The Siena Research Institute’s Lousy Independence Day Gift: Misleading, Biased and Incompetent Presidential Rankings

The Siena College Research Institute persuaded over 200 presidential scholars to participate in a survey designed to rank America’s forty-three Chief Executives. There is great deal to be leaned from the resulting list that the Institute proudly released on July 1; unfortunately, very few of the lessons have anything to do with the men on it.

The list shows us that:

  • A survey is only as good as its design
  • Historians who call themselves “presidential scholars,” working together, could do no better in their supposed area of expertise than to arrive at a ranking that would get most 7th Graders a C in junior high school History, raising serious questions about how history is taught in our universities, but perhaps explaining why Americans choose to be so ignorant of their nation’s past.
  • Historians are, as a group, biased toward liberal causes, against conservatives, and in favor of people who are like them.
  • They are unable to recognize their biases, even when a list like this one makes them stunningly obvious.

Lists are mostly for fun and to start arguments. When one purports to make historical judgments, however, and the individuals doing the judging are supposed to be experts, there is still a responsibility to try to do the task fairly, competently, and responsibly. Such lists influence students in their heroes and role models; they can slant political attitudes and perspective. Bias is inevitable: beginning in the 1960’s and periodically afterwards, the Democratic cheerleader historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. churned out rankings that routinely penalized Presidents for being Republicans and handed out bonus points for being named “Kennedy.” In 2000, The Federalist Society and the Wall Street Journal sponsored another survey that unsurprisingly showed a different bias, but on the whole resulted in a list that was less slanted than Schlesinger’s. The Siena list, however is in a class by itself, with so many indefensible whoppers that the responsible thing to do would have been to start from scratch.

Here’s the whole list:

  1. Franklin D. Roosevelt
  2. Theodore Roosevelt
  3. Abraham Lincoln
  4. George Washington
  5. Thomas Jefferson
  6. James Madison
  7. James Monroe
  8. Woodrow Wilson
  9. Harry Truman
  10. Dwight Eisenhower
  11. John F. Kennedy
  12. James K. Polk
  13. Bill Clinton
  14. Andrew Jackson
  15. Barack Obama
  16. Lyndon B. Johnson
  17. John Adams
  18. Ronald Reagan
  19. John Quincy Adams
  20. Grover Cleveland
  21. William McKinley
  22. George Herbert Walker Bush
  23. Martin Van Buren
  24. William Howard Taft
  25. Chester A. Arthur
  26. Ulysses S. Grant
  27. James Garfield
  28. Gerald Ford
  29. Calvin Coolidge
  30. Richard M. Nixon
  31. Rutherford B. Hayes
  32. Jimmy Carter
  33. Zachary Taylor
  34. Benjamin Harrison
  35. William Henry Harrison
  36. Herbert Hoover
  37. John Tyler
  38. Millard Fillmore
  39. G.W. Bush
  40. Franklin Pierce
  41. Warren G. Harding
  42. James Buchanan
  43. Andrew Johnson

Sometimes ranking lists intentionally are rigged to come out with a surprising #1. A list of the all-time greatest baseball players that begins with Babe Ruth is hardly newsworthy, but one that begins with Willie Mays can be counted on to attract attention. The presidential ranking is by scholars, however; they are obligated to be interested only in enlightenment, not publicity. In the presidential ranking game, any list that puts someone other than Lincoln or Washington first is automatically controversial, and for good reason: there’s no legitimate competition. The Siena list, by not having the President who preserved the union, redefined our concept of the nation, and ended slavery and the indispensible first Chief Executive who molded  the office and proved that an untried system of government could work, announces its bias and incompetence immediately. The two Roosevelts can only be judged above Lincoln and Washington if one regards progressive economic and social reforms and environmentalism as the most important objectives of a Presidency.

