Reagan Tops the List of Best Recent Presidents

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Reagan Tops the List of Best Recent Presidents

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Fev 18, 2012, 10:19am

Gallup did a survey recently that asked Americans to rate all the presidents since Richard Nixon. The categories were Outstanding/Above average, Average, and Below average/Poor. Gallup then subtracted the BA/P percent from the O/AA percent and ranked them based on that difference. Ronald Reagan came out on top with a net +59. Bill Clinton finished second at +48. Of the other six presidents, only George Bush had a total greater than +10 (his was +16). They were followed by Barack Obama (+3), Gerald Ford (+2), Jimmy Carter (-13), George W. Bush (-22), and Richard Nixon (-41).

My own ranking for these eight is:


Editado: Fev 18, 2012, 6:48pm

What do you think is the best measure of a Presidency? increased government programs, reduced government programs, economic improvement, economic decline, other economic measures, specific improvements in certain areas, increased military, reduced military, meeting challenges of the day, amount of legislation signed?

It is a tough question to have an opinion based on any objective standard.

Fev 18, 2012, 8:59pm

You're right. There is almost no way to tell by an objective standard which president is best. Even for those things by which you might judge a president that are quantifiable (e.g., economic growth, unemployment rate, national debt, etc.), there's no way really to tell what effect the president himself had on those things.

When it comes right down to it, it really is a qualitative assessment of many aspects of the administration that a person is making when they rate a president as good or bad. And most people probably just equate "good economy/peaceful times" with good president (and vice versa as well) without considering the impact that the president had on those times (after all, maybe he made them less good or less bad than they could have been). I like to think that I don't do this, which might be why I rate Obama higher than many of my fellow Republicans do, because he was, after all, handed an Augean-sized steaming pile upon entering office that was unlikely to be cleaned up quickly or neatly. That goes for both the domestic and foreign arenas.

Fev 18, 2012, 9:16pm

How fairly do you think Carter is ranked? Given the impact of oil crisis and the fall of the Shah, mostly out of his control? And I am speaking to your subjective criteria of making better or worse the times during his presidency.

Fev 18, 2012, 9:22pm

Your placement of Nixon raises another question. Can Nixson be ranked on his performance apart from the overshadowing cloud of the impeachment? How much should Watergate cloud his accomplishments?

Is it so significant, say because of its impact on the institution of the Presidency, that it should outweigh everything else?

Or perhaps is it given too much consideration in a ranking of his total presidency?

Fev 18, 2012, 9:41pm

I certainly don't contend to be an expert on Carter's presidency (and I was only born in 1974, so I certainly don't remember it firsthand), but from what I have read, other than the Camp David Accords, Carter did little in office that would be considered impressive or even commendatory. Even quite a few of the people who worked for him have basically said that he was unprepared to be president. Carter strikes me a swell guy--someone you wouldn't mind having as a friend--but not exactly someone whose demeanor screams self-confident leader, which you really have to be if you are going to be a successful president.

As to Nixon, I do think that the Watergate scandal is overemphasized in many assessments of his presidency. I don't think that Watergate really did anything to harm the institution of the presidency (that was being undermined merely by the process of politics as it was playing out in the 60s and 70s). But I can certainly understand why those people who consider to be very important do so.

I'm not saying that he was a good president, because he wasn't. I assess his presidency as borderline poor. His economic policy was a mess (price controls were a disaster), he had to be dragged kicking and screaming into ending the Vietnam War beyond the point after which it was obviously lost, and he was given to bouts of drunkenness and paranoia that made for some squirrelly decisions. He did have some successes though. The opening of China was a masterstroke of foreign diplomacy that rightfully scared the bejesus out of the Soviets.

Fev 18, 2012, 10:38pm

I don't want to derail this topic, which I hope becomes a reasoned discussion of the rankings of the recent presidents. But as an aside, and as perhaps a hint for another topic - what do you think should define a contemporary conservative? (maybe we get lawecon and doug1943 involved)

Let's make that another topic. Maybe we can get some more perspectives on our recent presidents?

Fev 19, 2012, 12:19am

No, I don't think a new topic is necessary. I think of these things as conversations, and conversations rarely stay on topic. Besides, I think we can handle two topics in one topic thread.

Although, I have to admit that I really don't like the idea of there being defining ideas for political viewpoints. And that goes double for the viewpoint of conservatism, which I consider to be more of a temperament than an ideology. The way that I view conservatism isn't so much as having specific viewpoints on possible policies, but as more of a way of questioning the efficacy of those policies. To me, when presented with a policy option that he is unfamiliar with, a conservative doesn't try to fit it within an ideological framework to decide whether he agrees with it or not, he instead makes the proponent of the policy justify its value.

