The new year has ushered in a new administration and new vision for America. Born in 1942, President Joe Biden, the 46th president, stands on the shoulders of many of his predecessors from the 20th and 21st centuries. But what are Biden’s prospects for a successful presidency?
On this Presidents’ Day, we should look back at presidents who have guided the nation through challenging times and emerged in the retrospective glance of history as great presidents.
Political scientists and historians have offered some insight into understanding and ranking presidential administrations. From Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s “The Imperial Presidency” to Richard Neustadt’s “Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents,” some works offer historical and political approaches to the presidency. Other books, like James Barber’s “The Presidential Character” and Michael Genovese et al.’s “Presidency and Domestic Policy” suggest ranking presidential administrations based on political psychology or policy outcomes. There are also countless biographies by various authors as well as chapters from a few works in one edited source.
Since both of us have taught presidential history courses, we respect the historical and political perspectives. But we were recently struck by a Siena College ranking of U.S. presidents by historians and political scientists. Based on specific examples of “attributes,” “abilities” and “accomplishments,” several presidents stood out more so than others in the 20th century. Our academic colleagues ranked Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt near the top over the years. At the same time, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan have regularly scored in the top 10.
The modern presidency began with the ascendancy of Theodore Roosevelt to the Oval Office in 1901. During his term in office, TR officially renamed the presidential residence by its current name, “The White House.” The 2018 Sienna College rankings place Roosevelt fourth overall, giving him high marks for willingness to take risks, luck, and foreign policy accomplishments. By contrast, he scored lowest in the ability to compromise category.
Roosevelt’s record as president certainly merits these attributions. He brokered a treaty between warring Russia and Japan, bringing an end to the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. For his part in the peace settlement, he became the first president to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor accorded to only three subsequent chief executives. He acted boldly on numerous occasions, from the Panama Canal Treaty to commissioning the “Great White Fleet” to sail the world. Domestically, he rigorously broke up trusts and monopolies considered harmful to the American economy. And he certainly got lucky, with no major wars to preoccupy his time in office and a relatively prosperous economy.
Of the modern presidents, only one ranks higher in the Siena College polls than Theodore Roosevelt: his distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Elected four times to office, Franklin D. Roosevelt broke the mold in many ways. He transformed the Democratic Party into the party of liberalism, forging the famous New Deal political coalition that held sway through the 1960s. Although initially stymied by unfavorable Supreme Court decisions on New Deal policies, his twelve years in office allowed him to make eight appointments to the highest court, more than any American president.
Between the New Deal on the domestic front and his leadership during World War II in the foreign policy arena, he creatively tackled the nation’s problems and successfully ended the Great Depression while safeguarding democracy around the world. His Fireside Chats over the radio comforted millions of Americans and still serve as an inspiration for the current president.
Dwight Eisenhower was often understated but remained steady, according to historians like Stephen Ambrose. He was rarely seen as unpredictable even in the face of international uncertainty during the early Cold War and domestic challenges like school segregation. It shouldn’t be surprising that his integrity, ability to compromise and leadership ability are ranked in the top 5 areas per Siena College. But Eisenhower’s communication skills and willingness to take risks barely put him in the middle of the pack among all presidents.
On the other hand, Ronald Reagan was highly rated by political scientists and historians for his communication skills and working with Congress. He consistently remains in Siena College’s top 5 over the years. But in terms of integrity and intelligence, Reagan is ranked in the bottom dozen presidents overall. Clearly political scientists and historians have their doubts about his handling of the economy and the Iran-Contra affair, as historian Garry Wills reminds readers. Political scientists and historians recognize these two presidents’ strengths and weaknesses were complete opposites. At the same time, Eisenhower and Reagan are nearly tied for their leadership abilities.
Taken altogether, these four great presidents of the modern era — Roosevelt, F.D.R., Eisenhower and Reagan — relied on excellent communication skills and a bold leadership style to take the nation through difficult times. For the sake of all Americans, we shouldrally around the current president in our own moment and support him in his worthy aims to build back better. On this Presidents’ Day, we owe nothing less to the past and present holders of the office.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is associate dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies and teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He is also a frequent contributor on WNPR.
Thomas J. Balcerski, Ph.D. is associate professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is a frequent contributor to CNN and other media outlets. Twitter follow @tbalcerski
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