As Presidents’ Day 2023 approaches, we can anticipate the annual ritual of polls of scholars ranking the presidents. These polls can provide fodder for chitchat around the dinner table or at social gatherings, but in terms of providing illuminating insights into presidents, they are essentially worthless — or, at the very least, they are problematic in two ways.
First, such polls tell us far more about the people who participate in the polls than about the presidents themselves. The opinions about which presidents were “good” or “bad” are subjective and reflect the values, ideologies, partisan loyalties, and policy biases of those being polled.
Second, assessments of presidents often conflate the person with historical circumstances, mistaking good or bad times with good or bad presidents. To some extent, an element of luck or fate is involved. Timing is crucial. Some presidents enter office at relatively fortuitous times, while others are dealt a bad hand by historical contexts and events.
The second problem with presidential rankings is, I believe, less controversial, so let me address it briefly before proceeding on to the primary problem. Who was a better president, Bill Clinton or his successor, George W. Bush? Partisans already have their minds made up, but let’s look at it this way: Compare the 1990s to the 2000s. Which of those two decades was better for our country?
My vote goes to the ’90s. It was a relatively worry-free period. The Soviet Union had collapsed (thank you, Ronald Reagan), the economy was riding the wave of a long-term economic expansion (thank you, Ronald Reagan), and there weren’t any major crises.
The fact that progressives rank FDR far above Harding can only be explained in terms of ideological bias.
Compare 1993–2001 to 2001–2009. In the first year of Bush’s presidency, we had 9/11. In his second term, Federal Reserve policy errors led to a painful popping of a housing bubble that morphed into a massive overall economic crisis. Questions: Could Bill Clinton have averted either of those calamities if he had been president then? And would the good times of the ’90s been knocked off the rails if Bush instead of Clinton had been president? I doubt it. The simple point I am making is that while there would have been some policy differences, by and large, whoever was fortunate enough to be president from 1993 to 2001 would likely be remembered positively, whereas whoever was president from 2001 to 2009 would likely be forever associated with dark times.
Now let’s address the fundamental problem with presidential rankings. Ideological bias is prevalent. Exhibit A: Every year, polls rank Franklin D. Roosevelt among the best of presidents and Warren G. Harding among the worst. Now let’s compare how the economy fared under those two presidents.
Upon taking office, Harding inherited an economy that was reeling from dislocations caused by World War I. In a few months, wholesale prices collapsed by more than 40 percent, production plunged over 20 percent, and unemployment zoomed from under 3 percent to over 11 percent. The period 1920–21 saw the most rapid, severe economic downturn our country has ever experienced.
What was Harding’s response to this severe economic crisis? Having campaigned on the theme of a “return to normalcy,” Harding shunned the progressive catnip of increased government intervention into economic matters. He turned to free markets, not government, to make the necessary adjustments. He committed what, for progressives, is the cardinal sin: He cut federal spending. Actually, he didn’t just cut it, he slashed it by over 40 percent between taking office in 1921 and his death in 1923. He also cut tax rates for every income group. Prices were allowed to fall, supply and demand readjusted, and the depression was already over by early 1922. Soon, unemployment dove to 2.4 percent while production soared 60 percent. Harding presided over a stunningly vigorous economic recovery that is arguably the greatest economic success story in American history.
The economic record of Roosevelt is far less rosy. FDR chose to extend and expand the aggressive federal economic interventions introduced by President Herbert Hoover in 1930–32. He funded those interventions via massive deficit spending. Rather than ending the Great Depression, which had started under Hoover, FDR’s interventionist policies continually discombobulated markets and instead prolonged the Depression all the way into the 1940s.
The fact that progressives rank FDR far above Harding can only be explained in terms of ideological bias. Ah, but there is also a matter of partisan bias and intellectual dishonesty, too: Progressives rank the Republican Hoover near the bottom of presidents (a ranking with which I agree) by characterizing him as a laissez-faire president like his two Republican predecessors, Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Such a characterization is completely counterfactual. Hoover shared FDR’s progressive interventionist proclivities and acted on them to such an extent that Rexford Tugwell, part of FDR’s brain trust, subsequently wrote that Hoover was the true father of the New Deal. Hoover, in short, was a strong opponent of the laissez-faire philosophy.
Bottom line: Harding was a far better president than FDR in the economic realm. There is no basis for comparing them as wartime leaders, since the U.S. was happily at peace during the Harding years (which I hope progressives don’t regard as a negative!). Progressives are welcome to say that I rank Harding over FDR because I am biased toward minimal government intervention in the economy. In that, they are completely correct. But being pro- or anti-intervention can deal with one’s preferred means to a chosen end, and not the end itself. I favor nonintervention because such a policy regime led to prosperity for Americans in the 1920s (at least, until the bubbles produced by the Federal Reserve’s inflationary policies in the mid-’20s burst in 1929).
Do progressives favor FDR’s massive interventions because they produced hardship? I hope not! But I’d be willing to wager that most Americans favor prosperity over hardship. Consequently, I believe that a majority of Americans would hold the presidency of Warren Harding in higher regard than that of Franklin Roosevelt if it were not for progressive writers obfuscating the facts.
Two other points in defense of Harding:
To those who would say, “Forget about the successful economic policies; the Harding administration was corrupt,” I offer this rebuttal: Yes, there were two crooks in Harding’s cabinet. The Teapot Dome scandal was perpetrated by the attorney general and the secretary of the interior. Harding, though, was blindsided by this betrayal of trust and was in no way involved. By contrast, FDR personally initiated an act of corruption: He directed the IRS to stop pursuing the tax-evasion shenanigans of one of his congressional allies — a young Texan named Lyndon Baines Johnson. Furthermore, in an egregious example of heartlessness, FDR channeled the flood of New Deal spending away from the Deep South where the economic need was greatest. Knowing that the post–Reconstruction South was solidly Democratic, Roosevelt turned his back on its people’s suffering and steered federal money to electoral swing states, such as Pennsylvania and California. (Read the details in Burton Folsom Jr.’s excellent history, New Deal or Raw Deal?: How FDR’s Economic Legacy Has Damaged America.)
In conclusion, perhaps partisan bias is inevitable in presidential polls. Such bias is glaringly evident in the assessments of consecutive presidents whose policies were very similar and yet whose rankings are far apart. Two examples of this are the Hoover/Roosevelt pair and the Johnson/Nixon pair. FDR’s New Deal was basically a continuation of Hoover’s policies. Yet Hoover, the Republican, ranks near the bottom of most presidential rankings, while FDR, a Democrat, ranks near the top. Similarly, Nixon continued and expanded on LBJ’s welfare-state spending and the war in Vietnam, but LBJ, a Democrat — though dragged down somewhat by his association with Vietnam — fares far better than the Republican Nixon in rankings.
Personally, I rank both those pairs of presidents in the bottom third. Perhaps that is because of my perspective as an economist. I am more than convinced that economic ignorance and consequent policy errors have been and continue to be a bipartisan phenomenon.
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