What do we learn from US presidents?

The US president is the most powerful man in the world. So all eyes are on that man. Yet all people are unique and leaders have profoundly unique styles.  What can we learn from the US presidents, and does that apply to our own lives? I want to approach this as an exercise in critical thinking.

Outsider’s perspective

I am not a history professor or a US citizen. I am not associated with any political party so I do not have any hidden motives. Basically, I am as objective about the US presidency as it goes. Recently I found myself in the middle of a heated argument between three of my friends: 2 republicans and 1 democrat. Their arguments sounded biased, so I decided to do some independent research. Within 5 min I found the historical ranking of US presidents.  For the years, cross reference with another list. Then I spent a couple of hours trying to understand what I can learn from it.

The ranking results

You can find the best US presidents on Mount Rushmore. These presidents are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Add to them, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is also my personal favorite president. The worst presidents were probably James Buchanan and Warren G. Harding. We may probably add to the infamous list Donald Trump’s name – it is still too early to tell.

How do we rank presidents? The method is very subjective, but the results are surprisingly consistent. A large number of history professors are asked to rank the presidents and the numbers are averaged.

We have the results from 1948, and can see the historical trends. For example, the opinion of Andrew Johnson – a president impeached – degraded immediately after Nixon’s demise. Theodore Roosevelt was always a popular president, but with time he became even more popular. Maybe because we really hate monopolies now. Ronald Reagan was not as popular during or after his time in the office as he is now.

The most important qualities

It is reasonable to ask what are the most important quality for the ranking of the president. I would say these are the ability to face a crisis with dignity and the power to unite the people. Some of the most popular presidents were in office during the greatest challenges in US history: the great depression, the civil war, the independence war, WWI, and WWII.

Clearly, success in war is not sufficient for a good rating. James Madison was a president during 1812 war, and his rating is highly controversial.  Lyndon Baines Johnson was a president during the Vietnam war and he still polarizes historians.

So let us consider another pair of attributes.

The most infamous qualities

Personal integrity is very important to the president’s infamy. Nixon or Warren G. Harding, or Andrew Johnson were quite popular when they were in office, but historians remember them due to the relevant scandals. Not all scandals are memorable.  Ronald Reagan’s and Bill Clinton’s popularity improves as people forget their scandals. 

Gaslighters are also not favored by historians. James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce are still blamed for the civil war. A good president should not polarise the people. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” said the most revered president of all time Abraham Lincoln.

Rhetorics or action

We remember Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt often due to their speeches. These speeches are still studied in schools all around the world as true rhetorical masterpieces. But George Washington or Dwight D. Eisenhower were men of action, military commanders that did not deliver rhetorically. They are still considered very successful presidents.

This makes me think that intellectual qualities are not that important for a leader. James A. Garfield was probably a genius, yet he was assassinated very early in the office. George W. Bush was definitely not a genius, yet his rating is similar to Garfield’s.

Luck and death

A good leader is often a lucky leader. Thomas Jefferson is beloved partially due to the Louisiana Purchase deal. Theodor Roosevelt became a president only due to William McKinley’s assassination. We do not know what would historians think of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot had he not been assassinated.

The job of the US president is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Many presidents survived assassination or died trying. Many of the presidents that died in office were not the most controversial or polarizing, but simply unlucky.

Things that do not matter

What is the most important thing during the elections? The party that is represented by the president. Somehow it is not very important for the historical ranking. Some presidents like John F. Kennedy and  Theodor Roosevelt changed the entire role and perception of their party in the public’s opinion.

The physical qualities were not important before the age of television. Franklin D. Roosevelt could not even stand without a contraption, and yet he was an extremely effective leader in the age of radio. The debate between Nixon and Kennedy was the dividing line in this parameter: Nixon won in radio, but Kennedy in TV and the elections.

The highest-rated presidencies coincide with the highest casualty rate, and often with the deepest economic crisis. They were perceived as beacons of hope and moral lighthouses. And yet the periods of the greatest prosperity also reflected favorably on the relevant presidents.

Should presidents be positive, beloved, or happy? Probably not. Most of the presidents were utterly miserable, and we would not like to have them as our personal friends.  Lyndon Johnson pissed on one of his bodyguards and a lot of his metaphors were pee-related. Woodrow Wilson was paralyzed by a stroke and confined to bed in the most critical period of his presidency. I honestly do not want to know the secrets of other presidents.

Is Donald Trump the worst president ever?

Time to confess, this is the question that started the entire research. The honest answer is: too early to tell. But let us examine the secondary factors.

Did this president serve as a beacon of hope during the corona crisis?

Are there major scandals associated with the presidency?

Was the president uniting or polarizing the people?

How lucky is Donald Trump?

The initial responses by historians are very negative. This does not mean that the alternatives were better: we simply cannot know.  I want to emphasize something historians often ignore: the most prosperous periods in American history often coincide with weak leadership. Calvin Coolidge was not a star in the eyes of history, yet his presidency was an age of prosperity.

Critical thinking reconsidered

From 2021 you will find in Thinkific my class dealing with analytical skills, and I will add the Big History section to the memory class. What tools did I use here to make my decisions?

  1. I went to some statistical analysis of panels of experts. If I used economic analysis or death rate statistics, I would probably get a very different result. Statistics often ignore the human factor.
  2. Attribute analysis. I tried to outline pairs of attributes that polarized the scores. These were not the more natural attributes, like a party.
  3. Trend evaluation. There was a true attempt to understand why the scores of some presidents were stable, while others fluctuated one way or another.
  4. Memory markers. What do we remember from each presidency? How do we accept leadership as a metaphor? Some leaders were warriors, while others were remembered for their speeches, and yet others for their scandals.
  5. Diffusion. Do I really personally agree with the experts? Not necessarily. I think that the moral integrity of Abraham Lincoln was very expensive in terms of human lives. Dwight D. Eisenhower made much needed social reforms nearly impossible, not to mention the infamous activity of Joseph McCarthy under his rule. I value the role of Ulysses S. Grant as the symbol of peaceful compromise much higher than the panel of historians.

Should news or history influence the way you vote?

Honestly, I do not think that the Democrats are better than Republicans or vice versa. I am not sure that a bad president will lead to a bad presidency for the American people or the allies. As far as I am concerned, this entire historical expose is a nice exercise but not a decision-supporting step.

We want to live reasonably well, knowing that our interests are taken care of. Should we really care about the personal scandals of a leader? Maybe it is best to leave some of the histories to historians.


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