busting, regulation, etc.  But… his outcomes were not very good. For instance, there was a fly in the ointment – the recession from September 1902 to August 1904. That would seem to cast doubt on his economic performance. But… that isn’t the problem with ranking TR as fourth best on the economy. There was another recession from May 1907 to June 1908. And that was no ordinary recession. The Panic of 1907 occurred in October of 1907, close to the middle of that recession. And who saved the day? Was it TR and his administration? Was it their policies? Nope. It was JP Morgan. Yes. That JP Morgan.

And the aftermath of the recession wasn’t pretty either. Data from that era isn’t great, but by all accounts, there was a big spike in unemployment, bankruptcies, etc.

The US economy is not worse than that of Zimbabwe in 2017. And yet, something along those lines would need to be true if TR turned in the fourth best economic performance among all US Presidents. I am no historian, but to me, any survey placing TR in fourth place for economic performance is indistinguishable from parody. It is enough for me to conclude that those responsible for this nonsense simply have no idea what they are doing.

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