Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Will Barry soar to the tops of the pops?

Well, OK, perhaps it's a little early to ponder President Barack Obama's likely assessment by historians of the future. But it's certainly not too early to point out that he's well on his way to high regard according to the usual blood-and-brutality standards set by most scholars -- but that he's vying for a very low rank according to an intriguing rating system that grades presidents according to the service they do in maintaining peace, prosperity and liberty.

Earlier this year, for Presidents Day, C-Span released the most recent scorecard judging the nation's former chief executives on their leadership. These rankings have become a semi-regular event, during which historians are polled on their subjective assessments of the relative merits of the presidents. Not surpisingly, they reveal more about historians than they do about the men they rate. Tellingly, the top of the list almost always features the same names. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt featured prominently this year, as they do in almost all such exercises.

I say almost all, because there are a few dissident voices playing this game. The latest such contrarian ratings come from Ivan Eland, Director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute, and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.

It's not fair to say that Eland's rankings turn the usual results upside down -- but they come pretty close. At the top of Eland's list is John Tyler, who comes in at number 35 on the C-Span list. Pulling the worst rank on Eland's list is Woodrow Wilson, who finished in ninth place for C-Span.

How could the results be so wildly at odds?

Easy -- Eland uses very different criteria than those used by most historians when ranking the presidents.

As the title of his book suggests, Eland rates the presidents according to their ability to preserve and defend peace, prosperity and liberty. Specifically, as Eland puts it, "this analysis gives presidents credit for avoiding wars and conducting only necessary wars of self-defense." In terms of prosperity, Eland judges presidents not just by prevailing conditions while they were in office, but for the effects of their policies after they left -- presidents who artificially pumped up the economy and left a shambles for their successors get dinged. When it comes to liberty, the author looks at deeds more than words. "Presidents often claim that they are preserving liberty while, at the same time, they are taking actions to subvert it. Only genuine acts promoting economic freedom (deregulation) and political liberty will be counted in the plus column in this analysis."

Since bad presidents have frequently done their worst damage while expanding their authority at the expense of the other branches of government -- and in defiance of constitutional strictures -- Eland also looks at the extent to which they resisted the urge to illegitimately expand the power of the presidency to the near-monarchical clout it wields today.

C-Span, on the other hand, asked historians to rate presidents (PDF) on "Public Persuasion," "Crisis Leadership," "Economic Management," "Moral Authority," "International Relations," "Administrative Skills," "Relations with Congress," "Vision/Setting An Agenda," "Pursued Equal Justice for All," and "Performance Within the Context of His Times."

But it was considered inappropriate for presidents to appeal directly to the public until the twentieth century, automatically hobbling earlier officials in the rankings. "Crisis Leadership" and "Economic Management" inherently put at a disadvantage presidents who manage to avert crises and who believe they have no business managing the economy at all.

Most telling is that, of the five top-rated presidents in the C-Span list -- Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, FDR, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman -- three presided over wars (and Theodore Roosevelt was overtly bellicose -- only George Washington seemed to have any taste for peace, and even he suppressed a tax revolt with troops and seized Indian lands). While the C-Span scholars celebrate these presidents' wartime leadership, Eland holds them to account for being unable or unwilling to avert bloody conflict.

Of those presidents, Lincoln and FDR get severely down-graded by Eland for civil liberties violations directly related to their war efforts, showing that much of what makes a president great or poor goes hand-in-hand.

Overall, most historians clearly prefer those presidents who leave the biggest mark on history -- in terms of blood, brutality and expensive monuments to themselves.

But the presidents who serve us best, as Eland points out, are those who quietly pass through office by using diplomacy, self-restraint and established channels to prevent crises, avert conflict, preserve our liberty and otherwise give us every reason to tend to our own affairs without worrying about political goings-on.

Ultimately, Tyler ranks so highly in Eland's list because of quiet actions like ending the Second Seminole War, slashing the size of the army by one-third, peacefully settling a boundary dispute with Canada, declining to send troops to suppress a minor rebellion in Rhode Island, maintaining sound money and controlling federal spending -- all while battling his own activist Whig party. That's not splashy stuff -- but it's the necessary basis for allowing people to raise families, build businesses and plan for the future.

Woodrow Wilson, on the other hand, ranked last on Eland's list for pushing America into an unnecessary war, criminalizing dissent, jailing political opponents and seizing private businesses. Those actions won him high rank among the C-Span historians.

So, how will President Barack Obama fare in the future? It's early yet, but based on his record, so far, of massive spending, continuing military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, expanding the role of government in the economy, and building on the authority and secrecy of the presidency, it's safe to predict that most historians will view him with fondness. They like the imperial presidency. He's unlikely to place very high on the Peace, Prosperity and Liberty index, however.

Of course, there's room for agreement even among scholars using very different criteria. Both Eland and C-Span ranked the last president -- George W. Bush -- at number 36, very near the bottom.

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