Ranking Presidents: Success and Failure

Theories of the presidency explain and predict presidential failure or success. Four scholars provide such approaches to 21st and 20th century presidents. They are Skowronek, Tulis, Barber and Nuestadt. Their theories have not enabled political scientists to agree on any set ranking of presidents, or, to predict which candidates running in the presidential primary would most likely succeed in office. Indeed, their theories are often more explanatory, rather than predictive. However, from their theories, we may find approaches to predict presidential success or failure.

Skowronek’s theory in The Politics Presidents Make (1997) is complex. He articulates three layers to institutional ordering: (1) constitutional, (2) organizational, and (3) political. These three layers are within a cyclical historiography, which at times runs like the twilight zone of presidential times. Jefferson is like Jackson, or, Kennedy, Truman and Wilson are alike, repeating history. The two timelines of secular time and political time intersect to make it appear that presidential history repeats itself. Time is linear in secular time. The epochs are: patrician time (1789-1832), partisan time (1832-1900), pluralist time (1900-1972), and plebiscitary time (1972-present). In political time (non-linear), the presidency may encounter the impulses of (1) order shattering, (2) order affirming, and (3) order creating (1997, 20). Finally, Skowronek’s describes two regime types. They are resilient and vulnerable (36).

From the former, Skowronek’s model provides a typology (36), which may be utilized to help explain presidential failure or success. The politics of reconstruction occur when the President opposes the established regime, and, the regime is vulnerable to change (36). For example, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt “all came to power in this kind of situation…it is evident that these men shared the most promising of all situations for the exercise of political leadership” (37). Skowronek predicts that these presidents are slated for presidential success, more so than the remaining recurrent structures!

The remaining structures also predict presidential success or failure. Politics of disjunction are found when the President is affiliated with the established regime, and, the regime is vulnerable to change (39). Vulnerable is apparent when the public policy of the times does not approvingly address the problems of the times. The President must alter the political party’s platform and institute reforms, but his affiliation with the party as the builder of the current regime cries afoul. These presidents include John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter (39). Disjunctive presidents are failures and “often singled out as political incompetents” (39) They are not great presidents because the fate of political time deemed that they would be “inadequate” ushers for reconstructive presidents (41). Finally, a paucity of disjunctive presidents will lead to a paucity of reconstructive presidents. There would be very few incompetent presidents and very few demigod presidents, respectively.

Politics of articulation is systematic when the President is affiliated with the regime, and, that regime is resilient. The President will often successfully implement incremental change amidst a partisan congress. Truman is an excellent example of an articulating President because he was able to “shake things up” and remove policy obstacles (42). Similar presidents are James Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson (42). Their politics are a rearticulating and reordering of the current regime. These presidents are remembered as success stories, but only because they encountered “abdication or political self-sacrifice” at the end of their first term. An articulating President is never remembered as popularly as a reconstructive President.

Politics of preemption is systematic when the President is opposed to the regime, and, the regime is resilient to change (43). Successful preemptive presidents must play upon the political divisions within the establishment, exacerbate “interest cleavages and factional discontent within the dominant coalition” (43). The resilient regime provides institutional, ideological and political constraints (43). Exemplars include John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, and all presidents in the 21st century. These presidents range from “towering success” to “de facto impeachment” (45). Thus, unfortunately, by Skowronek classifying modern presidents as ubiquitously preemptive, the researcher grasps a weak model for predicting presidential success or failure, because a preemptive president can be either a success or a failure. Perhaps there is a more dichotomous theory?

Nuestadt’s 1960 piece, Presidential Power, is based on the theory that presidential power is by definition the power of persuasion. 20th and 21st century presidents must bargain and influence the executive branch, and the Congress, far beyond the President’s prescribed authority, partly because the campaign for change must deliver. The vision must be enacted, de jure and de facto. The President is capable of masterful persuasion because the Office provides inherent advantages, reputation and expectations; especially when the President uses the leverage of public opinion amongst factions. Persuasion is often a result of presidential actions, whereas leadership causes factions to support the President. The Executive Office is wholly unique and the celebrated leader of the nation, thus the power of the President may unfold through bargaining and persuasion (not unitary command). Nuestadt’s main contribution is to assert that successful presidents mobilize and counter-mobilize factions in America’s pluralistic society in order to persuade the Congress to enact necessary policy alterations.

