One Measure to Determine Whether a President Was a Success or a Failure

Some years ago, Michael Kanell and I wrote a book called Presimetrics in which we tried to quantify the performance of Presidents along a range of issues objectively, using numbers. But what if we want a single measure of a Presidents performance? Put another way – how do we know whether a President was a success or a failure?

I was born when Nixon was in office, though admittedly, I wasn’t paying all that much attention to politics at the time. But if I had to categorize Presidents in my lifetime as successes or failures, I would say Clinton was the most successful, followed by Reagan. Here’s why.

Off the top of my head, Clinton’s key achievements were these: creating conditions for or at least not standing in the way of a booming economy, generating a surplus, NAFTA, FMLA and welfare reform. Some of them may not look as good a decade and a half later, but that is true of anything. Nevertheless, on Clinton’s signature achievements, his opposition has either sought to claim some or all of the credit for them (e.g., the surplus, the economy, and welfare reform) or quietly accepted the issues as part of the status quo going forward.

With Reagan, we see the same thing. His signature issues were tax cuts, a growing economy after years of stagnation, a detente with the USSR (“tear down this wall,” some nuclear dealing, and getting the Soviets to leave Afghanistan) and instilling a general feeling that it was, indeed, morning in America and that the US was back in business. These were accomplishments that Reagan’s opposition sought to either claim would have happened anyway (e.g., a general deterioration in the USSR, the end of stagflation) or quietly adopted as a new status quo (e.g., tax cuts may have risen since Reagan – even under his Republican successor, but no Democrat in Congress or the Presidency has pushed for rates to go back to pre-Reagan levels). Of course, there were a few things that nobody, most certainly not the Democrats, wanted any part of, the big one being the explosion in the debt. The whole Iran-Contra Affair was another example.

So Reagan and Clinton were successful precisely because their opponents wanted a share of their success, and neither took many actions whose outcomes the political world wanted to keep at a distance.

On the other hand, consider GW and Obama. Nobody in opposition wanted (or wants) to claim any part of the credit for their signature issues. And nobody wants to claim that the Bush tax cuts, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Great Recession, the Mediocre Recovery, whatever the heck happened in Libya, or Obamacare was inevitable.

As the old saw goes: success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.