In a recent Gallup Poll, the respondents named Ronald Reagan America’s Greatest President (http://nation.foxnews.com/culture/2011/02/19/gallup-poll-reagan-was-greatest-president-ever). Although I have great affection for Ronald Reagan, picking our greatest Presidents by polls, either of people or historians, is not the best way to determine historical significance. Partisan feelings come into play. Poll respondents and, yes, those “objective” professors in academia, have their political leanings. I know I have my own, which leads me to say Ronald Reagan was a better President than Jimmy Carter (o.k., that is just too obvious, so it probably doesn’t make the point). Reagan over Martin Van Buren?
The problem is, what is a “great” President? To me, there is a difference between a “great” President and a “consequential” one. A great President shaped the office or the nation. A “consequential” President was one who, to use President Obama’s description of Ronald Reagan, “changed the trajectory” of the nation. Then there are the Presidents who are overrated. An overrated President would be one who seems to have a great reservoir of public affection, with little to show for it in terms of accomplishments.
I believe there have been three “consequential” Presidents: Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Jackson made the office more muscular during an era when the political giants were serving in the House and Senate and the North-South divide was starting to widen.
Franklin Roosevelt lead the nation through a Depression and World War II. He changed the way the public thought about the federal government, by seeking to expand its responsibilities and what it would provide to the people. Abroad, he moved America from an isolationist stand to a willingness to intervene around the world, when the international community was faced with a grave threat or a moral issue. Hitler and the Japanese were defeated and a new Europe and new Asia arose, along with an American sense of pride and purpose that stood unchallenged for twenty five years.
Ronald Reagan changed the way the public viewed the role of government. Challenging the New Deal expansion started under Roosevelt, Reagan suggested that government had grown too big and taxed its citizens too much. Even today, Presidents of both parties proclaim the era of big government over and tout the benefits of tax reductions for most Americans. Reagan also promoted the ideal of “winning” the Cold War, rather than accepting the status quo in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall soon came down.
Who are the overrated Presidents? Two come to my mind: Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Liberal historians seem to like Roosevelt because he was a “progressive”. He was, in today’s terms, a liberal on social policy and the environment. He went after Big Business. At the time, the Republicans were the liberal party, thus Roosevelt is often touted in the media and by academics as the type of Republican today’s GOP should emulate. A liberal Republican that liberals love, but the accomplishments of his Administration are limited and, after leaving office, he spent a good portion of his time trying to get back into the White House.
John F. Kennedy simply had too little time to accomplish much of anything, but his tragic death has vaulted him to the category of “great” Presidents in the minds of many. There is a belief that he would have solved the Civil Rights problems without the violence and protests that overtook the South in the 1960s and he would have, despite being the President who began the buildup of troops there, kept us from getting into Vietnam as deep as we did.
So, in my humble opinion, who were the great Presidents? There are two: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Washington was the first and his actions defined the office. Historian Michael Beschloss writes in his book Presidential Courage that Washington established the precedent that “a President should note merely preside. He should use his unique standing-even if it made him unpopular or cost an election-to convince Congress and the American people to accept unpopular notions that may be in their long term interest.” It is interesting to think how this notion might apply to today’s budget debate, isn’t it?
Abraham Lincoln also belongs on the same pedestal. In her bestseller Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin summed Lincoln’s efforts up as follows “An indomitable sense of purpose had sustained him through the disintegration of the Union and the darkest months of the war, when he was called upon again and again to rally his disheartened countrymen, soothe the animosity of his generals, and mediate among members of his often contentious administration”. A nation was saved and a race of people were freed and greatness followed.
Starting the nation and saving it. Defining the office and bringing to it a sense of purpose. On this Presidents’ Day I think that limits the number of “great” Presidents to two: Washington and Lincoln. Others were consequential and some are overrated, but only two were great.