Everybody has fun with this one, so I decided to try to come up with a complete set of Powell History rankings for America’s Presidents so far, not including Obama. (I know where I expect him to end up, but I’ll let him prove me right over time.)
Coming up with a complete set of rankings is not an easy task, so I decided to start with some groupings, just to get a preliminary sense of where I’d have everybody. The groups don’t necessarily indicate what a president’s final ranking will be. They are more periodized, i.e. chronological, than anything, although I find that they help me to achieve greater clarity, as any good conceptual framework does.
I know, for instance, that I’d have the first five presidents as my top five–though I don’t have a definitive order for them just yet.
Group 1: Founders
Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe
I also know for certain that there are certain Twentieth century “unforgivables” that I would put at the bottom of my rankings. Again, I’m not sure the exact order I’d have them in just yet. Sadly, there are twice as many of these as there are presidents that I love.
Group 2: Unforgivables
Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon, Carter, George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton
The middle, of course, is the hardest to sort out, but to organize it somewhat I’ve got the following groups:
Group 3: The Punters
JQ Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, and Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan
Punters? One of my students called them this. These are all the presidents who, following the Founding Era, had to deal with the issue of slavery, but decided to “punt.”
Group 4: Lincoln
A category all by himself. For most people, an easy one. For most Objectivists, not so easy. For me, easy. 😉
Group 5: The Long Twentieth Century
Subgroup 5a: Reconstruction presidents: Johnson, Grant
Subgroup 5b: The “Mixed Bag” – Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, Cleveland (again), McKinley, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Truman, JFK, Ford, Reagan, and “W”
So, how am I going to work the detailed rankings? Well, I’m going to apply a basic template that includes two primary metrics: foreign policy and domestic policy. Foreign policy will be measured with American self-interest as the standard, and presidents’ ideas, intentions and results as the quanta. Domestic policy will be measured with individual rights–to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness–as the standard. This will include looking at whether a president advanced the cause of individual rights–are there any who did besides the Founders and Lincoln?–or how they damaged our rights by promoting or abetting the cause of statism. Usually, of course, it’s a “mixed bag.”
This dual template will operate on a sliding scale to account for “level of difficulty.” Obviously, you don’t get as many points for a presidential “one and a half somersault” as you do for an “armstand three and a half with a twist”. (Of course, if you as the President forced the nation into an “armstand” when it could just as easily have been upright, then your points go down, even if you successfully maneuvered through whatever problem you created.)
In the event of a tie, then I’ll deploy other considerations, such as non-presidential activity. For instance, if you wrote something like a Declaration of Independence, then you obviously get some pretty major bonus points. If, on the other hand, you made a career of appeasing Islamic terrorism while in and out of office, then you drop even further. (Nobel Peace prizes will not figure prominently in these rankings, unless they serve to illustrate a president’s commitment to internationalism–in which case, if necessary, they will certainly be used to reduce a president’s score.)
First up, in the next installment: sorting out the Founders. Let the hand wringing begin!