For a number of years, the Siena Research Institute of Siena College has periodically polled historians to determine how they rank the Presidents from George Washington to the present. And, the last several times the results were announced, Franklin D. Roosevelt has consistently ranked first.
The latest Siena survey proves no exception to that rule. FDR is followed by the four faces on Mount Rushmore (though not exactly in their left-to-right order on the mountain): Theodore Roosevelt is second, followed by Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. (Chris McGreal, of the UK Guardian’s Washington bureau, is puzzled by TR’s prominence, calling his position “a surprising choice perhaps given that there are not many ordinary Americans who could tell you when he was in office (1901-09) let alone chose to list him in their top ten.” I get the feeling he has never seen either A Night At The Museum or its sequel.) The rest of the survey’s Top Ten consists, in order, of James Madison, James Monroe, Woodrow Wilson, Harry S. Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, with John F. Kennedy at number eleven.
Some such polls over the years have made it a point to exclude consideration of the incumbent Chief Executive. But Siena’s is not among them, and so President Obama, after less than a year and a half in office, comes in at fifteen, three places ahead of Ronald Reagan. Separating them are Lyndon B. Johnson and John Adams (whose presidency traditionally has not been rated so highly by historians, but who has been better regarded in recent years, probably due in large part to David McCullough’s biography).
In the years immediately following his resignation, President Nixon frequently was found at the bottom of these sort of polls, near Ulysses S. Grant, Warren Harding, and Andrew Johnson. Given that the results of this survey suggest the historians consulted were on the liberal-leaning side, the fact that RN places thirtieth in this poll is probably as favorable a result as can be expected. He is ranked very highly in the foreign-affairs area – eleventh – and finishes fourteenth in “willingness to take risk” and sixteenth in intelligence. He is placed at the bottom in the categories of integrity and ability to “avoid crucial mistakes.”
In the days since this survey appeared, much press comment has focused on the low ranking given George W. Bush, who places thirty-ninth overall, ahead of only Franklin Pierce, Harding, James Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson. The forty-third President is rated second-lowest to Herbert Hoover in handling of the economy and to Harding in intelligence. Still, when one considers the way historians used to treat RN in the Seventies, it may be that a nonagenarian “W” will one day see a poll of academics that treats his legacy more generously.