The lowering of Lincoln and Washington, however, are not the worst aspects of the list. After all, most rankings put F.D.R. no lower than third, and Teddy, despite his many mistakes (a recent book makes a strong case that Roosevelt’s policy of strengthening Japan in relationship to the rest of Asia led directly to the Japanese slaughter of Chinese and Koreans in W.W. II as well as the bombing of Pearl Harbor), is seldom left outside the top five. It is deeper in the list where its weaknesses and inconsistencies are most striking. A few examples:

  • Barack Obama, currently mired in two wars and a recession, while alienating traditional allies like Israel and Great Britain and pursuing a so far ineffective charm offensive with Iran, Russia, China and North Korea, having raised the deficit to unsustainable levels, being assailed from the Left for fecklessness and by the Right for pushing risky social experiments that the nation cannot afford, facing the likelihood of a massive vote revolt in November that could put him on the path to being a one-term president, is listed 15th, just behind Jackson (almost always in the top ten), and ahead of Conservative hero Ronald Reagan. Obama may yet earn such a high ranking, but awarding it to him now is similar to awarding him the Nobel Prize before he has achieved any peace. No president can be assessed fairly or accurately without the perspective of time. Judging Obama before he has served even half his term is impossible and absurd. I would argue that it is even too early to rank George Bush, but at least there are eight years to evaluate.
  • Ronald Reagan, though his ideological enemies refuse to give him due credit, was the signature architect of the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Iron Curtain. In any fair and unbiased ranking, that accomplishment alone would place him above Madison, Monroe, Clinton, Eisenhower, L.B.J and others the Siena survey place above him.
  • John Kennedy has no legitimate claims to being a great President or even an above average one. He nearly blundered the nation into nuclear war, started our entrenchment in the disastrous Vietnam war, and was assassinated before doing much positive besides inspiring a new generation and launching the space program, now apparently fading from importance. Yet somehow he is ranked above James K. Polk, who in serving one more year than Kennedy made a strong case that he should be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in U.S. history. During the 1844 campaign, Polk promised to do five things:  acquire California from Mexico,  settle the Oregon dispute with Canada and Great Britain,  lower the tariff,  establish a sub-treasury, and to leave office after one term. He did them all. Modern liberals don’t like to give Polk credit, as he did fabricate a war with Mexico, but he is second only to Jefferson in increasing the territory of the country, and his accomplishments obviously dwarf Kennedy’s. Kennedy’s reckless womanizing also mark him as one of the most despicable individuals to be President, and only a press corp that protected his image kept him from impeachment. The eleventh greatest President?
  • William Henry Harrison died in office after a month, being sick from his inauguration on. Most lists have either left him off, which is fair, or listed him last, as you can’t do less than nothing. Siena’s scholars, however, place him higher than eight other Presidents, including Richard Nixon, whose accomplishments were many, John Tyler, who deserves credit for deciding that Presidential succession didn’t require a special election, and Andrew Johnson, who at least successfully fought the attempt of Congress to reduce the Presidency to a rubber stamp.
  • Woodrow Wilson was an unapologetic racist who gave explicit support to the Ku Klux Klan and revived Jim Crow. His foreign policy accomplishments included getting the U.S. involved in World War I needlessly, and laying the groundwork for World War II by accepting the harsh treaty terms proposed at Versailles in order to get his dream, the League of Nations, established. Then he was unable to muster the political persuasiveness  to persuade the Senate to allow the U.S. to join the League, dooming it to failure. Finally, he spent the last half of his second term secretly incapacitated by a stroke, letting his wife run the country. For this, Siena’s scholars rank Wilson 8th.

How did the ranking end up so embarrassingly cock-eyed? Blame Siena Institute for this, as its methodology was incompetent and logically indefensible.  The historians were asked to rank the Presidents on six personal attributes (background, imagination, integrity, intelligence, luck and willingness to take risks), five abilities (compromising, executive ability, leadership, communication and overall) and eight areas of accomplishment (economic, other domestic affairs, working with Congress and their party, appointing Supreme Court justices and members of the executive branch, avoiding mistakes and foreign policy.) They were all weighted the same.

