Are you excited about Presidents’ Day?
Neither am I. It’s hard to think of a less inspiring, more perfunctory
“holiday.” To most Americans, its only significance is that the banks
and post offices are closed on a mid-winter Monday. Yawn.
One of the few ritual observances marking
Presidents’ Day is the publication of historians’ and pundits’ rankings
of the greatest presidents. Yawn again. Those rankings tell us little
more than the political philosophy of the person(s) making the ranking.
Writers who prefer activist, big-government presidents—those who
centralize power, establish new federal programs, and seek to engineer
a better society from the top down—will naturally favor presidents like
Lincoln, Wilson, and the Roosevelts; contrariwise, those distrustful of
government power favor presidents such as Jefferson, Cleveland, and
Most Americans associate presidents with major
events, particularly war. We clearly admire winners more than losers.
Hence, those who were president when a victory at war was
achieved—Lincoln, Wilson, FDR/Truman, and Reagan (whose victory in the
Cold War was our country’s greatest, because it accomplished the defeat
of a formidable enemy without massive loss of life)—are ranked highly.
By contrast, the reputations of Lyndon Johnson and Nixon may forever
suffer from association with Vietnam.
In the attempt to introduce something new into
this annual ritual of grading the presidents, let’s consider one factor
that is rarely mentioned, even though it is of immense importance: the
random phenomenon of timing. Just as being in the right place at the
right time leads to success in private lives, so it is with presidents.
Their reputations are enhanced or diminished—they receive undue credit
or unmerited blame—as a result of events and circumstances beyond their
Every president inherits the hand that history
deals to him or her. Situations arise as consequences of chains of
events set in motion long before a president takes office. Of course,
the character, wisdom, and vision of the occupant of the White House
determine how well that hand is played, but no mere mortal can
completely transcend the historical context of pre-existing conditions.
A look at our two most recent presidents will illustrate this point:
The 1990s was a happier decade than the 2000s.
When the Soviet Union dissolved at Christmastime, 1991, the decades-old
threat of nuclear war, and the accompanying anxieties we lived under,
evaporated. An era of peace seemed to have dawned. It was exhilarating.
Who deserves credit for the peaceful ‘90s? The USSR’s demise was the
fruit of President Reagan’s strategies in the 1980s. Bill Clinton
inherited the peace that had been won by Reagan. Indeed, whoever had
been president in the 1990s would have been the beneficiary of Reagan’s
Similarly, the steady economic expansion of the
‘90s was a continuation of a trend established by Reagan’s supply-side
policies in the ‘80s. Whoever became president in January 1993 would
have inherited healthy, well-established economic trends. Given the
confluence of macro trends in 1993, it would have been hard for any
president to abort those trends. Try this thought experiment: If George
W. Bush had become president in 1993, would the decade have been
significantly different? What would Bush have done in a pre-9/11 world
to prevent the ‘90s from being a decade of peace and prosperity?
Now consider the current decade—a more
challenging, less upbeat period for sure. 9/11 exploded the dreamy
notion that we were at peace with the world. The grimness and tension
that we felt during the Cold War returned, with the enemy now being
militant Islamists instead of Soviet communists. Economically, this
decade started with the U.S. sustaining two huge body blows—first, the
bursting of the ‘90s stock market bubble in 2000, then 9/11. Those
economic shocks weren’t George W. Bush’s fault, and they would have
cast a shadow on the presidency of whoever occupied the office.
Now try that thought experiment again, this
time picturing Bill Clinton as the president since January 2001. I
suspect that the policy differences would have been more pronounced
than in the scenario with Bush being president in the ‘90s (it’s hard
to picture Clinton toppling the Taliban or Saddam, or advocating tax
cuts to boost the economy), but can anyone say realistically that Bill
Clinton—or any other mortal—could have restored the peace and
prosperity of the ‘90s after the major shocks of 2000 and 2001?
Should “Bubba” or “W” be ranked higher? For
Clinton-haters, Bush-haters, partisans and ideologues, there is no
debate. For those who reason, “The 1990s were better than the 2000s, so
Clinton was a better president,” I would merely observe that they are
ranking our history, not our presidents. There is no denying, though,
that the timing of Clinton’s presidency was fortuitous indeed. History
dealt him a far better hand than the one Bush had to play.