A dark horse broke into the top 10 this month as Dwight Eisenhower advanced to No. 9 in a poll of the best presidents.
The rankings, published this month by William Ridings and Stuart McIver, are the result of a survey of about 700 political scientists across the nation that rates all 42 chief executives.
Recent presidents all rate in the 20s, the lackluster zone of average performance characterized by “caretaker” administrations or executives with minor scandals. George Bush, No. 22 on the list, leads current president Bill Clinton at No. 23. Between Clinton and Ronald Reagan, No. 26, are Herbert Hoover and Rutherford Hayes.
Eisenhower, the nation’s 34th president, has advanced from 22nd in the first such poll in 1962 to his current status in the “near-great” tier of American presidents.
Lawrence Jacobs, University associate professor of political science, attributes Eisenhower’s rise both to new information about the war hero’s presidency and to changing standards of greatness.
“We simply know more about Eisenhower now. What seemed to be a detached presidency, in hindsight, was more involved,” Jacobs said. Eisenhower, political scientists have recently discovered, was very careful to cultivate the hands-off image of a golf-course presidency. But behind the facade of disinterest was a very active president.
“He didn’t want to raise people’s expectations,” Jacobs said, “so if things went wrong, they wouldn’t look at the White House. It was an attempt to teach the country moderation in what the White House could do.”
Jacobs contrasted that with modern presidents, who have campaigned on promises to use their power very actively and have had trouble living up to the expectations they have created.
This attempt to shift expectations is gaining respect among historians, Jacobs said, who have until recently judged presidential greatness primarily by the kinds of crises the country weathered under a chief executive’s leadership.
“It’s an axiom of political science that great leaders are made by their times,” Jacobs said. The axiom, despite the new thinking which has helped Eisenhower’s ratings, still holds for the top presidents on the list.
Perennial favorites Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington topped the list. Each presided over a time of national crisis — the Great Depression and World War II, the Civil War and the birth of the republic, respectively — and each kept the country intact while expanding the powers of the federal government.
But the recent poll shows Roosevelt on top, a shift from previous polls in which Lincoln has had the upper hand.
“I think these ratings say as much about the times of the polls as they do about the presidents they’re ranking,” Jacobs said. Roosevelt is most compelling now during an era of re-examination of the welfare state, he said.
Richard Nixon, once near the bottom of the list, has also profited from the healing balm of time, rising to No. 32.
The 37th president is the only one to have resigned from office; in the years following his fall he was rated among the worst presidents.
“As the heat of Watergate and Vietnam has cooled off in the past two decades, the singular achievements of his presidency have come to the fore,” Jacobs said.
He cited Nixon’s foreign policy successes with China and the Soviet Union and domestic initiatives including the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.