Siena College has just released its annual ranking of America’s 44 presidents, and I was delighted to be among the 200 historians to be asked to participate in evaluating the chief executives.
The responses are confidential but I will reveal that I ranked George Washington as our greatest president and not Franklin Roosevelt.
The fact that FDR and other “progressive” presidents score so high surely indicates a certain level of bias in the historians chosen and surveyed. Empirical data demonstrates that FDR never solved the Great Depression and indeed, probably exacerbated it with his New Deal policies; however he does deserve all the credit for winning WW II. On the other hand, after America was attacked on December 7th, any president who had not responded just as forcefully would have been impeached.
First, Obama should not have even been included. He’s only been in office for a year and a half.
Further, many have argued that sufficient time should pass before these evaluations begin and that even Bill Clinton and George W. Bush ought to be left off the list until passions have cooled and they can be judged more dispassionately.
But objectively, how does one really put Obama ahead of Reagan, who unlike FDR, solved his economic calamity in two years (and in the process, tamed the high inflation, high interest rates and created 19 million jobs in the private sector) and, oh by way, won the Cold War. Reagan critics in academia argue that Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan concluded the Cold War.
Communism gained ground against every American president from 1917 until 1980. Until Reagan put the neck of Soviet communism under the heel of his cowboy boot and crushed the life out of it, no Soviet leader ever willing surrendered power. Gorbachev ran up a threadbare white bed sheet. But don’t ask me and don’t ask some of the historians surveyed by Siena about the Cold War.
Ask Gorbachev. He’ll tell you that Reagan won the Cold War.
What do we really know about Obama? We don’t know his grades from college or law school, his SAT scores but we do know he rarely quotes great men of the past and seems to begin every sentence with a possessive pronoun.
Reagan, on the other hand, quoted Churchill, Cicero, Paine, Jefferson, Diocletian (!!!) and spoke from a parish perspective, using “us” and “we” and “ours.” Obama says “my government” Reagan said, “your government.”
Maybe it’s a sign of the “YouTube” generation, but from the standpoint of history, Obama seems to see the presidency as about himself while Reagan and previous presidents saw the office as about the American people and the Constitution.
In The Federalist Papers, Jay, Hamilton and Madison hammered away at the point, over and over, that the two most vital criteria for the presidency were character and experience.
Obama, while lacking experience, nonetheless strikes me as a man of good character even if he is a bit self-absorbed; however, many if not most of the 44 presidents have been men of good character. That’s not enough to rank him high on the list. It also must be about real accomplishments and a complete measure of the man and his life.
The great movie director Frederico Fellini said that one must “live spherically.” By this he meant that people should live their lives in many directions.
Reagan was a student of the world, of the culture, of history and of people. He was a class president and an athlete and a radio broadcaster and a husband and a father and a Christian and a rancher and a union president and a successful movie star and a successful television host and a carpenter and a horseman and a writer and a lecturer and a commentator and a governor.
All before he became president. And only after two successful terms and two of the biggest landslides in American history did he decide to write an autobiography.
Obama has written two autobiographies (though rumors have been rampant over the years that he wrote neither) even before he ran for president. What we do know about Obama is that he, like many of his generation, is mostly developed in the study of himself. He is America’s first “Facebook” president.
Having worked for Reagan and written two books on the man, one might expect that I ranked Reagan high and they would be right to presume that. But I let empirical data be my guide and not political bias.
On the other hand, if one were to ask the recently deceased liberal historian John Patrick Diggins, he rated Reagan in the category of “great” presidents, along with Washington, Lincoln and FDR. His criteria, as should ours be, being that each of these men freed many peoples. Another liberal historian, James MacGregor Burns, put Reagan in the category of near great presidents.
Despite what the historians surveyed by Siena believe---along with renowned historian and former Beatle Paul McCartney----the jury is not only out on Obama, it is grossly premature to rank him ahead of Reagan as it was for them to rank the small bore and impeached Bill Clinton ahead of the big ideas of Reagan.
But the elitists have always been out of touch. Which is why the Founders put their faith in the American people and why, in survey after survey of the citizenry, Reagan is ranked in the great category.
As he should be.
Craig Shirley is the president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs and the author of two books on Ronald Reagan, including the newly released "Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America" (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2009). He is now working on a political biography of Newt Gingrich.
Fox Forum is on Twitter @ fxnopinion.
Craig Shirley is a presidential historian and the author of four bestsellers on Ronald Reagan, and most recently the author of the authorized biography of Newt Gingrich, "Citizen Newt."