Nuestadt allows the research to predict presidential success or failure as the presidency unfolds, but not before the President takes the Oath of Office. Even so, partisans will publicly diverge with respect to the merits of the President’s successes and failures, thereby leaving an independent observer with an inconclusive analysis. Hence, Nuestadt’s theory is not very good at predicting presidential success or failure—not even historically. A conservative and liberal academic would never create a similar presidential ranking list using Nuestadt’s theory. Indeed, critics claim Nuestadt provided “intellectual support to dangerous arrogations of power in the White House” and ponder why Nuestadt “failed to entertain” the complex uses of going public (Tulis, 1986, 10-11). Yet Nuestadt’s theory is not entirely inadequate, because power is so integral to politics, and without power a President could never become a success story.

Nuestadt and Skowronek have different approaches for determining presidential success or failure. Nuestadt’s examination of the President’s “conspicuously limited” responsibilities reveals a “manual” for successful activation of presidential power, not successful regime change (e.g. Skowronek’s reconstructive president) (Paletz, 1970, 439). On the other hand, Nuestadt revisited the original text and added, “The President remains our system’s Great Initiator… We are now even more dependent than before on the mind and temperament of the man in the White House” (Paletz embedded quote of Nuestadt, 1970, 439). The idea of a great initiator is most similar to Skowronek’s reconstructive and preemptive presidents. Skowronek doesn’t believe that presidential personalities impact the success or failure as much as Nuestadt, or, Barber.

Barber’s The Presidential Character (1972) predicts presidential success or failure based on the personality of the President. His system utilizes a typology, whereas the President’s character is either: active-positive, passive-positive, active-negative, or passive-negative. Respectively, active-positive presidents are proactive and optimistic. Active-positive presidents include Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Jimmy Carter (Skowronek’s would never put these Presidents in the same category; e.g. FDR was reconstructive, Carter was disjunctive). Passive-positive presidents show low self-esteem, act optimistic and seek success. Passive-positive presidents include William Taft, Ronald Reagan, and Warren Harding (Skowronek would place the former presidents in different categories). Active-negative presidents “experienced severe deprivations of self-esteem in childhood, the person develops a deep attachment to achievement… to be worthy…seeks power over others… Whatever style brings success in domination is adopted…” (86). Active-negative presidents include Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon (Skowronek said Wilson was preemptive and Hoover was disjunctive). Passive-negative presidents urge duty, delegate power, counterbalance low self-esteem through collaboration (not unitary leadership). Passive-negative presidents include Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower (Skowronek does place these two in the same category: Three Hard Cases).

Barber finds that the President’s character is stable over time and may hence predict presidential success or failure. Since the President’s character, style and worldview are constant from childhood, researchers may predict the habits and future actions of the person. Day to day, the President engages activity (active or passive) and showcases affect (job satisfaction status—positive or negative). Active-positive Presidents engage much energy to complete tasks and his (or her) positive attitude enables collaboration, negotiation and tolerance. Therefore, active-positive presidents should be success stories, while passive-negative presidents should be failures. Incidentally, active-negative presidents may accomplish a great deal, since they are driven to prove that they are worthy, and thus likely a success story—even though they would likely consider themselves a failure. But does perception create reality, or, isn’t reality in existence in and of itself?