Background, intelligence, willingness to take risks and luck are all irrelevant and distorting categories. Luck? Does Siena College really believe that good or bad luck should be attributed to the President? If anything, having to deal with bad luck should cause a President to be rated higher. Willingness to take risks is a positive if it is a reasonable risk, a negative if the risk is reckless. An argument could be made that Abe Lincoln was a fool to risk losing a civil war and should have let the Confederacy go in peace. Presidents have to be ranked according to what they accomplish for the nation long and short term. Willingness to take risks is one route to success; it’s also a route to catastrophe. What does intelligence have to do with successful leadership? James Madison was brilliant, and bungled into a war that the U.S. was lucky to survive. Taft, Wilson, Carter, John Quincy Adams, Arthur and others  couldn’t translate I.Q. into successful leadership. Including this factor only allows historians to indulge their elitist biases, elevating the men they consider educated and intelligent, though in truth they can only speculate on such things. “Background” is similarly irrelevant. A lack of executive leadership experience has been a constant problem for Obama, as it was for John Adams and Andrew Johnson.  It didn’t seem to bother Lincoln, though, or Harry Truman. Two of our worst Presidents, George H.W. Bush and James Buchanan, had the most thorough experience in the group. To weight these four categories, which shouldn’t be factors at all, with foreign policy accomplishments (for example), guaranties strange results.

Other categories also have too much importance, or are an open invitation to bias, such as Supreme Court and Executive appointments. Does Kennedy get extra credit for his stellar appointments that managed to get thousands of American boys killed in Vietnam? How did the historians deal with F.D.R. attempt to circumvent the Constitution by packing the Supreme Court? I’d call that an attempt at illegal appointments, but apparently the scholars just ignored it. If a President appoints a Justice because he thinks he’ll be conservative (which the scholars generally don’t like), and he turns out liberal (Eisenhower’s appointment of Earl Warren; Nixon’s appointment of Harry Blackmun; Bush, Sr.’s appointment of Justice Souter), does he get brownie points for the appointment, or not? Then there is leading the Party: poor Andrew Johnson and John Tyler finished last in this category, because each was a Vice-President who ran on a national ticket of a party he didn’t belong to.

I could go on, but it is like shooting fish in a barrel. I’m just an amateur Presidential “scholar”: I look to the pros for insight. I expect serious historians to take their discipline seriously, not to participate in an exercise that at best is incoherent and at worse results in misinformation. I expect them to try to keep their biases in check; I expect them to use common sense (William Henry Harrison—he of the one month term— is ranked only next to last in “luck,” ahead of Herbert Hoover, who, if I recall, managed to live through his Depression scarred term and have productive life into his eighties. I suspect James Garfield and Jack Kennedy would consider being shot before they could get four years in more unlucky than having the stock market crash on their watch, too).

If you can’t do something like this well, it shouldn’t be done. American history is important, and it is not unreasonable to ask that historians treat it that way.

17 thoughts on “The Siena Research Institute’s Lousy Independence Day Gift: Misleading, Biased and Incompetent Presidential Rankings

  1. Pingback: The Siena Research Insititute's Lousy Independence Day Gift … Lamar university

  2. I’m sure a sufficiently knowledgeable person could take a list of the presidents in random order and day why they should be there.

    I tend not to go for Top 10 lists. I made one for a Youtube friend of his top 10 moments on Youtube, but it was something I knew very well. To even attempt to make a list like this, your knowledge of the subject should at least exceed how important the subject of the list is or will be.

    • Actually, I think that’s about what the Siena list did! I’ve been a Presidential history buff since the 5th Grade–wrote my honors thesis on a comparison of the leadership abilities, backgrounds and character of all the Presidents through Nixon—and the records are too complex for a simple numerical ranking to be anything but an invitation to use personal tastes and political biases. What annoys me about the historians’ lists—all of them—is that they pretend to be more than that.

  3. I throw all such ‘surveys’ that I get in the trash. They almost guarantee that my name and credentials will be used to push whatever agenda the survey-makers want (this is the same way I treat journalists, for the same reason). I did keep the Global-Warming Petition Project one to use in my courses, however (I didn’t send it in). It would have been better if all of the historians had as much sense.

  4. I am not sure what is unethical about this list. Surveys like this are more about generating controversey, or at least discussion. In that you blogged about the list (and a few of us are commenting) it seems to be working.

    As far as Presidential ranking go, I have seen far worse. Still I mostly agree with your assesment of our Presidents: particalarly Clinton and Kennedy. I do however have a different opinion of President Reagan. I think his ranking is about right. If we have learned anything since the end of the cold war, it is that our military build-up did not in large part precipitate the fall of the USSR. I give him credit for being a stronger leader than his two imediate predecessors. However, I doubt he is more responsible for the end of the cold war than any other president from Eisenhower to Nixon.

