What Are The Main Criteria For Rating

Presidents? Essay, Research Paper

More than any other political figure, the President of the United States of

America attracts the scrutiny and passion of the American people. As their

elected Head of State, he represents the presence of the masses, and is seen as

the figurehead of the nation in times of national crisis and grief. The last few

decades have seen a public disillusionment with the democratic process in

American politics, and, as a consequence, the electorate look to a strong

president to support their interests against those in power whom they do not

trust. During his term in office, the president is continuously examined within

the minds of the masses, most acutely through the various limbs of the media.

All presidents begin their terms, having just been voted in by the majority of

the populace, with broad public support. Evidence shows however that this

support, or `popularity rating’ wanes over time, peaking only after military or

other dramatic action. Political scientists have long considered this aspect of

the presidency a valid one for further study, and have designed several

mechanisms for the classification of presidents. These theories help to explain

exactly what makes a president `good’ or `bad’, and it is these that I will try

to define and explore in order to answer the question given.

Perhaps the greatest contributor to presidential studies, at least on the

specifics of success analysis, James Barber, puts forward a binary matrix

involving two baselines. The first, activity-passivity, places the presidents

according to the amount of energy invested in day-to-day activities. For example

the notoriously hard-working Lyndon Johnson, who slept as little as possible in

order to have more time to work, features far higher on this scale than the

lethargic Calvin Coolidge, who often needed an afternoon nap despite an eleven

hour nightly sleep. The second baseline is positive-negative effect. This

defines the actual attitudes of the men towards their office, whether they

actively enjoyed their political life, and whether they believed their position

was a privileged one, not a grim yet essential task. These two characteristics

are an attempt to commodify a president’s success, or lack of, and hence

understand their subsequent `rating’ among both the public and political

scientists. Barber describes the four extremes of this model as follows:

Active-positive: There is a congruence, a consistency, between much activity and

the enjoyment of it, indicating relatively high self-esteem and relative success

in relating to the environment.

Active-negative: The contradiction here is between relatively intense effort and

relatively low emotional reward for that effort. He seems ambitious, striving

upward… [yet] his stance toward the environment is aggressive and he has a

persistent problem in managing his aggressive feelings.

Passive-positive: The contradiction is between low self-esteem and a superficial

optimism. A hopeful attitude helps dispel doubt and elicits encouragement from


Passive negative: [These] …types are in politics because they think they ought

to be. They may be well adapted to certain non-political roles, but they lack

the experience and flexibility to perform as political leaders.

This framework has its obvious limitations; all forty-four presidents cannot

feasibly be pigeonholed into just four categories. Barber’s system does not

categorise presidents into successes and failures, but merely alludes to this

through the analysis of presidential style and technique. From this

simplification of achievement we can go on to dissect their terms in office even


Lyndon Johnson is a prime example of Barber’s active-negative category. He was

so dedicated to his position that he developed a system of making two days out

of every one, the first beginning with a bedroom conference at 6:30 or 7:00am

and ending with some lunch and a nap at about 2:00pm. After this he began work

again until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning – and even requested being woken should

something come up over night. This level of dedication and hyperactivity

certainly befits the active end of the baseline. Johnson’s term in office was

one of great turbulence, and many of his great domestic policies were undermined

by one overarching topic – the war in Vietnam. Perhaps Johnson made the mistake

of personalising the situation as his personal crusade when he said “I am not

going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia

go the way China went.” His refusal to back down in the face of such pressure

can be seen as a characteristic of a strong president, which he was, yet with

hindsight looks stubborn and bullish. Perhaps another political mistake of his

was his neglect in sharing responsibility for Vietnam with anyone else. He took

criticism for the situation squarely on the chin, when lesser men would have

created a scapegoat to escape such pressure. The war consumed all of Johnson’s

immense energy, yet he felt that this effort was going unnoticed, and certainly

without reward. He complained of being “the loneliest man in the world,” and

said that he “will never get credit for anything I do in foreign policy, no

matter how successful, because I never went to Harvard.” This bitterness

characterises Johnson’s last few months in office, and it is arguable whether he

would have stood for re-election even if he were likely to win. He fits into the

active-negative category because he had boundless energy and enthusiasm for the

job, yet came out of his time in office feeling rather bruised and hurt.

