Ranking (and Timing) the Presidents

Are you excited about Presidents’ Day? Neither am I. It’s hard to think of a less inspiring, more perfunctory “holiday.” To most Americans, its only significance is that the banks and post offices are closed on a mid-winter Monday. Yawn.

One of the few ritual observances marking Presidents’ Day is the publication of historians’ and pundits’ rankings of the greatest presidents. Yawn again. Those rankings tell us little more than the political philosophy of the person(s) making the ranking. Writers who prefer activist, big-government presidents—those who centralize power, establish new federal programs, and seek to engineer a better society from the top down—will naturally favor presidents like Lincoln, Wilson, and the Roosevelts; contrariwise, those distrustful of government power favor presidents such as Jefferson, Cleveland, and Coolidge.

Most Americans associate presidents with major events, particularly war. We clearly admire winners more than losers. Hence, those who were president when a victory at war was achieved—Lincoln, Wilson, FDR/Truman, and Reagan (whose victory in the Cold War was our country’s greatest, because it accomplished the defeat of a formidable enemy without massive loss of life)—are ranked highly. By contrast, the reputations of Lyndon Johnson and Nixon may forever suffer from association with Vietnam.

In the attempt to introduce something new into this annual ritual of grading the presidents, let’s consider one factor that is rarely mentioned, even though it is of immense importance: the random phenomenon of timing. Just as being in the right place at the right time leads to success in private lives, so it is with presidents. Their reputations are enhanced or diminished—they receive undue credit or unmerited blame—as a result of events and circumstances beyond their control.

Every president inherits the hand that history deals to him or her. Situations arise as consequences of chains of events set in motion long before a president takes office. Of course, the character, wisdom, and vision of the occupant of the White House determine how well that hand is played, but no mere mortal can completely transcend the historical context of pre-existing conditions. A look at our two most recent presidents will illustrate this point:

The 1990s was a happier decade than the 2000s. When the Soviet Union dissolved at Christmastime, 1991, the decades-old threat of nuclear war, and the accompanying anxieties we lived under, evaporated. An era of peace seemed to have dawned. It was exhilarating. Who deserves credit for the peaceful ‘90s? The USSR’s demise was the fruit of President Reagan’s strategies in the 1980s. Bill Clinton inherited the peace that had been won by Reagan. Indeed, whoever had been president in the 1990s would have been the beneficiary of Reagan’s legacy.

Similarly, the steady economic expansion of the ‘90s was a continuation of a trend established by Reagan’s supply-side policies in the ‘80s. Whoever became president in January 1993 would have inherited healthy, well-established economic trends. Given the confluence of macro trends in 1993, it would have been hard for any president to abort those trends. Try this thought experiment: If George W. Bush had become president in 1993, would the decade have been significantly different? What would Bush have done in a pre-9/11 world to prevent the ‘90s from being a decade of peace and prosperity?

Now consider the current decade—a more challenging, less upbeat period for sure. 9/11 exploded the dreamy notion that we were at peace with the world. The grimness and tension that we felt during the Cold War returned, with the enemy now being militant Islamists instead of Soviet communists. Economically, this decade started with the U.S. sustaining two huge body blows—first, the bursting of the ‘90s stock market bubble in 2000, then 9/11. Those economic shocks weren’t George W. Bush’s fault, and they would have cast a shadow on the presidency of whoever occupied the office.

Now try that thought experiment again, this time picturing Bill Clinton as the president since January 2001. I suspect that the policy differences would have been more pronounced than in the scenario with Bush being president in the ‘90s (it’s hard to picture Clinton toppling the Taliban or Saddam, or advocating tax cuts to boost the economy), but can anyone say realistically that Bill Clinton—or any other mortal—could have restored the peace and prosperity of the ‘90s after the major shocks of 2000 and 2001?

Should “Bubba” or “W” be ranked higher? For Clinton-haters, Bush-haters, partisans and ideologues, there is no debate. For those who reason, “The 1990s were better than the 2000s, so Clinton was a better president,” I would merely observe that they are ranking our history, not our presidents. There is no denying, though, that the timing of Clinton’s presidency was fortuitous indeed. History dealt him a far better hand than the one Bush had to play.