Take the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts for example. If you consider conservatism to be ideologically opposed to government regulation, then you would have to say that conservatives should oppose those measures regardless. But if instead you say that conservative resistance to such legislation is really just a way to vet the legislation to make sure that it is properly designed to do what its advocates say that they intend it to do and to make sure that those advocates account for the negative side-effects that the legislation will have, then you have what is to me the real value of conservatism and what it means to be a conservative. I think most people would agree that those two pieces of legislation have had a hand in improving the cleanliness of our air and water. The extent to which that is true and the extent to which that benefit has been bought at the expense of other things of value to the country is certainly up for debate, but they have had a positive effect.

Conservatives should also question the continuing usefulness of such legislation and to make sure that the government agencies that are given the power to implement the legislation continue to stay within bounds that are good for the overall health of the country.

Fev 19, 2012, 2:25am

I think that a great deal of the confusion over what constitutes "conservatism" in America is that it has had at least three distinct meanings, namely:

(1) Those persons who preserved the heritage of the American Revolution were faced first by Progressivism and then by FDR's New Deal. While many such people were properly classed as "classical liberals" they were labelled by their opponents as "conservatives" and, probably mistakenly, accepted that label. What they believed they were "conserving," however, was the tradition of liberty as it had been embodied in America's founding documents. There were also some confusions in this tradition resulting from the Civil War, where the Confederates claimed to be the real heirs of the Revolutionary tradition.

(2) Layered onto the above types were European Conservatives that largely infiltrated the political spectrum in America from two sources: (a) Edmund Burke and various other English literary figures, like Samuel Johnson, and (2) the related Royalists from the Continent. People like Burke and Johnson were generally just confused, talked a lot about tradition without ever examining what that meant, and generally thought that confusion was a virtue. The Royalists were not at all confused, if they could not have a King they at least wanted an absolutist/teaching state. Most of these people were exactly the people who classical liberals denounced as religious and political absolutists and "the enemies of liberty." But, of course, since they also opposed Progressivism and later FDR, they got confused with native American Conservatives and lumped under the same label.

(3) Finally there is the group that Bretzky1 refers to above, the "dictionary definition" conservatives. These people really have no alternative understanding of how to structure a society that is unlike and opposed to that society envisioned by the Progressives and their descendants, they just don't want things to move "too fast."

Fev 19, 2012, 8:04am

I think of myself as a conservative, but many of my conservative friends do not. The big issues that come up as conservative positions are a little worrisome to me, in that I don't think even of them as principles.

Gun control is a biggie. Gay marriage. These and like issue positions should not define conservativism.

I like progress. I like radicals who stir things up. I am a conservative. I would prefer individual freedom and choice, in all matters. I would prefer that government do what only a government can do, and do so very transparently.

It almost seems like a conservative is defined by what the president wants to do. Conservatives want whatever is the opposite.

Editado: Fev 19, 2012, 9:32am


If you accept that conservatism is an ideology like progressivism, you also have to accept that there are different "flavors" of conservatives. This, I think, can be seen in the various sub-coalitions that make up the Republican Party.

I can't remember where I saw this, but I remember someone awhile back basically split the country into four parts and explained that there are four tent poles to the conservative coalition that roughly equate to those four parts of the country. From the Northeast you have business conservatives. Business conservatives are most concerned about making sure that the government provides a regulatory and legal environment that is conducive to economic growth. From the South you have social conservatives. Social conservatives are most concerned with issues like abortion, and they also would like to see governmental support of religion. From the West you have libertarian conservatives. Libertarian conservatives are concerned about the amount of power wielded by government and its effect on individual liberty. From the Midwest you have conservative conservatives (what I believe the person who came up with this classification called "Show-Me" conservatives). Conservative conservatives are essentially what I described in post #8 and what lawecon calls "dictionary definition" conservatives.

There certainly can be overlap among the classifications, but there are times when the main policy concerns of these sub-coalitions clash, especially with business and/or social conservatives on one side and libertarian conservatives on the other. Whichever sub-coalition is in the ascendancy within the overall conservative coalition is typically going to be the one that is most associated with conservatism itself. Right now I think that is a combination of social and business conservatives. And so the concerns of those sub-coalitions are most associated with conservatism today.

Fev 19, 2012, 9:48am

It almost seems like a conservative is defined by what the president wants to do. Conservatives want whatever is the opposite.

I definitely agree with that.

As an example I think you just need to look at the individual mandate provision of Obamacare. The individual mandate idea was created by, and used to be a darling of, right-wing think tanks. It was touted by some Republicans (e.g., Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney) as not only constitutional, but also as good policy. But the moment Obama made it a part of his health care legislation, it automatically became anathema to the right. There has been some very fine hair-splitting going on trying to explain how Obama's version differs from the earlier version favored by those on the right who were for it, but the only real reason I can see for such a drastic change in position is that Obama is for it so we must now be against it.

