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Kennedy and Reagan Lead Overrated List

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Just in time for the Washington’s Birthday holiday, two political scientists are ready to release the  results of a Presidential Greatness survey of presidency scholars (full release Monday), and I got a sneak peak.

I really like the survey, conducted by Justin Vaughn of Boise State University and Brandon Rottinghaus of the University of Houston. I like that they asked about skills, specifically, legislative, diplomatic and military abilities. That’s a good approach for political scientists to take.

No big surprises at the top: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the pack by a comfortable margin. The rest of the top 10 is Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson.

Some of the other headlines:

Barack Obama ranks mid-pack at 18th, just behind George H.W. Bush and ahead of James Polk. His average “overall greatness” rating, on a 0 to 100 scale, comes in at 58, just a bit above average. Obama scores well on “integrity,” but only a little above average on legislative, diplomatic and military skills. He’s also rated the second-most polarizing (behind George W. Bush).

George W. Bush isn't popular among political scientists who study the presidency; his “overall greatness” average is just 37, placing him 35th, the lowest score of any president since Herbert Hoover. On legislative skill and integrity, Bush does OK, just a bit above average, but is rated well below average in military and diplomatic skills.

Who do political scientists like? When these rankings are compared to an average of recent scholar opinion compiled by Nate Silver, Bill Clinton is a big winner; he’s ranked No. 8 in the new survey, but only 18th by the historians and others who participated in those earlier efforts. Also doing well are George H.W. Bush (17 here, 22 in Silver’s compilation); William Howard Taft (20th versus 25th); Martin Van Buren (25th versus 31st); and Benjamin Harrison (29th versus 34th).

Who do political scientists dislike? Again, compared to other recent surveys, John F. Kennedy drops to 14th from 9th. The other droppers are Ulysses Grant to 28 from 23, and Richard Nixon to 34 from 29 .

Vaughn and Rottinghaus also asked which presidents were overrated and underrated. It’s a tricky question because it requires an appraisal of how presidents are “rated,” which is always tricky. But I think it gets at how political scientists look at presidents compared to how they think others do (though, again, the question didn’t ask who was setting the conventional wisdom).

Overrated? The ones getting the most mentions were Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Jackson, Wilson and Jefferson. Most mentions for underrated were Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush and Truman.

A big caveat is that making these rankings is more like a fun game than serious scholarship (though studying people’s perceptions, including those of scholars, may well be very serious scholarship). 

My list of overrated would include Kennedy, Reagan and Wilson, and perhaps Jackson, but I’d add Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon. For underrated, I usually say Grant, but I’ve also sometimes added Harding and Ford.  I do wonder whether those suggesting that Ike and Truman are underrated are behind the curve by a few decades about how those presidents are viewed.

When I do these ratings, I tend to emphasize skills more than anything. I ask how good they were at presidenting, not whether I agree with their policies or not. But in practical terms, it’s sometimes hard to separate those things, especially for the presidents I’m less familiar with.

As I said: a fun game for the holiday weekend, and thanks to Justin for the early look at the survey.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net