The 'Conservative' Reagan and Other Political Myths Dispelled

Author Mike Kimel discusses the use of hard data to assess recent U.S. presidents.

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There are plenty of generally accepted notions about how well presidents handled key issues. Ronald Reagan brought smaller government, for instance, while Democrats such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton pumped up government, right? Well, no, according to Mike Kimel and Michael Kanell, who run the numbers on recent U.S. presidents. In their book Presimetrics: What the Facts Tell Us About How the Presidents Measure Up on the Issues We Care About, Kimel, who has built statistical software used by the military and NASA, and Kanell, who covers economics for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, use hard data to quantify and assess presidential performance on a variety of issues. Focusing on the presidencies from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush, and drawing on data from various government sources, they compare and rank presidential performance on issues such as taxes and healthcare. Kimel recently spoke to U.S. News about the merits of using data to assess presidents and why Ronald Reagan might not be as conservative as the public believes. Excerpts:

What is this book really about?

The book exists on two levels. On one level, we looked at all sorts of things that we thought mattered to Americans, everything from abortion to economic growth to job creation. And, in each case, we went to whatever government source is responsible for collecting that data. So, for instance, when we're looking at the murder rate, we go to the FBI. The second level is that this book could be thought of as a book on policy.

How did you avoid having your own biases creep in?

Our primary method was to try to use exactly the same methodology when we were looking at each [data] series. For instance, when we looked at abortion, we looked at the rate of change from right before a president took office to right before he left office. On abortion, it turned out Clinton did better than any other president, by all measures.

You mean there were the fewest number of abortions under his presidency?

Throughout the book, we tried not to look at absolute numbers. What we looked at instead was the rate of change. So with respect to abortion, we would be looking at the number of abortions right before—in the year before—Clinton took office and the number of abortions in the year before he left office. And that rate of decrease was faster than for any other president.

Does this data reveal who was the best president?

What we can tell you is who did best overall on the issues that we looked at. And on the issues that we looked at, Clinton turned out to do better on more issues than any of the other presidents. Reagan also tended to do well, and he came in second. But one of the big surprises was how poorly Reagan did on small-government issues. By a number of measures, he actually was either the biggest government president or one of the biggest government presidents. For instance on national debt, he certainly was among the presidents who increased the debt the most, if you look at the rate at which the national debt as a percentage of GDP increased under Reagan. Even Carter, who has a reputation for being a big-government guy, managed to shrink the ratio of Americans working for the federal government.

[Read more about the deficit and national debt.]

What are some other surprises you uncovered?

Another issue that many Republicans talk about is federalism. We measured how much money did the federal government transfer from itself to states and local governments. And under Reagan that actually decreased. We looked at transfers to state and local government as a percentage of federal government spending. And that shrunk under three presidents. It shrunk the most under Reagan, second most under Carter, and the third one, who was also a surprise, was George W. Bush. So these three presidents, by that measure, were the big [federal] government presidents. Whereas Nixon and JFK and LBJ and Clinton and Eisenhower and Bush Sr. were all smaller-government presidents by that measure.

What makes a good president, and how much of that can be quantified through data?