Judging the Presidents

Presidential biographer Robert Merry examines how presidents are evaluated by historians and voters.

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There is a rating system for virtually everything, from books and movies to athletes and musicians. The American presidents are no exception, and have been ranked and critiqued by scholars and historians for decades. Robert Merry, editor of the National Interest and biographer of President James Polk, explains how the presidential rating game is played in his book, Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians. He examines White House history and weighs the sentiments of the electorate against historians' analyses to formulate his own rating of U.S. presidents. Merry recently spoke with U.S. News about who the great presidents are and how some have qualified as what he calls "Men of Destiny" who have shaped the direction of the nation. Excerpts:

What defines a successful presidency?

Looking back at our great presidents, they all meet three criteria. Number one, they were judged by historians, in the polls of historians, to have been great. Number two, they all were successful with the electorate, meaning that they were two-term presidents succeeded by their own party. And number three, they all transformed the political landscape of America and set the country upon a new course. Then, the president has to, of course, understand his time and understand that he is not really mandated to change the direction of the country, but he is mandated to ensure that the country thrives by proceeding along the same lines that it has proceeded in the past.

[See pictures of Joe Biden on the Campaign Trail.]

What qualities make a president a "Man of Destiny"?

[The presidency] was designed to have a lot of checks and balances on it, and therefore once a president can really capture the sentiment of the American people, he becomes quite powerful. But unless he's able to pull that off, he's not going to be able to really move the country significantly in one direction or another.

What is the rating game?

Arthur Schlesinger Sr., the Harvard professor, sort of initiated the current rating game ethos in 1948 when he conducted a poll of prominent historians and had them rank the presidents in terms of who is the greatest and who were the not so great, who were the failures, who were the mediocre, sort of ordinary or average. As Mark Twain said, it's differences of opinion that make horse races. The difference between a horse race and this rating game is that the difference of opinion in a horse race gets settled at the finish line, but there's no finish line here.

Do historians and the public always agree?

They generally agree. There are some instances in which the voter assessment and the historian assessment is quite disparate and worthy of conversation. Warren G. Harding is judged to be a bad president, largely because of the Teapot Dome scandal, and he died in office, about two thirds or three fourths of the way through his only term. He gave the country what the country wanted. The voters were happy with the guy, and historians consider him to be really terrible.

[See a slide show of 10 things President Obama can learn from President Clinton.]

What should President Obama take from your book?

I say in the book that President Obama was elected in the middle of a crisis, and he attempted to address the crisis in many ways. He tried to take the country in a direction the country did not want to go with healthcare. In doing so, he undermined his standing and his position with the American people, and with the Congress, which is a reflection of the American people, in a way that has harmed his ability to lead. While I think that he's on the cusp of his political fate in terms of his ability to get re-elected or not, I think he has a significant prospect of being re-elected because he has essentially abandoned the thesis direction and goal that he had created for himself at the beginning of his presidency when he was tempted to take the country in a direction it didn't want to go.

How does time affect a president's rating or legacy?