The Hysterical State of Presidential Surveys

The Siena College Research Institute, which conducts presidential polls every few years, recently released it 2010 version, an in-depth survey of 238 scholars on the nation’s 43 chief executives.  The results were nothing short of laughable, an attempt by the Left’s pseudo-intellectuals to rewrite history.

Many of the entries seem so silly that one must wonder if the names were simply drawn out of a hat.

The Research Institute at Siena College has conducted five polls since 1982.  In every survey, Franklin D. Roosevelt ranked first.  Abraham Lincoln has generally owned the second spot, but this year’s poll found him in third place and Theodore Roosevelt bumped up to number two.  Rounding out the top ten were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower.

Out of the top ten, I agree with three – Washington, Jefferson, and Monroe.

The bottom five, rankings 39 to 43, were George W. Bush at 39, followed by Franklin Pierce, Warren G. Harding, James Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson.

Of these rankings, I agree with none.

The survey contains many curious selections.  For instance, the frisky Bill Clinton, with no major accomplishments to his credit, is placed at number 13, the socialist Barack Obama, with personal polling at historic lows, is at 15, the crude Lyndon Johnson at 16, the corrupt Ulysses S. Grant at 26, the bumbling Gerald Ford at 28, the disgraced Richard Nixon at 30, and the failed Jimmy Carter at 32.  All of these should rank much lower.

Many pertinent questions must be asked of such a seemingly one-sided poll.

For starters, who were the 238 scholars?  What was their political ideology?  I’m certain there was no effort at bi-partisanship and equality in the survey.

Why does Buchanan get such a low ranking and Lincoln such a high one?  Was it because Buchanan refused to wage war on the South, a campaign of conquest that Lincoln was all-to-ready to conduct?

Why does Martin Van Buren rank as low as he does?  Situated roughly in the middle at number 23, Van Buren faced the Panic of 1837, which hit soon after he became president, the worst depression in American history up to that time.  But he did not allow the federal government to intervene.  He also created a constitutional banking system, perhaps the best in the nation’s history.  Conservative and libertarian scholars place him much higher than the middle but, in his old age, Van Buren opposed Lincoln’s war on the South, a no-no in the eyes of liberal historians.

Who could possibly rank Woodrow Wilson at number 8?  One of the Left’s favorites, the progressive Wilson gave us an income tax, the Federal Reserve, and a war in Europe he promised the nation we would not get into.  His self-righteous conduct at Versailles brought home a peace treaty that guaranteed World War II.  When he left office, the nation was mired in a serious economic depression, with taxes at more than 70 percent and severe unemployment.  And he wanted a third term.

Inheriting that depression was Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, both of whom have been derided by historians.  But within a year of taking office, the economy was humming, eventually producing the greatest decade of growth in the nation’s history, a record that is unmatched.

Harding is always hurt because of the corruption in his administration, coming in at number 41.  But why does Ulysses S. Grant, who also had a corrupt presidency, now rank at number 26 when he was always at the bottom? 

Tom Kelly, a professor of history at Siena who participated in the survey, on Harding’s low score:  “Harding, well, no one appreciates corruption nor accepts ineptitude as an excuse.”  But this statement is truer of Grant than Harding.

Grant presided over rampant dishonesty and refused to do anything about it, reluctantly accepting resignations from his deceitful employees with “deep regret.”  But Harding aggressively, and once violently, confronted the corruption in his administration and never profited from it. 

The economy was also in depression during Grant’s second term after a panic hit in 1873, which many economists, such as Nobel Prize-winner Paul Krugman, believe remained in a state of depression until at least 1878.  Grant did not solve it.

Bill Clinton also had corruption in his administration but is usually credited with the robust economy of the 1990s, enough to keep him off the bottom.  But historians conveniently forget that conservatives controlled Congress for three-fourths of his presidency.  The economy, though strong, was nothing compared to the 1920s, yet Clinton ranks 13th and Harding 41st.  Go figure.

One positive from the survey is that Calvin Coolidge finally got off the bottom rung, rising to the number 29 spot.  But it is curious why he is still rated so low.  Coolidge maintained the robust economy of the 1920s, generated a budget surplus every year and paid down nearly a third of the national debt, all while cutting taxes four times.  The likes of Lyndon Johnson, Barack Obama, Ulysses S. Grant, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, and James Garfield (who only served 200 days) all rank ahead of him.  Yet neither of their economic records can come close to matching Coolidge.

And when it comes to depression politics, no discussion is complete without FDR.  How could Franklin Roosevelt rank as the nation’s greatest president when he kept the nation mired in a severe economic depression for over a decade?  Contrary to popular opinion, the nation did not come out of it until after the war, when FDR had already died.  His New Deal efforts were a complete failure.

By contrast, Grover Cleveland received his usual ranking of 20, even though he faced the worst depression of the 19th century, a severe panic that ended in four years because of his laissez faire policies.

So Van Buren, Cleveland, Harding, and Coolidge, presidents who ended depressions quickly and without government programs, are given low scores, while progressives like FDR and Obama are ranked higher.  Is it because they believe in big government solutions regardless of the economic turmoil they maintained?

What did Truman do besides drop the bombs on Japan?  In domestic politics, he was as liberal as they come.  It was Truman who first suggested a federal role in health care and who seized the nation’s steel plants, before the Supreme Court told him no.  In foreign affairs, he completed FDR’s selling out of Eastern Europe to the Soviets at Potsdam, coddled “Uncle Joe” Stalin, and got us bogged down in Korea, firing the one general who wanted to win it.  When he left office in 1953, his approval rating hovered around 20 percent.

Truman’s successor was Dwight D. Eisenhower.  But what did Eisenhower ever do to deserve a top ten spot?  Many conservatives give him high marks but I do not.  Aside from a morbid desire to play golf every day, Ike really did nothing to warrant such high esteem.  Did he fundamentally change the political culture in D.C. like Jefferson?  Did he face severe challenges and solve them like many other presidents?  I think not.  And remember, it was Ike who gave us the disastrous Earl Warren.

Lyndon Johnson left behind a nation in utter turmoil, with riots in the streets and the most unpopular war in American history raging in Southeast Asia, not to mention massive new entitlement programs that are today tens of trillions in the red, yet he wins a ranking of 16.

Nixon resigns from office in disgrace, increased the size and scope of the government, gave us détente with the Soviets, and receives a ranking of 30?  Should he not rate in the bottom 10?

Ronald Reagan ended the severe recession handed to him by Carter, leading to an economic boom surpassed only by the Roaring Twenties.  He also put in place policies that brought down the Evil Empire.  Should he not rank in the top ten rather than 18th?

Like many before it, this survey tells us much more about the participants than the presidents they were asked to rate.


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