Another area where that is the case is in tax reform to close loopholes in the tax system. Such reform was a major Republican issue in the 1990s and 2000s (query how deeply they believed in it since they did have the power to enact it but did not do so). But now that Obama would like to do something similar, Congressional Republicans are stonewalling and insisting that there be no tax "increases" even when such increases would result from a process that would reduce the distorting effects that the tax code has on the economy, which I think most people would agree is a good thing.

Fev 20, 2012, 10:18pm

The US presidents of the last 40 years haven't been all that impressive. I don't think anyone considers Ford, Carter or the two Bushes to be great presidents. Reagan and Clinton are debatable.

Fev 21, 2012, 12:56am

"It almost seems like a conservative is defined by what the president wants to do. Conservatives want whatever is the opposite.

I definitely agree with that."

You do? How interesting. So someone who has been "conservative" since 1964, who has been often described as "Radically Conservative" or "Radically Right," who voted for Obama the first time because he said a variety of things in favor of the Bill of Rights, American liberties, against useless foreign wars, etc. in an era of a tyrannical out of control President, but who now hates Obama's guts for his lies and betrayals of the programs and values he campaigned on the first time, is only a conservative because he hates Obama's guts. It has nothing to do with the lies and the continuation of the Bush agenda. Nothing at all?

How interesting. But I guess we now know how you would also define "liberal."

Fev 21, 2012, 4:17am

I think we are describing what appears to pass for conservative in today's world, in the world of today's campaign politics. Conservative means no gun control, no taxes, no birth control, and no gay marriage, what I think are positions on specific issues.

Regardless of your opinion on these issues, I do not think that they define the idea of being conservative, and I think various conservatives might have varying positions on these issues.

Fev 21, 2012, 8:24am


Well, if we're getting into that sort of discussion, here are some additional observations. The label "conservative, as I pointed out in #9 above and Bretzky1 then reiterated in a different way in #11 above, doesn't mean anything in particular. Further, and probably more confusing (or confused), the (2) sort of "conservative" I mentioned in #9 explicitly doesn't want it to mean anything in particular - that would be, after all, "ideological". For that sort of "conservative" "conservatism" is a matter of tone and taste and refinement - except, of course, when one is dealing with Fox News, whose commentators have an exemption.

So, from that standpoint, the turn this discussion has taken (into what conservatives want) is babble. However, presuming it isn't babble, then there is some relevance in pointing out the caricature of what a "conservative" must be like in the imagination of certain sorts of nonconservatives. That sort of silliness is akin to someone maintaining that the dominate posters in the Read The Bible Through In One Year define what "Christian" means. In fact, of course, they do define exactly what "Christian" means in the minds of many atheists. One would then have to say of John, as one of the dominate posters in that thread has just said, that he isn't Christian - albeit he spends his life doing what he perceives as Christian things in association with Christian organizations. Hint: This is all a little more complex than any of us might like if the point were to pigeonhole and dismiss.

Fev 21, 2012, 8:30am

(10) richardbsmith wrote "I would prefer individual freedom and choice, in all matters. I would prefer that government do what only a government can do, and do so very transparently."

I thought I was a conservative for years, but have come to the conclusion that I'm more "Libertarian" than conservative.

I want as little government interference as absolutely necessary in my life and the lives of others.

Fev 21, 2012, 8:56am


It has nothing to do with the lies and the continuation of the Bush agenda. Nothing at all?

That's actually my point. The high level of continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations when it comes to policy cannot justify the amount of opposition that Obama has faced within Congress and from the average Republican voter. Real Clear Politics' Poll of Polls places his approval rating among Republicans at 12%. According to Gallup, when Bush left office his approval rating among Republicans was 75%. That's an awfully big gap for a president whose time in office has, in many ways, merely been a Bush third term.

Part of the difference can be explained by the sorry state of the economy, but not a 63 point drop. The primary reason for that drop, in my opinion, is that Obama is a Democrat, not a Republican. In other words, he doesn't play for our team, so we have to be against him and whatever it is that he does, even when those things (like Obamacare) were Republican ideas in the first place.

I also think that liberal Democrats do the same thing vis-a-vis Republican presidents.

Fev 21, 2012, 9:48am

I agree - it doesn't matter the policy, it matters which team is implementing. It does not matter what the scandal is, it matters which team the body part is on.

Anyway, this is the point of my question in 7. What is a conservative? Is it defined by the stance on gun control, on abortion, on health care, on Obama? Is the definition of conservative ultimately defined by agreement with the conservative Republican leadership? If so, then conservative appears to be defined by being anti-Obama.

Fev 21, 2012, 9:49am

I have apparently really missed out by not participating in the Read the Bible In One Year discussion.

