With the inauguration of Joe Biden as the nation's 46th president, pundits and scholars have begun rating Donald Trump's standing among the nation's chief executives, and he is joining the very worst on the list. Contemporary historians give presidents low grades for the very things that dominated the Trump administration: graft and cronyism (Warren G. Harding), abusing official powers for personal political purposes (Richard Nixon), comforting white supremacists (Woodrow Wilson and Andrew Johnson), conspiring with foreign adversaries (Nixon again) and not meeting a national emergency (James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover). Given his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his two impeachments, Trump will fall to the bottom in rankings by specialists; among the general public, his reputation will remain more mixed. Trump gets solid grades in a recent Fox News survey.
Still, standards and judgments can change significantly over time: Fifty years ago, scholars normally placed Wilson among the greatest presidents despite his racist policies. Harry S. Truman and Ulysses S. Grant, on the other hand, have climbed the charts despite charges of corruption haunting their administrations, because of their leadership through periods of crisis and their commitment — at least by the standards of their times — to civil rights.
Where do presidential rankings come from and what might they tell us? The presidency maintains an outsize hold on popular imagination, and Americans rank presidents obsessively: with polls while they occupy the Office, with surveys, memoirs, films and monuments after they're gone. But what, really, does this obsession with presidential performance really tell us?
Thinking historically about presidential ratings — treating them, that is, not as data that helps us understand and evaluate past presidencies, but rather as windows into the attitudes and expectations of the people and the periods that produce these ratings — highlights both the significantly changed impressions of some presidents over time and the changing nature of the institution and the nation.
To some extent, of course, Americans began assessing their chief executives as early as 1792, when George Washington won reelection. A more scientific way to analyze political performance didn't occur until George Gallup opened his American Institute of Public Opinion in 1935. But presidential ratings, the familiar scorecards of greats, near greats, mediocrities and failures, owe their origins to one scholar-activist who in 1948 asked 55 noted historians to sort the presidents into five categories: great, near great, average, below average and failures.
The author of that pioneering survey was Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. An innovative scholar who brought new subjects such as immigration and city growth into the study of the past, Schlesinger was also the prominent organizer of the Massachusetts chapter of the lobbying group Americans for Democratic Action. Still, he is probably most famous today as the father of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., White House aide to President John F. Kennedy and an important architect of the Kennedy Camelot legend.
Schlesinger's survey — and the colleagues he chose to participate in it — reflected a particular liberal model of White House leadership that both father and son valued and a particular conception of presidential greatness.
The Schlesingers placed a premium on what they called "struggle"— presidents who engaged in conflict rather than promote consensus. Schlesinger Sr. was, in his words, "more interested in change and reform than status quo" and viewed the epic drama of American history as the gradual triumph of democracy over the forces of privilege and reaction. The Schlesinger survey also tended to favor "Big-D" Democrats, but more than anything else, it established a model for measuring presidential achievement, one that privileged reformers and activist leaders in times of crisis, a preference that exerted lasting effects on many subsequent surveys.
The Schlesinger polls, for example, listed James K. Polk, the president who led the United States into war with Mexico, as "Near Great," and even though recent scholarship has been more critical, Polk still scores in the top 15 in most recent scholarly rankings. One 1970 study tried to compensate for the Schlesingers' preference for activism and found that Polk fell in the standings and that less dynamic presidents such as Hoover, James Monroe and Dwight D. Eisenhower moved up.
But things have changed over the 73 years since Schlesinger first polled his colleagues, revealing not only the effect of new information and new benchmarks as the roster of past presidents to compare grows, but also changes in the qualities contemporary Americans expect and value in the White House. Consider, for example, the shifting fortunes of Truman and Eisenhower.
In the spring of 1952, Truman found his reputation at low ebb. His approval rating hit just 22%, and although it improved a little bit after he announced he would not seek reelection, he was all but run out of Washington. Mired in an unpopular war on a distant continent, the nation had experienced a heated period of strikes and labor conflict. Truman faced constant attacks from Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others for harboring communist spies in his government, and charges of corruption and cronyism dogged his administration. In 1952, Eisenhower, the Republican presidential candidate, repeatedly declared, "There's only one issue in this campaign: the mess in Washington."
And yet, after leaving office, Truman's reputation rebounded. By the 1960s, he scored "Near Great" and has since consistently remained among the top 10. To some extent, that change represents the vindication that the passage of time can bring: McCarthyism was discredited and the United States eventually won the Cold War that Truman started. But it also signals changing standards: Truman's combativeness, his plain-spoken, folksy style — traits that seemed second-rate after the majestic Franklin D. Roosevelt — looked pretty good in comparison to the machinations of Lyndon B. Johnson and the dishonesty of Nixon. And Truman's support for civil rights, an increasingly important metric in presidential rankings, has moved him up while dropping Wilson and Andrew Johnson.
Eisenhower's reputation has also changed significantly. The general received very good approval ratings throughout his presidency but was not much appreciated by the historians and intellectuals in scholars' surveys. In the 1962 Schlesinger survey, for instance, he finished at the bottom of the average presidents, No. 20, just above Andrew Johnson. He did not fit the model of can-do leadership, of struggle and reform, that Schlesinger Jr. and the 75 scholars he polled in 1962 regarded as the standard of presidential leadership.
But Eisenhower now consistently makes the top 10. The 2018 Siena poll of 157 presidential scholars has him sixth overall. The relative restraint of Eisenhower's "Hidden-Hand Presidency" — ending combat operations on the Korean Peninsula, keeping U.S. troops out of Vietnam, criticizing the military-industrial complex — looks better to experts who have watched Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon and Trump. This reassessment owes to the opening of archives allowing scholars to learn details about Eisenhower's governing style that contemporaries could not see. But it also reflects shifting priorities: In an increasingly polarized country, Eisenhower's moderation, steadiness and courteous relationship with the opposition seem more attractive.
And yet, some presidents have retained their reputations through eight decades of rankings. Abraham Lincoln, Washington and Roosevelt make up the top three in every major survey of scholars since Schlesinger first posed the question. Their staying power is a testament to the enduring respect for their temperaments and their accomplishments, as well as their iconic status as makers and re-makers of American democracy, guiding the nation through the most fundamental breaks in its history, through successive new births of freedom.
How, then, will Trump fare? The 45th president frequently compared himself to Lincoln, placing himself at the top of the heap alongside his illustrious Republican predecessor. The stark differences between the two men — how they dealt with the national crises of their presidencies and their diametrically opposed temperaments — suggest that Trump and Honest Abe will long remain at opposite ends of the presidential rankings.
Schulman is Huntington professor of history at Boston University and the author of "The Seventies." This piece was written for The Washington Post.