Presidents select: hail to the chiefs

British scholars rate leaders of the free world: George W. Bush also ran. Matthew Reisz reports

January 20, 2011

American academics have never been shy about rating their presidents. But now for the first time, the United States Presidential Centre at the University of London's School of Advanced Study has brought together 47 British experts on American politics and history to offer their take on the ups and downs of the journey from George Washington to George W. Bush.

Apart from two who died shortly after taking office, the presidents were each given marks out of 10 for vision, domestic leadership, foreign policy leadership, moral authority and the historical significance of their legacy. The rankings can now be compared with the C-Span survey of 65 American scholars, published in 2009.

The same "big three" - Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt - top both polls, although the Americans rank them Lincoln, Washington, Roosevelt, while the British scholars prefer Roosevelt, Lincoln and Washington.

Bill Clinton is rated lower by Brits than by Americans (19th versus 15th) and John F. Kennedy much lower (15th versus sixth).

Of those who have held office since 1960, only Ronald Reagan (eighth) makes the British top 10, although Barack Obama has an interim ranking just a nose ahead of him.

While most recent presidents come in around the middle of the table, at 31 the second Bush is the least admired since the scandal-ridden Warren Harding (1921-23).

Both British and American experts admire the early presidents far more than recent ones. Should we attribute this to misty-eyed nostalgia or a genuine difference in talent? Probably neither, said Iwan Morgan, director of the US Presidential Centre, since "the massive political, organisational and policy challenges of the modern presidency make it a far more difficult job than in the past".

But what of presidential achievements in the academy? For Gareth Davies, Fellow and tutor in American history at St Anne's College, Oxford, "what has been striking is the complete absence of any strategy for higher education by any president since Richard Nixon: (Lyndon B.) Johnson and Nixon both passed landmark higher education bills that were underpinned by a clear commitment to certain strategic national goals (not least equality of opportunity).

"There's been none of that since, and there's no prospect of that world coming back."

In more recent times, Professor Morgan said, "[Jimmy] Carter's fiscal restraint and Reagan's discretionary spending cutbacks meant that the 'public' universities became increasingly dependent on state government assistance", while both the Bushes focused their educational efforts on schools.

This leaves Clinton with "a good claim to be the top higher education president of recent times", since his tax credits "significantly expanded post-secondary educational incentives for middle- and low-income taxpayers".

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