Fev 21, 2012, 1:25pm


I think many--far too many--conservatives do define themselves in opposition to, not necessarily the President, but at least the Democratic Party. But there are also many conservatives who have a principled (using the term in a value neutral sense) way of defining their beliefs. That is, if the Democrats come up with an idea that that conservative believes to be a good implementation of conservative ideals as he defines them, then he will support the idea regardless of its origins. And the same goes for liberals as well. Too many of them have a knee-jerk reaction of equating Republican ideas with bad ideas, regardless of the idea's placement within a liberal/progressive framework.

I think this is the natural consequence of the ideologization (don't know if that's a real word, but I couldn't come up with a better one) of our party system. For many years after the creation of the Republican Party, party membership was as much defined by geography and family as it was ideology. If you were from a Northern state and your father was a Republican, then you were likely to be a Republican as well, regardless of whether you liked the Republican platform. The same can be said for Democrat families in the South.

But after the ideologization of the parties--which started, to my mind, in the 1930s--the parties have become far more intellectually closed and less willing to work together at all levels of their respective memberships. After the ideological reshuffling of the chairs, members of Congress are far less likely to find like-minded people on the other side with whom they can work. Such lack of cross-party cooperation breeds the idea that to work with the other side is traitorous to our tribe because all the good ideas belong to us, therefore, we have to oppose whatever the other party is doing because they are the party of bad ideas. When ideology cut across party lines that was generally not the case. For example, FDR was attacked far more vociferously by members of his own party on many issues of the New Deal than by Republicans. It's highly doubtful that anything of the sort could be said about any president going back as far as Nixon. LBJ is probably the last president who suffered through that.

Fev 21, 2012, 1:40pm


There, see, you can use the term "Republican," rather than "conservative," when the former is appropriate and the latter may not be.

Fev 21, 2012, 1:40pm


Not unless you are a masochist.

Fev 21, 2012, 1:41pm


Opps, no you can't.

Editado: Fev 21, 2012, 3:01pm

If I may, should conservatism be identified with specific positions on issues, or are there principles which might actually guide reasonable conservative persons to different positions on a specific issue.

Personal freedom against government overreach and gay marriage and/or contraception/abortion. As a specific.

Fiscal restraint and massive unfunded defense expenditures.

We could add to the list.

My ultimate deal is that I am uncomfortable with either party, and am pissed that I do not feel welcomed in the Republican Party (at present anyway).

I have asked this question, crashing the thread topic. It might be better to return to the discussion of recent presidents.

Editado: Fev 21, 2012, 7:35pm


In my view, which, as you've probably guessed, is not the (2) view in Post #9, conservatism is an ideology that is all about principles. Prudence may be one of those principles, but prudence is something like the counsel not to run into fire from a machine gun. That is, it is a secondary principle that determines only how to actualize the other principles.

Since conservatism is an ideology, the principles are applied uniformly. One of the major principles is freedom of contract and the responsibilities that flow therefrom. In another thread, for instance, we are talking about marriage. Marriage, IMHO, and in the opinion of many many Jews for the last 3,000 years or so, is a contract of a particular sort. No one I know of has ever suggested that the race or sex of the contracting parties has anything to do with it. What is a requirement is a specification of the property rights one brings into the marriage and the property one departs with should the marriage be dissolved.

I have no idea what "fiscal restraint" means. Every government I am familar with always spends as much as it can spend on whatever it can spend it on, with the sole proviso that projects that line the pockets of those controlling the government (or their family and friends) should be given priority. In a few rare cases, expenditures that enhance governmental power are also given priority. War always enhances a government's power over the people who count the most - its own citizens.

The Republican Party is an abnomination. The only question is whether the Democrat Party is much better. Personally, I see little difference between them.

Fev 27, 2012, 1:27pm

My apologies for coming late to both topics in this thread. I find them both intriguing and worthy of discussion. To that end, I plan to review the discussion thoroughly.

I am definitely a fiscal conservative. I support the notion of limiting the role of the Federal government. I support the constitutional premise that states are free to be more or less intrusive. I am not a social conservative.

To that end, I would hope that conservatives in a coalition with moderates would drive major policy decisions especially regulatory policies. Left to a moderate/liberal coalition, policies are likely to be over-reaching. Where regulation is required, a light touch is best.

On the subject of the President's I see high impact presidents and low impcat Presidents. Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush-43 were high impact Presidents in my opinion. Re-election certainly says something about how the President is viewed. I see Nixon and Bush-43 as high, negative impact leaders whereas Reagan and Clinton were high, positive impact leaders.

David Gergen wrote an interesting book Eye Witness to Power:The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton. Gergen served in every administration in this span and brought some interesting insight to the strengths and weaknesses, as well as, successes and failures.

In one anecdote about the Ford administration Gergen mentions sitting around the office with fellow White House staffers -- some on chairs, others on the floor. His fellow staffers included: Alan Greenspan, Richard Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld (before Rumsfeld moved to DoD in his first stint as Secretary).

I look forward to re-reading this thread.