Explaining Presidential Greatness: The Roles of Peace and Prosperity?

Article excerpt

The American political landscape has been graced with some great presidents. One remarkable president in American history began making a name for himself long before he took office. This future president first chose to pursue a career outside of politics. Using his above-average intelligence, this man was extremely successful in his burgeoning career. He achieved great wealth, earning several million dollars before leaving the private sector. Not only was he financially successful, but also he made scholarly contributions in his field through public lectures and through his service as one of the primary translators of a crucial Latin text that, to date, had not been successfully translated. Major world events led him to change to a career in public service. Just as he had achieved success in the private sector, he flourished in the public sector. As a public servant, he earned an "international reputation as a great humanitarian" (Skowronek 1997, 265). His contribution was so great that a European country with which he had worked closely named a square after him and erected a monument in his honor. Also, because of his achievements in public service, this future president was named by the New York Times as one of the 10 most important living Americans. His success and prominence led him to be courted by more than one political party to run on their presidential ticket. He eventually ran for president and won, garnering 444 electoral votes and 58.2% of the popular vote. By comparison, in this past election in 2008, President Barack Obama won 365 electoral votes and 52.9% of the popular vote.

By this account, this president seemed destined for nothing but greatness. However, history has shined a much dimmer light on this man than most anticipated when he took office based on his success and dedication as a public servant. His performance as president is ranked as below average in multiple surveys. The Siena College rankings place him 31st out of 42 presidents. The Wall Street Journal and Professor Dean Keith Simonton's rankings place him 29th and 31st out of 39, respectively. The most recent rankings released by C-SPAN in 2009 rank him 34th out of 42. Thus, this former president consistently ranks in (or near) the bottom 25% of all American presidents. This shocking conclusion to a public career that began so bright and full of potential begs the question: What factors affect presidential greatness?

Research on presidential greatness has a long history in the study of the American presidency. Collections of presidential biographies often address the relative success and stature of the presidents. While some scholars focus primarily on the set of presidents they consider great--Marc Landy and Sidney M. Milkis's Presidential Greatness (2001) is a prime example--others focus on a subset of presidents that includes the great, the not so great, and the failures. (1) In a related literature, researchers construct rankings and ratings, often on multiple dimensions, of all of the presidents. An excellent example of this type of work is the recent book by Alvin S. Felzenberg, The Presidents We Deserve (2008). In this work, Felzenberg ranks each president on a set of six personal or policy-oriented dimensions, including character, vision, competence, economic policy, preserving and extending liberty, and defense policy (broadly understood). Both of these literatures--one based on no more than a few presidents and the other based on the full complement of past presidents--revolve around the development of standards of "greatness" and the evaluation of one or more presidents with respect to these standards. Scholars in this vein define "greatness" and rank the presidents accordingly.

Other researchers focusing on presidential greatness study the presidential rankings and greatness scores produced by others. In 1948, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., published a ranking of American presidents based on the results of a poll of eminent historians in Life magazine. …