How Do You Rank Obama as a Leader? Part 3

By Jon Kraushar Communications Consultant

To read Part 2 of this post, click here and to read Part 1 of this post, click here.

On January 20, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the nation's 44th president, enrolling him in what will be his evolving ranking among other leaders in that office.

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, I detailed three roles that I believe could apply to Obama regarding his present and future ranking as a leader. Here are the last four categories in my system of leadership ranking.


Good leaders are respected, bringing respect to the entity they lead. A point Obama sold during his campaign and one he still features, as a benefit of his leadership, is that he contends that America will be more "respected" by other nations with him as president. This is attributed to his belief in consultation and collaboration with friendly nations, his commitment to dialogue and diplomacy with all nations, including enemies, and his vaunted "intelligence" and "eloquence" (especially compared to George W. Bush).

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However, in seeking international respect America used to be bolstered by a strong economy. That is now complicated by our economic crisis. Further, it is uncertain how Obama-- during his campaign a harsh critic of American military policy--will redirect our defense resources to win respect for the nation's military prowess and for America's overall war on terror. Reality can bite and chew on respect.

At this very early stage, the respect that the public has for Obama is based on his eloquent promises about a variety of issues rather than his proven performance. This is not only a reflection of a campaign by a candidate who is very long on charisma and very short regarding accomplishments in elected office; it also is a given because as history has shown, there is no telling in advance how even those elected with the most glittering resumes will perform as president of the United States.

In the coming months and years, we will find out how much the respect Obama enjoys right now has been based on his ability to play a convincing role as a campaigner and how much is derived from his real accomplishments in his governing role as a leader.

The public mood seems to be that Obama doesn't have the luxury of merely being a respected president who is steady but unspectacular, as Gerald Ford was after the Watergate scandal when Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency (some historians are much harsher on Ford, judging him to fit into the next role, below). The country is in a dreadful financial crisis that threatens our entire capitalist system. Everything, including banks, the Federal Reserve and our core industries are at risk. If Obama manages to successfully reverse our economic nose-dive, he will star in the leadership role of a lifetime that could win him respect and a ranking as an outstanding president.

A January 7 Gallup poll tracking "public confidence in Obama's ability to be a good president" showed him with a 65% approval rating, with a downward trend. At 65%, Obama ties President-elect George W. Bush's approval rating in 2001 and it is three points higher than the approval rating for President-elect Bill Clinton in 1993. Clearly, polls yo-yo -- they go up and down. But the Obama-Bush tie is intriguing because given Bush's current approval rating in the mid to high 20's, it serves as a reminder that the mighty can and do fall. Nonetheless, current public opinion is putting a lot of "hope" in Obama's "change." Having resoundingly won the audition, can Obama demonstrably play the respected leadership role now and later?


This is the "gentleman's C" role of presidents: those ranked in the middle of the pack, somewhere between mediocre and marginal. These men got the role of president but then had questionable relevance and impact because of the way they played (or misplayed) the role. Chester Arthur, who went from vice president to president after the assassination of James Garfield, is an example. If you have to ask, "Chester who?" and you're stuck trying to recall what significant contribution Arthur made to the presidency then you understand this role.


This is the worst role and George W. Bush is currently playing it, in the estimation of many. Bush is not yet out of office; so his final leadership ranking isn't in. But just to demonstrate, again, how much those rankings can fluctuate, Bush has held both the highest approval rating in the history of the Gallup poll (90% after the 9/11 attacks) and one of the lowest. In October, 2008, Gallup said Bush's approval rating was 25%, which Gallup reported, "is one point higher than Richard Nixon's lowest job approval rating of 24% measured in the summer of 1974, and it is just three points higher than Harry Truman's all-time Gallup low job approval rating of 22% measured in 1952. No other presidents have had job approval ratings of 27% or lower in the history of the Gallup poll." It's worth noting that historians currently rank Truman among the top ten presidents of all time; so obviously opinions can change as the ramifications of a leader's decisions and actions pan out--or boomerang badly.


Ranking a leader as revered---as with all the other rankings---is a matter of opinion, the perspective of time and the argument of facts; but it represents the pinnacle in leadership rankings. According to Wikipedia: "George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt are consistently ranked at the top of the lists. Often ranked just below those three are Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. The remaining top 10 ranks are often rounded out by James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy have often scored very highly in popular opinion polls, but rank highly in only some polls of historians. The bottom ranks often include Franklin Pierce, Warren G. Harding, and James Buchanan. Two presidents, William Henry Harrison and James A. Garfield, died after less than six months in office, and are sometimes not ranked."

The enthusiasm Obama generated as a fresh, exciting and eloquent candidate, who is about to become our first African-American president, made him revered during his campaign by many ardent supporters and created a "rock star" status for him among many in the news media. Whether that reverence will be justified by his time in office and proven with the benefit of historical hindsight remains to be seen. A leader can be revered for a time but truly revered leaders are held in the highest esteem over a long period of time.

If you add respected, run-of-the-mill, reviled, and revered to the earlier leadership ranking roles of reformer, rescuer, and realist where do you rank Barack Obama (and George W. Bush) today? Where do you think they'll be ranked in the future?Click on "Leave A Comment" below and get the debate going as we count down to Obama's inauguration on January 20.

Editor's Note: Read Jon's analysis "Anticipating Obama's Inaugural Address" by clicking here to read Part 1, click here to readPart 2and here to read Part 3.

Communications consultant Jon Kraushar is