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The Making Up of a President

Mises Daily: Thursday, August 05, 2010 by

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Ranking presidents is something of a cottage industry among the intellectual elite. The whole thing started back in 1948, when Arthur Schlesinger conducted a survey of a small but carefully chosen sample of historians to rate the presidents from Washington to Franklin Delano Roosevelt — the not-so-subtle purpose of which was to demonstrate that he (FDR) belonged in the Pantheon of Great Presidents.

Most recently, the Siena Research Institute has released the latest in its periodic surveys of presidential experts. In this survey, we find that Barack Obama is ranked #15, one of the Near Greats.

To be sure, the Siena poll takes a unique approach to assessing presidential greatness. It assesses ability in addition to accomplishment, which enables it to rate the presidencies of men such as William H. Harrison and James A. Garfield, who only served as president a short while, as well as a president like Obama, who has only recently assumed the office.

Nevertheless, some of the ratings just seem a tad far-fetched. Ronald Reagan, who served eight years as governor of the nation's largest state, is rated very low in experience prior to being president, at #34. Obama, the least experienced president by far in recent history, is rated higher, at #32.

More fundamentally, who should care what the intellectual elite say about presidents? Together with Gary Pecquet of Central Michigan University, I recently conducted some statistical analysis of (a) the rating of presidents in numerous surveys of intellectuals over the past sixty years, and (b) voting for the nominees of the party of the sitting president.

We found that the values implicit in presidential ratings are just about the opposite of those of the people, as expressed in their voting. The people vote for the nominees of the party of the sitting president who have avoided war, and whose terms of office were characterized by strong economic growth. The people don't really care much about political or personal scandal. By contrast, the intellectuals love war, don't care about economic growth, and are obsessed with scandal.

Another thing Gary and I found is that ratings of presidents, upon their departure from office, tend to start low and then rise over time. Therefore, the very low rating accorded George W. Bush in the recently released Siena poll can be expected to improve in the coming years.

Looking back to the first survey, in 1948, the intellectual elite could not believe that Herbert Hoover, a progressive Republican, or even FDR the Great could be blamed for contributing to the depth or duration of the Great Depression. The blame, they still thought, must have been Calvin Coolidge's, associated as he was with a free-market economy. In Schlesinger's poll, Coolidge was actually ranked lower than Hoover.

This travesty continued in subsequent surveys for several decades, until the revisionist scholarship of Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, and Jude Wanniski finally succeeded in focusing attention on the numerous policy blunders of the Hoover and FDR administrations, and away from the fantasy story advanced by John Kenneth Galbraith that the stock-market crash of 1929 was the cause of it all. In like fashion, George W. Bush is the convenient whipping boy for the nation's current woes, even though Bush was a Keynesian (and, thus, Hooveresque).

With regard to the economy, Obama is ranked #17, which puts him in the Near Great category. As amazing as this sounds, FDR is rated #1. How is it that Obama and FDR, presiding over high unemployment and collapsed expectations, can be viewed as being above average or even the very best in economic performance? Under FDR, unemployment continued in the double digits through World War II, when war production pushed employment to above the normal level. Private-sector employment only returned to its predepression level in 1946. How could this be the very best?

It is because the liberal elite believe that, without a massive government, the economy would collapse to zero. The government is viewed as Atlas holding up the world. Same thing today, when the unemployment rate, as measured by the government, is hovering around 10 percent, and more and more people no longer look for work because of despondency. What does this administration say? It says that things would be much worse without its policies.

And how does the intellectual elite explain the turnaround of the economy under Reagan, that we went from the stagflation of the 1970s and the malaise associated with Carter to "morning in America"? Well, I'm glad you asked that question.

According to the presidential experts, it was Luck. The intellectual elite rank Ronald Reagan low in economic performance, #21, below Barack Obama. But they rank Reagan #3 in Luck.