A Ranking Sure to Rankle
07-07-2010
Whether we are talking about movies, restaurants, or athletes, Americans love to rank virtually all aspects of our culture, including our presidents. So, this article on a new Siena College poll ranking presidential greatness caught my attention just before the Fourth of July holiday. The results are pretty much guaranteed to make conservatives apoplectic, as a group of university professors have ranked President Obama 15th overall, and in particular, higher than President Reagan. I can already hear the criticism that this ranking is a function of the liberal biases of left-leaning academics.
 
During my years teaching presidential politics, I was regularly asked to participate in various surveys of presidential greatness, and I typically declined the invitation. This was in part because I was concerned that my research focus on the modern presidency meant that I couldn’t give some of our more obscure nineteenth century presidents their due. But I also genuinely believe that understanding a president’s true legacy requires a historical perspective that only comes with time, and lots of it.
 
The idea of ranking President Obama’s relative greatness as a president after only 18 months in office strikes me as a somewhat pointless intellectual exercise. If you’ve ever done research at a presidential archive, you know that the papers and oral histories (exit interviews) of key administration players are often sealed for as long as 50 years. I’ve thought on occasion that if these surveys excluded the five or six most recent presidents, I might have been more willing to participate in them. While most of us can probably agree on Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and both of the Roosevelts, it’s just too soon to know where any of the more recent presidents will fit it in.
 
Note: I'll be away tomorrow, and back posting on Friday. -Dean


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