In contrast to the fruitless hard work of LBJ are the men that Barber calls the

passive-positive presidents. These figures are the political lovers, who not

only gain great pleasure from their elevated role in politics, but who seem to

emit an aura of geniality to those around them, despite the fact that they may

end up less enthusiastic, politically, by the end of their term. William Howard

Taft was such a figure. A man of ponderous bulk, he was voted into the White

House with the motto: “Smile, smile, smile.” Although Taft certainly could be

tough and work hard, neither came especially naturally to him, and he preferred

congeniality in debate rather than any useful discord. He was reported to often

need a lot of sleep, just like Calvin Coolidge, and often fell asleep in Church

and even at public functions. This near-lethargy towards his official duties

certainly shepherds him into the passive class, yet it is the fact that his

attitude towards his office remained so positive that warrants further analysis.

Taft’s main love in life was his love of the law.

Taft worshipped the law; no understanding of him is possible without

appreciation of that fact…. What Taft really did was to revere the law, as he

understood it, himself, or as judges with whom he agreed interpreted it.

Such a strong reverence for legal ritual may be the source for Taft’s conception

of presidential power. In a lecture on “The Presidency” delivered in 1915 Taft

said that “our president has no initiative in respect to legislation given him

by law except that of mere recommendation, and no legal or formal method of

entering into the argument and discussion of the proposed legislation while

pending in congress.”

Taft’s political style reflected his judicial stance toward the world, and hence

certainly influenced his position in Barber’s matrix. His views on the limits of

presidential power told us more of his character than they did of the

Constitution, and this is why he can only be described as in the

passive-positive class. Taft saw the President’s role as being the exemplar or

propriety, and not the single-handed saviour of the Western World, as some would

argue Lyndon Johnson’s psyche strived for. Since Taft’s expectations of his own

capabilities were low, there was less for him to be disappointed about; indeed,

his only real regret seemed to be the notion that he had in some way let down

Theodore Roosevelt, his `true friend’ and mentor.

Barber’s system of rating Presidential performance indicates that the greatest

presidents in history have fallen into the category of active-positive. The

reasons for relative presidential failure are far easier to chart than patterns

of success, yet this can be used to our advantage in search of the latter. It is

very difficult for presidential scholars to define exactly what makes a good

president, yet certain characteristics would certainly be high on the list, were

one to exist. The active-positive presidents are those who appear to have fun in

the vigorous exercise of presidential power. As early as 1914, the young

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was showing signs of this vitality for politics when,

even after defeat in the New York senatorial elections he said, “I have loved

every minute of it.” Roosevelt arrived in the White House at a time when the

States were in crisis. The Depression meant that somewhere between 12 and 15

million men were out of work, and farmers left their crops to rot since it would

cost them more to harvest than they could sell them for. Another president,

perhaps Coolidge or Taft, new to the office, would have surveyed the chaos of

the country, and decided to study the problem. Roosevelt acted. His first months

as president were a flurry of legislative initiation and bills were flung across

to Congress before the previous one had even had time to be voted on. His

administration spent million in its first two hours. Roosevelt’s ardent belief

in the value of urgency and immediate action is captured succinctly in this

quote: “We have to do something. We have to do the best we know how at the

moment…. If it doesn’t turn out right, we can modify it as we go along.” This

quote could almost have been used successfully by Barber as the typical

phraseology of an active-positive president, and certainly indicates to us the

determination of Roosevelt as he strived to end the Depression. Many of his

critics at the time feared that he would become another Taft or Harding, and

that he was just too casual and genial to stand up to the pressures of the

presidency. Due to the crisis facing the nation Roosevelt could act pretty much

as he wished, without facing immediate backlash or pressure. This scrutiny came

later when the masses wanted to see some tangible evidence of recuperation -

some fruits of Franklin’s labour.