Tulis’s seminal work, The Rhetorical Presidency, (1987) argues that the founders placed significant restrictions on presidential rhetoric that survived until the twentieth century. 20th and 21st century presidents inverted presidential rhetoric. Republican sentiments solely shared with the Congress became public cries of republicanism through extra constitutional venues; such as the newspapers, radio, television and internet. For example, prior to Woodrow Wilson, the presidents were not supposed to go public, and they were chastised if they did (e.g. Andrew Johnson chastised for going public but Lincoln applauded for not commenting on Civil War). Tulis’s approach is centered around Woodrow Wilson, the first rhetorical President. The advent of Wilson’s style freed presidents from their small network paths, and each additional president explored new paths too. Overall, the advent of Wilson demonstrated for researchers an approach for infusing the President’s ideas and platform into Congress and thereby congressional bills. The executive was independent (128-129). Wilson rapidly elevated public opinion and “participatory” democracy (124). Tulis thus predicts and explains an important tenet of determining presidential success or failure: successful presidents before Wilson networked with Congress; while, the success of Wilson and all presidents after is tied to networking with all Americans. Nuestadt would likely agree that the former tenet is foundational, since the presidents’ ability to mobilize multiple factions in America matters for presidential success.

Tulis predicts that demagoguery, manipulating public opinion through fear, is unlikely to result in a successful presidency, while republican sentiments provide legitimate branching points. Tulis finds that new (post Wilson) speeches lack substance. Demagoguery therefore need not become an issue of concern for the republic with the advent of the rhetorical presidency, because it will always be weak in content. Tulis described that an “ethic” could be passed on to future presidents, which would inhibit demagoguery (131). Second, demagoguery would be bounded by the “public’s ability to judge character” (131). Lastly, presidents who play to public opinion and will need to stay within the “natural conservatism” of public opinion, and thereby, the republic is protected from demagoguery (132). Overall, Tulis predicts that modern Presidents will go public, but Tulis does not provide researchers with a strong 21st century prediction theory regarding successful and unsuccessful presidencies. This is because Tulis finds that presidents increase the amount of rhetoric at the expense of substance. And without substance, America is unlikely to encounter a President who will successfully reorganize the structure of the American regime. In this way, post-modern presidents may not seem decisive or even alive. Indeed, Tulis said that Wilson’s failure was not his personality; rather, that he was “thwarted by the system he so successfully reinterpreted by only partially reconstructed” (1987, 21). Tulis is thus like Skowronek because presidential success or failure as a result of the political structure and not the traits of the President.

In conclusion, this essay has not critiqued the premises of the four scholars’ approaches. I have only explained how their models may be used to explain / predict presidential success or failure. If Skowronek is wrong in declaring that all modern presidents are preemptive presidents (i.e. can’t predict success or failure anymore), or, if Skowronek explains the major negative and positive characteristics within the preemptive presidency, then researchers may predict future presidential success or failure based on the political platform of the presidential candidate. If Skowronek did so, he would likely be the most useful approach to predict presidential success or failure.  Nuestadt’s approach predicts that presidents who effectively utilize the power of the Office of the President upon pluralistic factions will be successful. Structural changes in the regime are not necessary for a President to be deemed a success. Barber, also less interested in changing the regime, is a useful approach in predicting the success or failure of a President though personality in childhood, since researchers may uncover the personality of the presidential candidate before the national election and predict the future manners, methods and mores of the President.

The presidency is a complex office with various constraints, and only Skowronek attempts to provide a comprehensive theory to predict success or failure within the constitutional constraints of federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances. Tulis and Nuestadt may be a far second. Barber’s analysis ignores these constraints and dictates success by determining personality traits. Nuestadt finds that personality is a precursor to what really matters: the ability to persuade. Tulis provides a middle ground between persuasion and personality through rhetoric. Tulis’ rhetoric is driven by the image and metaphor, whether demagoguery or republicanism, and the rhetorical presidency elucidates opportunities for success or failure. However, if researchers organized and ranked the characteristics of demagoguery and republicanism, and then provided a contextual analysis to each presidency, then Tulis may enable a valid ranking system determining presidential success or failure. For example, George W. Bush’s use of demagoguery to initiate war in Iraq would likely counterweight or even overpower republican sentiments (major decisions) during his presidency. Thus George W. Bush will always be a “failure.”[i]