    • I think your Reagan argument is hard to maintain. He changed the Cold War assumptions by focusing moral criticism on the entire system of government, and pushed Soviet Union hard (against conventional wisdom and Democratic assumptions) when it was must vulnerable. Gorbachev has credited Reagan for that. It’s pretty strange, given the war analogy, not to give the President who presided over a decisive victory while his strategy was being used the benefit of the laurels.

      When professionals use their reputations and expertise to promote sloppy and dishonest conclusions, it’s clearly unethical. Using an academic discipline to push a political agenda under the guise of an objective exercise is similarly dishonest. The Obama ranking is indefensible.

      • I certainly give credit to President Reagan for strong leadership when the US and world needed it. However the USSR was already on the brink of economic colapse. His military build-up may have sped up the end of the Cold War by a few years but was largely unecessary.

        As far as the strategy used in the Cold War, credit for that must go to Truman more than any other President. And if we are going to credit the President in office when the Cold War ended, that would be President GHW Bush, not Reagan.

      • I don’t see the conclusions and sloppy or dishonest and long as the methodology is disclosed in a forthright maner. Furthermore I don’t see their particular methodology as any more or less valid of a way to rank Presidents.

        For example based strictly on his personal charisma/ comliness (or lack thereof), I doubt seriously if Lincoln (our greatest President IMHO) could have been a great President if he were elected in the modern post-WWII era. And if that was reflected in a ranking, so be it. It doesn’t make that ranking anymore right or wrong.

        • I couldn’t disagree more. That’s a good example of sloppy criteria. The beard would have been a problem on TV too. Using stupid criteria—luck? Background? —anyone can tell is irrelevant doesn’t make the survey invalid? Is there any criteria you would say is inappropriate, as long as it is disclosed? These people are historians, not TMZ. The survey got headlines, because the media presumes there is some wisdom and insight expressed in it. If it is based on shoddy assumptions and bad methodology, disclosed or not, it was not done with diligence, professionalism or care. That is unethical in my book.

  5. I have seen similar lists on several occasions and for several countries. What always fascinates me: The top is typically given to a right-man-at-the-right-time leader—not necessarily one who were greater than others, but who happened to be in charge during a very major crisis, war, or similar (and came out ahead, obviously). Consider FDR, Lincoln, and Washington, or UK’s Churchill.

    (In other countries, where there is no eight-year limitation, it is also common that leaders who were in office for a very long time are rated highly. Here the question is what is cause and what consequence.)

    • I meant to mention the longevity issue, Michael; thanks. FDR was in office almost six years longer than any other President, which gave him a lot more time to rack up accomplishments. And he did it by defying the wise tradition of term limits set by Washington. FDR had a dictatorial streak that was a potential threat to American democracy. Somehow this didn’t bother the historians taking the survey, but it should have.

  6. Harrison did nothing which is better than some presidents who actually dug themselves into a hole created by mistakes and failures. On example would be Herbert Hoover who put our country into the worst depression we have ever seen. The worst thing that Harrison did was stand in the freezing cold for 3 hours and die, letting John Tyler, a Democrat in Whig clothing take control in a mainly Whig controlled government and cause a stalemate.

    In addition you are forgetting the first term of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency where he reformed America and ended child labor (until that decision was called unconstitutional). People also don’t give enough credit to Wilson for hanging on and letting the country be run by smart people, rather than let Marshall someone who didn’t even want to be vice-president, ascend to the spot as president. Also there was no clear way for this transition to take place considering the 25th amendment didn’t even exist.

    In the end ou are right with many of these lists being done by liberal fanatic history professors who claim themselves to be “Presidential Historians.” But still the fact remains that many of these people have spent their lives devoted to history and deserve a chance to have their opinion heard.

