Government & Politics

What Constitutes Presidential Leadership?

A recent survey leaves out honoring constitutional oaths.

Brian Mark Weber · Feb. 24, 2017

Just ahead of Presidents' Day Washington’s Birthday, C-SPAN released a ranking of U.S. presidents based on a survey of 91 presidential historians. They judged former presidents based on a range of leadership factors including “public persuasion,” “moral authority” and “relations with Congress.” But is this judgment of presidents really the best measure?

It’s interesting to look at the survey’s factors and consider how the rankings would be different if we added other categories to the list. In other words, if an “economic responsibility” score were included in the survey, would we give high scores to Democrat and Republican presidents who saddled citizens with trillions of dollars of public debt or who burdened American businesses with scores of job-killing regulations?

We could add a category called “expansion of dependency on government” and see what happens to the FDRs and LBJs in the rankings. Sure, some Americans benefitted from Roosevelt’s decisive actions during the Depression, but decades later are we freer and more prosperous now that we’ve been conditioned to depend on government for our sustenance?

One of the other interesting aspects of the C-SPAN survey is the lack of factors related to the very ideas upon which our country was founded. Imagine how categories for “support of individual liberty,” or “economic empowerment,” or “respect for states' rights” might change the way we think of presidential leadership.

There is no doubt that most Americans consider Abraham Lincoln a model of presidential leadership (he was ranked first, after all), but 11 of the nation’s 34 states at the time seceded because their citizens thought he was a tyrant who trampled on states' rights, did violence to the Constitution and destroyed the American republic. Since then, most Americans tend to give Honest Abe credit for dealing with a complex moral and political situation, and restoring the union.

If time has been good to Lincoln, then George W. Bush will need a few more decades. Like Lincoln, Bush was challenged to act swiftly during a time of national uncertainty, but Bush comes in at number 36. Bush seems to be an outlier, as most presidents who passed significant pieces of legislation or who led the country during times of war tend to rank higher.

Presidents who served during times of peace or didn’t manage to implement major initiatives or programs often rank lower. Calvin Coolidge, who didn’t do very much in terms of policies and programs, but who is often regarded as being utterly faithful to the Constitution and to the ideals of our founding, comes in below Jimmy Carter in the survey. That should tell you everything you need to know.

Barack Obama, who ranked a ridiculously high 12th in this year’s survey, might have fallen a few spots if he were judged by an “economic empowerment” category — eight straight years of subpar economic growth.

And imagine how a “support of press freedom” category might determine where Obama or even Donald Trump rank in future surveys. In all likelihood, historians would give the current president a low score in this area despite the fact that Trump has done nothing to curb the freedom of the press while Obama’s administration wiretapped the Associated Press, went after the phone records of a Fox News reporter, threatened to imprison a writer for exposing a bungled CIA operation in Iran, and was dubbed by the New York Times' David Sanger as “the most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.”

Most importantly to us, had Obama been measured based on faithfulness to the Constitution, he might have been dead last.

When most Americans think of presidential leadership, we envision the likes of George Washington, Lincoln, FDR and Ronald Reagan. But Americans are educated about leadership as though it’s a skill one can acquire by attending a leadership conference or engaging in a role-playing leadership activity in one’s school or workplace. We’re obsessed with churning out the leaders of tomorrow without actually thinking about what real leadership entails.

Our modern concept of leadership seems to be all about making tough decisions, getting things done, and inspiring people to follow. But it doesn’t take long to come up with a list of so-called leaders throughout history who left death and destruction in their wake by following this model. So maybe we shouldn’t judge our presidents this way.

Although C-SPAN is arguably one of the best sources of unfiltered information, their historians for this survey are overwhelmingly left-leaning. And while the categories themselves may seem apolitical on the surface, there’s no way to keep one’s political, moral or historical biases out of categories such as “moral authority” or “vision/setting an agenda.”

Rather than judging presidential leadership on malleable categories prone to political bias and weighted toward activism, maybe it’s time to come up with a new system of grading presidents. Perhaps we should consider other categories that represent the ideals of our founding and judge former and future presidents on how well they upheld their oaths to “support and defend” the Constitution.

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