Tulis may provide the least predictive power surrounding presidential success or failure because he categorizes, like Nuestadt, an “old” and “new” period that all presidents comprise (except T. Roosevelt); therefore illuminating the tenet of persuasion, but confusing scholars when determining the success or failure of an imperial presidency. So, Nuestadt’s theory shows presidents how to become despots or demigods; and political scientists have not yet to determine when power is negative or positive. Thus Tulis’s main theoretical contribution would be revealed in an analysis of presidential speeches and their use or demagoguery or republicanism. The first would likely cast a President in time as a failure, while the latter would designate the President as a success. The best President would showcase rhetoric with feverish quantities of republicanism, and the worst President would act out the dungeons and doldrums of demagoguery. According to Tulis, all 20th and 21st century presidents must go public and avoid stonewalling, but the content of their speech may be more important than their character.

The four theorists create a concatenation of presidential success or failure. Barber explains the character (from childhood) and that character reveals their political rhetoric before being elected—particularly in primary debates. Tulis make clear that the rhetorical presidency (e.g. primary debates, media) explains 20th and 21st century presidential success or failure, even though the substance of presidential speeches and addresses is weaker than before Wilson (i.e. the second constitution). Nuestadt provides the framework for institutional success, as if an oracle of presidential maneuvering were constantly whispering into the President’s ear. If Skowronek is correct that all presidents now will be preemptive, then ad hoc coalitions, instead of constancy with political parties, may create a permanent revolution in line with Nuestadt and Tulis. Skowronek’s cultural and institutional approach describes why some presidents failed and others were success stories—almost unaware of presidential actions.

On the other hand, the four theorists under review place different Presidents together in disparate categories regarding successes or failure, therefore calling into question this entire examination. Indeed, Skowronek seems to cripple Barber’s model, because he finds that Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Roosevelt came to office as reconstruction presidents and that “they were a disparate group of personalities” (italics mine, 1997, 37). Nuestadt might integrate Barber’s analysis as another variable, since it does illuminate how the typology of personalities activates power and persuasion, but his model mainly predicts modern presidential success or failure though persuasion—taking the regime as a constant. Tulis isn’t persuaded by the “personality” approach (1987, 21), and he finds that Wilson created a second constitution for modern presidents, whereas presidential leadership is determined in conjunction with public opinion, the mass media, and primaries as modes of presidential election (18).

Conversely, the illumination of the four approaches does significantly clarify opportunities to determine presidential success or failure—as disparate as they may be. None of these models would likely provide most scholars with a toolkit to rank Presidents, whereas most scholars came up with approximately the same results. Together, these approaches may help determine a presidential ranking system. For example, Barber claims that Carter was an active positive President, and therefore should have been a successful President. But Carter is not remembered as a successful President, and Skowronek’s model provides an explanation for why (e.g. Carter was a disjunctive President). Therefore, these approaches, taken together, explain who is and is not a successful President. Unfortunately, these approaches also retract (e.g. Skowronek) when the public calls for a political science prophet. Today, no such bold model is recognized by political scientists.

[i] I certainly would like to create a device for political scientists to rank presidential success or failure. Regarding this specific ranking design, more variables are possibly necessary. For example, additional “republican” ranking points might arise; such as “impeached”  = -10, republican proclamations (e.g. emancipation proclamation) =  +8.  Institute virtuous structures (e.g. peace core) =  +6. Assassinated = +3. Resigned =  -12. Enforced laws contrary to the republican principles of nondomination and arbitrary interference (e.g. military tribunals denying habeas corpus, eviscerating civil liberties through unlawful actions (Feingold’s call for censure of W. Bush for subverting FISA), denying citizenship (constitutional) rights to Americans (Chinese Exclusion Act 1882, Geary Act), etc.  =  -5. Name-calling (Tulis, 159) =   -1 ….This study might be criticized as arbitrary, regardless of a careful and explanatory analysis, but that doesn’t mean that this research wouldn’t contribute to the explanation and prediction of presidential success or failure—a complex ranking system. Perhaps we can talk about it in 2016–after Obama is done? Happy New Year!





