Political observers and presidents alike are preoccupied with the notion of presidential legacy. Speculation about how presidential actions will be viewed by future generations weighs heavily on the minds of chief executives as well as historians and analysts who seek to devise standards and techniques by which to measure the concept of legacy. To be sure, efforts to gauge presidential "greatness" not only vary significantly, but they often yield inconsistent results. One approach relies on expert judgments to evaluate presidential performance and to rate presidents against each other. Historians and other scholars will often rate past presidents based on a series of established criteria that may include the degree to which presidents pursue active legislative agendas, progress, and reform; possess wisdom, sagacity, administrative prowess; and are principled (Cronin and Genovese 2004). In 1996, the New York Times Magazine, aided by preeminent presidential historian Arthur Schlesigner Jr., commissioned a survey of historians about presidential performance. Respondents rated past presidents as "great," "near great," "average (high)", "average (low)," "below average," or "failure." The findings revealed that Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt (or FDR), and George Washington were the only presidents considered to be "great," while Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon were viewed as failures (Schlesinger, 1996, 48-49).
A similar survey of 58 presidential historians and political scientists conducted in 1995 by the Chicago Tribune shows that the 10 best presidents in U.S. history have been Lincoln, Washington, FDR, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Andrew Jackson, Dwight Eisenhower, and James Polk, while the 10 worst are Harding (worst), Buchanan, Pierce, Grant, A. Johnson, Millard Filmore, Nixon, John Tyler, Calvin Coolidge, and Hoover (Neal 1995). By 2000, a Wall Street Journal survey of 73 scholars of history, politics, and law showed that Ronald
Reagan had entered the presidential pantheon of "top ten best" presidents, while Jimmy Carter was rated amongst the ten worst (Lindgren and Calabresi 2000).
Expert judgments about presidential greatness often do not coincide with the assessments of the public at large. Consider that in a survey conducted by the Gallup organization (national random sample) in 2003, 13% of Americans rated John E Kennedy as the greatest American president, even though Kennedy consistently registers as average or above average at best in surveys of experts (Cronin and Genovese 2004). In fact, Kennedy routinely receives high marks from Americans in opinion surveys relative to his White House predecessors and successors, despite the fact that experts are less enthusiastic about his presidency.
These observations suggests that the public's assessments of past presidential performance are worthy of study in their own right. How does the public evaluate the performance of past presidents? How do these assessments change over time? What factors help to explain the patterns we observe? Analysis of the available survey data on retrospective evaluations of past presidential performance help to advance answers to these questions.
Presidential and Past Presidential Approval
Americans are routinely surveyed about their impressions of incumbent presidential job performance. Scholars have shown that macrolevel presidential approval is dynamic and that it is influenced by social, political, and economic events (Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson 2002). Polling organizations typically stop asking Americans to rate a president's job performance after presidential terms expire or as presidents otherwise depart the Oval Office.
In recent years, polling organizations have occasionally queried respondents to provide retrospective assessments about the performance of former presidents. …