Monday, July 5, 2010

Changing Historical Context

The 2010 Siena Presidential Expert Poll is out. This is a poll of political historians that ranks all the presidents of the United States on 20 factors: background, imagination, integrity, intelligence, luck, willingness to take risks, avoidance of crucial mistakes, court appointments, executive appointments, domestic accomplishments, foreign policy accomplishments, handling of the U.S. economy, party leadership, relationship with Congress, ability to compromise, communication ability, leadership ability, overall ability, and present overall view.

The big story here is twofold:

A) Since the last poll in 2002, Ulysses S. Grant shot up the rankings to 25th position.
B) Since the last poll in 2002, George W. Bush shot down the rankings from 23rd all the way to 39th, fifth from last. (He didn't place last in any of the 20 categories, but he did place next-to-last in intelligence, foreign policy accomplishments, handling of U.S. economy, ability to compromise and communication ability.)

Here's the overall:

1- Franklin Roosevelt
2- Teddy Roosevelt
3- Lincoln
4- Washington
5- Jefferson
6- Madison
7- Monroe
8- Wilson
9- Truman
10- Eisenhower
11- Kennedy
12- Polk
13- Clinton
14- Andrew Jackson
15- Obama
16- Lyndon Johnson
17- Adams
18- Reagan
19- Quincy Adams
20- Cleveland
21- McKinley
22- Bush 41
23- Van Buren
24- Taft
25- Arthur
26- Grant
27- Garfield
28- Ford
29- Coolidge
30- Nixon
31- Hayes
32- Carter
33- Taylor
34- Benjamin Harrison
35- William Henry Harrison
36- Hoover
37- Tyler
38- Fillmore
39- Bush 43
40- Pierce
41- Harding
42- Buchanan
43- Andrew Johnson

And the full rankings in all categories are here. You can parse out just about any message you want: Obama is 6th in imagination while Washington ranks 9th. There are eight guys below William Henry Harrison, who died in a month. Harrison is, despite that, not ranked last in luck (he beat Hoover). Both Bush 43 and Clinton scored horribly in integrity (Bush ranked 39th, Clinton 41st). And so forth.

There are some criticisms floating around here. As is normal; there's hardly a ranking list out there, on any topic imaginable, that fails to draw the 'this list is stupid' criticisms. Let's take the ones I've heard so far, disregarding the 'this guy is higher than that guy?!' stuff:

1: Obama shouldn't be included, as he's the sitting President.

First off, I hope these aren't the same people arguing that Obama actually isn't President because of the whole birth-certificate thing. Because if they are, they don't know it yet, but they just conceded that point.

That established, I've no problem with including the incumbent. I take it as a kind of 'if a meteor fell on him right now, what would his legacy be' hypothetical. (His legacy would be that a meteor fell on him. But anyway.) Bush 43 was included in 2002, at around the same point in his term.

Besides, we form opinions on most everything before we have all the historical context available to us. Have you ever formed an opinion on a sports team early in the season after they got off to a good or bad start? I know I have. I'm a Cubs fan and I'm currently disappointed with the season they're having. It's early July. Theoretically, they could get hot and take the division yet. I don't have all the historical context yet. But as it stands, I'm disappointed and don't mind saying it.

2: The rankings are too volatile and are therefore untrustworthy.

Opinions change in eight years. In 2002, Bush was at about the peak of his popularity. He had also yet to enact the vast majority of his agenda. He had yet to go into Iraq or Afghanistan, Katrina was three years away, nobody was familiar with the phrases 'swiftboat' or 'enhanced interrogation technique' or 'waterboarding', he had a lot of 9/11-related benefit of the doubt. None of that had happened yet. Now it has.

After one leaves office, new things emerge about the administration. Things that were classified are declassified. New documents and photos emerge. New events play off of the old. People that were around at the time leave politics and write tell-alls. Things happen.

Even after one is long dead, perceptions can change dramatically. Early in my childhood, Christopher Columbus was this big thing. Columbus Day was this big thing. Here's the guy who discovered America.

Then he got one hell of a historical working-over. He didn't even set foot in America. Amerigo Vespucci discovered it. No, Leif Eriksson discovered it. How do you 'discover' somethng that's already inhabited, anyway? And what about all the stuff he did once he made landfall wherever it is he made landfall? Wait... we're celebrating this jerk? Ew! No! Stop!

By the time I'd gotten to high school, Columbus Day wasn't even really being observed anymore.

3: 'Imagination' and 'luck' are stupid categories.

Imagination is really very important. How effective can a President possibly be if they have no real direction in which they wish to go? Check the top 10 in imagination and you can really start to see where they're going with it:

1- Teddy Roosevelt
2- Lincoln
3- Jefferson
4- Franklin Roosevelt
5- Wilson
6- Obama
7- Kennedy
8- Madison
9- Washington
10- Clinton

And the bottom 10:
34- Benjamin Harrison
35- William Henry Harrison
36- Fillmore
37- Coolidge
38- Hoover
39- Pierce
40- Bush 43
41- Andrew Johnson
42- Buchanan
43- Harding

Some categories mirror the overall ranking better than others, and there was a pretty strong correlation between imagination and the overall.

As for luck... yeah, that one is kind of dumb. It appears to be the second-worst correlation to overall, ahead of background, in which Lincoln placed 28th and Hoover placed 10th. (The strongest correlations, aside from 'present overall view', look to be domestic accomplishments and executive appointments.) Bush 43 was our 18th-luckiest President, which means 9/11 and Katrina can hit in the same administration, the recession can hit during the stretch run of the election to choose your successor, and you can still be in the top half for luck.

Coolidge placed 12th in luck, likely on the back of dodging the Great Depression. Hoover placed last, surely on the back of not dodging it. They sit seven spots apart in the overall.

This criticism is valid. Luck doesn't make a President. How you respond to it does.

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