12 thoughts on “Ranking Presidents: Success and Failure

  1. Your method might be so arbitrary that it is not helpful. Not only is it arbitrary in the sense of what is selected, i.e., making republican statements. It is also arbitrary because what constitutes a republican statement is very subjective. I am not sure anything reliable would come from it. Not only that, but you must consider the role of time. So a basic example, presidents in early US did not give speeches as often so they are out at a disadvantage, etc. Other presidents are lucky to have optimal conditions under which to govern when other do not. Some are lucky to have unified government others are not. I am all for quantitative studies but I am not sure it is possible to create an adequate quantitative rank order of the presidents.

  2. i hear you. I’m a dissertation away from being able to move forward with this ranking idea.

    I understand that times change–context changes. But if republicanism is a structural ideology, quite different from authoritarianism and liberalism; then people (i.e. voters) may be more inclined to rank “republican” Presidential actions over liberal and authoritarian “decisions.” Or would the evidence favor liberalism (Hartz’s capitalism and democracy) over republicanism? Couldn’t the people decide this ranking system–and would it be helpful in measuring “ideology” in America?

    I’m not a big fan of the liberal-conservative spectrum–because that changes every 25 years. Didn’t Bill Clinton say, “We are all Eisenhower Republicans”? Wouldn’t Nixon be absolutely shunned by Tea Party members today?

    By the way, I got the books you recommended. The order rule / reputation premium as well as the ideological measuring book were quite good. Good call on that.

  3. I don’t think people could name 75% of the presidents, let alone put together some kind of legitimate ranking of them.

  4. Deciding when you are pro-life/pro-choice/for the war/against the war/a liberal/conservative/a democrat/republican is much easier than ranking (let alone recalling with any substance) presidents that spend over 200 years.

  5. I do take a look at mischiefs of faction once in a while, but I had not seen that post. Thanks!

    Let me be a little clearer… I think it would be helpful to rank Presidents against something–so that they all have an equal chance…now let us recall Skowronek, who might preempt the conversation by [correctly] arguing that the different political times do not allow this ranking to happen, since they all have different opportunities…which leads us to the next question: Can we rank Presidents according to their “possibilities” in office. …right, it gets time-consuming, but now let us examine why it would be helpful.

    Say, all Presidents have had the “opportunity” to diminish authoritarianism by increasing liberalism (equal opportunity de jure in economics and politics (Hartz)). President Obama, for example, just decreased authoritarianism and increased liberalism by allowing women to serve in combat roles–and he is taking on Gay Rights. This is similar to Truman, who opened up the military to Blacks–and JFK was a predecessor (before being assassinated) to Civil Rights–so LBJ had the political capital to engage Civil Rights–increase liberalism (equal opportunity) and decrease authoritarianism (unequal opportunity).

    Yet, I am particularly interested in republicanism; which has always been “American.” So, I might look at the political times during the President’s tenure and see what possibilities that President had to increase republicanism (which would decrease authoritarianism and even liberalism)–changing the American culture to become “more American.” That, my friend, is helpful.

  6. I am not sure presidents all have the same opportunity structures which would make comparisons difficult. There are a lot of context that influences these opportunity structures that is totally independent of the president themselves.

    Anyways, congratulations on having your note publish in the education journal. Here is to many more!

  7. Thank you! And your previous point brings us back to “it probably is much easier,” but my model of presidential success as opportunity to increase liberalism directly related to the evidence of each president increasing liberalism (and decreasing authoritarianism) would be scientific and helpful. We would be able to locate more patterns of political change, and maybe we’ll get lucky and find causal mechanisms too.

    Again, I would also add presidential success as opportunity to increase republicanism directly related to the evidence of the president actually increasing republicanism (and decreasing authoritarianism and possibly liberalism) as helpful. Perhaps the two data sets would need to be indexed and combined for a comprehensive presidential ranking system.

    To see how I briefly define liberalism and republicanism and authoritarianism, see: https://politicalpipeline.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/obamas-2nd-inaugural-address-highly-republican/

  8. Pingback: Review for American Politics Comp. Exams | Political Pipeline

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