The Contemporary Presidency: Rating the Presidents: A Tracking Study

By Lonnstrom, Douglas A.; Kelly, Thomas O., II | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2003 | Go to article overview

The Contemporary Presidency: Rating the Presidents: A Tracking Study


Lonnstrom, Douglas A., Kelly, Thomas O., II, Presidential Studies Quarterly


In our article, "Rating the Presidents: A Tracking Study," published in the 1997 summer issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly, we reported the results and analysis of the Siena Research Institute's first three presidential tracking studies and promised to conduct the fourth in 2002 after a new president had been in office for a year. We now have those results, and this article will continue the analysis with those results added.

The first poll was conducted after President Reagan had been in office for one year. The second was conducted after G.H.W. Bush was in office one year, and hence Reagan was out of office one year. The third and fourth followed the same pattern. It is our intention to continue these tracking surveys, at the same intervals, with each change of administration. The next Siena Research Institute study is scheduled for either January 2006 or 2010, depending on whether G.W. Bush is reelected.

The four surveys are based on expert opinion, solicited from academic historians and political scientists throughout the United States. (1) Rather than solicit their views on which president was "great" or a "failure" as has become the custom, we created, in 1980, what we believe to be a more objective rating scale. We established twenty separate categories (2) ranging from foreign policy to party leadership (see Table 1), and asked our responding experts to rank each president in each category on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being poor and 5 outstanding. The resulting responses thus form a matrix of numbers--currently 20 by 42. We then averaged all of the responses, converted the 1-5 scale to percentages, and produced the final rankings (3) (see Table 2).

We thus create an overall ranking for each president, from Franklin D. Roosevelt as first to Andrew Johnson as last in 2002. In addition, we have rankings that are question specific in each category (e.g., "luck" with Teddy Roosevelt first and Herbert Hoover last, in 2002).

Our approach differs from traditional, subjective ratings in two ways. First, if a respondent has a negative/positive overall view of a president, they may give him a good/bad rating in certain categories (Nixon is 26th overall but 11th in foreign policy; Lincoln is 2nd overall but 29th in background). Second, if a president's rating changes over time, because of the twenty categories, we will be able to analyze why the change took place. The "great," "near failure," and "failure" system cannot do this.

It is our judgment that this system not only allows us to track the ranking of presidents, especially recent presidents, over time--testing the idea that the passage of time dilutes passion and increases objectivity--but also permits us to attempt rational explanations as to why those rankings changed.

Our objectives in creating this type of tracking study include the following:

1. To discover whether there is any correlation between the views held of a president early in his administration, almost immediately after he leaves office, and after a longer period of time; might high marks early in the first term bode well for the future or vice versa? Clearly, conventional wisdom and logic would argue against such a correlation, but time and survey data might well alter our view.

2. To determine whether there is a pattern to such rankings as they change over time. We know, for example, that in the 1962 Schlesinger poll of presidential ability, Dwight D. Eisenhower was ranked 22nd of 31 presidents, below Herbert Hoover and Benjamin Harrison, and just above Andrew Johnson. We also know that in recent surveys (including ours), he has risen to the top ten. Is that, then, a pattern or even the pattern? Do we, even as scholars, tend to be more critical when our judgments are about our contemporaries? Conversely, might some presidents get a "honeymoon" when they leave office, and decline later?

3. Can we explain, if a president's ranking does change well after his term is over, why it changes? …

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