In contrast to Roosevelt’s positive outlook of the Presidency is the term in

office of Richard Nixon. Nixon’s classification among Barber’s theory could even

have been guessed before his inaugural address. His underlying character, style

and, above all, political opinion singled him out as an active-negative type

during his earlier political positions. There is no doubt that Nixon worked

tirelessly, especially in his campaigning, and was famous for his gruelling

schedule of speeches – including playing an active role in Republican grassroots

campaigns. However, the negativity in his character was there to be found in his

previous political career. In 1954, his manager intimated that “the

Vice-President [Nixon] agreed to retire from politics after his term ended in

1957.” And, after his defeat for the California governorship in 1962 he told the

press, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this

is my last press conference.” These are certainly not remarks on or by a

lifelong lover of politics with a strong presidential drive. Also, they seem to

give purchase to the portrait of Nixon as a bitter, reactionary man, who tried

too hard with resisting the temptation to lash out at his `enemies’, when he

should have searched himself for reasons why. This need for tight control is a

characteristic of the active-negative type, and fed his paranoia toward the

‘world Communist conspiracy.’

The four maxims that constitute Barber’s matrix allow us to analyse the relative

success of each President by grouping their similarities and hence to determine

whether these characteristics are beneficial or detrimentary to ppesidential

success. We should not, however, believe that if a certain figure falls within a

certain definition he would not display characteristics from other categories,

or even that the public perception of him would remain uniform. For example,

Barber’s definitions of an active-positive President may seem to suggest an

ideal man for the job. However, this assumption is not as clear-cut as the

definition may suggest. Even Roosevelt faced opposition and much criticism when

he tried to make reforms of the Supreme Court, specifically his attempt to oust

the “Nine Old Men” under false `inefficiency’ claims. His basic premise was to

install a Supreme Court that would wholeheartedly back his sweeping democratic

changes and his “New Deal”. This ploy failed however, and the public did not

back him as he had hoped. The affair displayed one of the drawbacks of the

active-positive type of leader – they can perhaps be, at times, just too

far-sighted in terms of amelioration and reform, at least in the opinion of the

public. Like other active-positive politicians, Roosevelt displayed himself as

too ready to bypass one of the few sacred limbs of American government, in his

case the Supreme Court. In this respect, a passive leader such as William Taft

poses far less a threat, and does not worry those resistant to such radical

thinking. This is one of the flaws with Barber’s system of rating success. Not

one of his four classes guarantees a successful term in office, nor collects

similar presidents in terms of success. What his matrix does do however is to

collect men who possessed similar attitudes towards the office and received

comparable satisfaction from the role; from this we can make judgements as to

which class is most likely to produce a successful president.

In order to tie this wealth of presidential analysis down more firmly to the

criteria for rating the presidents, we can call upon the research done,

primarily, by Arthur Schlesinger Snr. He compiled a list, after surveying

notable historians and political scientists, of all the presidents in history,

in order of `greatness’. The only five to feature in the top category in both of

his published rankings are: Lincoln, Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Wilson and

Jefferson. FDR is the only member of this elite group who features in Barber’s

study, as only contemporary presidents were considered. However, having already

defined Roosevelt as a president of the active-positive class, it is not

difficult to see the correlation between his achievements, and that of his

fellow stable mates. All but Jefferson were wartime leaders: Lincoln (Civil

War), Washington (Revolutionary war), Roosevelt (WWII), and Wilson (WWI) all had

to face military conflict, either at home or overseas. Taking a rather cynical

viewpoint, it seems that it is far easier to please a nation, and gain credit

for strong leadership, when the nation has a common enemy to unite against -

especially when in control of military might as strong as that of the States.

This theory holds true in the first of Schlesinger’s key maxims in the

production of a `great’ president:

1) Each held the stage at a critical moment in history and by timely action

attained timeless results.

2) Each took the side of liberalism versus the status quo.

3) Each acted masterfully and farsightedly in foreign affairs.

4) Each was not only a constructive statesman but a realistic politician.

5) Each left the executive branch stronger and more influential than they found


6) Each offended vested economic interests and longstanding popular prejudices.

7) With the exception of Lincoln, each came from the upper socio-economic strata

of society.

It is clear from these seven constituents that Schlesinger’s opinion on a strong

president correlates quite closely with Barber’s active-positive definition. It

seems to me that there are two distinct outlines of a `successful’ president.

There are the men that the public revere and remember as truly `great’, such as

the ones who top Schlesinger’s poll, who possessed the qualities defined above;

and also the men who fit into Barber’s active-positive definition, who may not

leave office with great pride and public veneration, but yet should be well

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