    • They have a right to be heard, and they also have an obligation to not misuse their credibility by pursuing ideological biases and agendas. Wilson’s ledger is wretchedly in the red. He got the US involved in WWII on a pretense; his stubbornness led directly to WWII by permitting a punitive treat to go forward. He was incompetent dealing with Congress, and his racism and blatant support of Jim Crow alone would make him the bottom of the barrel. On top of it all, he didn’t resign when he was incapacitated, and participated in a conspiracy that allowed his wife to be de facto POTUS. Horrible. And blaming Hoover for the Depression is like blaming Bush for 9/11. Hoover didn’t take the right measures once the economy collapsed, but FDR’s fixes weren’t any better. He was just a better leader, and provided hope, plus the war helped.

  7. Siena College continues to produce highly biased liberal leaning research and polls. It should never be considered a valid source of research data on any issues in which democrat versus republican issues, politicians and/or their families are evaluated

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  9. How I look at it is, if you don’t rank Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and George Washington in the top 3, you might want to reconsider and look at your own personal biases. Franklin Roosevelt, poltical opinions aside, changed the United States more than any other president has and undisputedly made dozens of positive changes (winning World War 2 and henceforth ending the Great Depression, taking risks that no other president would have the guts to do, ending the reoccurring “new politics” every 36 years, taking us off the gold standard using Keynesian economics, I could go on forever), Abe Lincoln was strategic to gain support during the Civil War and halfway through his presidency decided the moral choice was to fight slavery even though half Union (75% of America) was grouping against him, and George Washington doesn’t need explaining. Theodore Roosevelt was good but not “top 3” good. The Sienna list definitely was biased as it stuck all modern Democrats minus Jimmy Carter in the top 20. Hoover as progressive for his time so he deserved to be a lot higher and Clinton and Eisenhower are rated way too high. Obama has been the best president in 20 years but come on, better than Reagan? I don’t think so. Richard Nixon was better than Ulysses Grant.

  10. You may want to read my comment above: It seems that you, too, belong to those who fall into the trap of confusing the man and the situation. Pertinent questions include a) whether a randomly chosen president would have done better, worse, or equally well than/as Lincoln, Washington, …, b) how so very often a “super-president” happens to present himself just at the time of that monumental crisis—just luck?

    In addition, you make some claims that can be disputed (in fact, more-or-less all of your specific claims will be disputed by at least some), including:

    o Did Roosevelt win WW II? Why not Churchill or Stalin? Why not his generals? Why not his soldiers? At the time the U.S. participated in a major way in Europe, Germany was already declining fast and the main benefit of the U.S. involvement was moving the forces of the “West” in sufficiently early that Stalin did not add more than a part of Germany to his greatly expanded dominions. As for Japan, they lost largely through having a weaker industry and less natural resources—to the point that ships and air planes often were left non-combatant for lack of fuel… The different priorizations of battle ships and air craft carriers between the U.S. and Japan also contributed very significantly—a difference that to some degree was luck. Roosevelt may or may not have had a positive overall influence; however, under no circumstances one so large that it should be a strong argument when comparing presidents

    o Did Lincoln save the slaves in a rightful war, or did he overrule the democratic will of the people, cause an unnecessary and severely damaging war, and unjustly deny the South’s right to leave the union? (Incidendentally, I have long wondered at the extreme difference in reasoning when comparing the justifications for the Revolution and the Civil War.) Furthermore, there is doubt as to whether Lincoln, McClellan, et co., did a very good job of the military aspects of the war: Possibly, someone else would have had it tied up in an even two years. As is, the North won a war of attrition based (as above) largely on a superior industry and greater natural resources.

    o If Obama is the best in twenty years (dubious) then only because he has done very little and might gain the lead on an “above all, do no harm” basis. However, depending on long-term developments ObamaCare could still set him back very far in terms of harm. Otherwise, he has continued the same conflicts that Bush Jr started (a grave disappointment to the Nobel Prize committee, who basically gave him the prize for not being Bush…), has failed disastrously in handling the outrageous behaviour of e.g. the NSA, and has not impressed me in his handling of the worst recession in a long time. In all fairness, recessions are not an area where politicians tend to shine and I do not see him as particularly bad either; however, locking at the overall picture, he is a presidential also-ran. To me, his main accomplishment was to keep Hillary Clinton, who I strongly suspect would have ranked among the worst, away from the presidency.

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