UW Today

February 28, 2017

Eisenhower up, Wilson down, Roosevelts rule: UW historian Margaret O’Mara part of CSPAN 2017 presidential ranking survey

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Margaret O'Mara

Margaret O’Mara

UW historian Margaret O’Mara was among scholars cable TV channel CSPAN asked to compare American commanders-in-chief for its recent 2017 Presidential Historians Survey, ranking the nation’s presidents from best to worst in 10 categories of effectiveness.

The survey, released Feb.17, showed former President Barack Obama entering the overall ranking at number 12 just weeks after leaving office. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin Delano Roosevelt top most of the rankings, perhaps unsurprisingly. FDR’s cousin Theodore Roosevelt and successor Harry Truman follow close behind, as well as two-term Republican president Dwight Eisenhower. Ike’s rank is rising over the years; Woodrow Wilson’s is dropping. The survey, conducted before in 2000 and 2009, only ranks presidencies that have been completed.

O’Mara and about 90 other historians ranked each president on 10 qualities of presidential leadership, from “moral authority” and “public persuasion” to crisis management, relations with Congress and with foreign powers, administrative prowess and the pursuit of equal justice for all.

“The ultimate ranking was as much of a ‘big reveal’ to me as it was to everyone else,” O’Mara said. “The metrics they use are a reminder of just how expansive the job of being U.S. president can be, particularly in the modern era. A century-plus ago, the federal government was much smaller, the executive branch much weaker, and the U.S. was not yet a military nor industrial superpower.”

Some considered poor presidents, she said, just had the bad timing of serving during economic or political crises beyond their control. Others seemed to find greatness through crisis.

“It’s no coincidence that many of the top-ranked presidents held office during times of war. Wartime leadership is a true test of the occupant of the White House and how they are remembered by history.”

Were there any surprises for you on the list?

O’Mara: “I was pleasantly surprised by the uptick in ranking for Dwight Eisenhower (ranked fifth overall, up from ninth in 2000). This reflects a new appreciation of Ike among historians and a renewed focus on the significant domestic and foreign policy events of his era. For a long time (including during his presidency) Eisenhower was seen as a genial, middle-of-the-road interlude between the more action-packed and charismatic Roosevelt-Truman and Kennedy Administrations.

“But the 1950s weren’t placid, by a long shot. Eisenhower steered the ship of state during a particularly dangerous geopolitical moment, oversaw the creation of a new high-tech military and defense economy, and practiced political moderation and bipartisanship that resulted in steady if not spectacular progress in social and economic legislation.”

What keeps Teddy Roosevelt near the top of these lists?

O’Mara: “Teddy Roosevelt remains high on the list, I think, not just because he’s one of the more colorful characters to occupy the White House but because his era began and helped define the modern presidency and the media environment that goes with it.

“He presided over the beginning stages of an expanded administrative state and the start of an era of American imperialism and military might — both significant turns from the status quo of the 19th century. He also was a million-watt celebrity and public figure at a moment of great expansion of print media and of great changes in how campaigns were run, which made elections more about candidates than about parties.”

We seem to be moving away from FDR-style government, yet he remains near the top every time. What does that tell us?

O’Mara: “FDR is a great example of how times of crisis are the making of great presidents. His predecessor, Herbert Hoover, remains in the bottom ranks of the list despite being once-famed for his managerial savvy and media magic. But faced with the crisis of the Great Depression, Hoover failed to act swiftly enough, and dramatically enough, to slow the fall and save his presidency. With the New Deal and World War II, Roosevelt oversaw the transformation of the American state into its modern, and much larger form, as well as built a political coalition that secured Democratic dominance of national politics for a half-century to come.”

Do such rankings really reveal anything new?

O’Mara: “Historians are storytellers. We’re qualitative researchers. So boiling down 44 presidents to a numerical ranking does seem like it’s pretty reductive. But it also can be instructive, and that’s why I participated. It prompts a broader conversation about what the job of president is, and how it has changed — so much! — over time.

“It also gets us thinking and talking about the distinctive way in which the United States conducts its affairs of state, the changing dynamics of our three branches of government, and how the job of president is now not simply one of governing a country but of shaping opportunity and possibility around the world.”

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