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Obama trumps Reagan, academics say in survey
Question of the Day
Franklin D. Roosevelt again topped the Siena College survey of the best U.S. presidents, but the man sitting in the White House fewer than 18 months has cracked the Top 15.
While the New Deal icon still enchants, and even bested the faces on Mount Rushmore, President Obama ranks 15th among the 44 U.S. presidents - ahead of, among others, Ronald Reagan.
For the fifth time in the five editions of the Siena College Research Institute Survey of U.S. Presidents, Roosevelt tops the list of best U.S. presidents, the school said Thursday.
Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson - the four faces of Mount Rushmore - finished behind the president who led America through World War II and the Great Depression, according to 238 historians, presidential scholars and political scientists who participated.
"In nearly 30 years, the same five presidents have occupied the first five places, with only a slight shuffling," said Douglas Lonnstrom, a professor of statistics at Siena College and co-founder of the study.
The 2010 survey included Mr. Obama and gave him a surprisingly strong showing - in the top third of the pack and ahead of the 18th-ranked Reagan. And Mr. Obama wasn't even tops among living Democrats - that honor went to 13th-ranked Bill Clinton, one of only two presidents ever to be impeached.
The other was the nation's 17th president - Andrew Johnson - who finished last in the survey.
But it was Mr. Obama's placement above Reagan that immediately prompted criticism and/or derision from conservatives and Reagan devotees.
Melissa Giller, director of the Reagan Foundation, which runs the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., downplayed the results' importance, saying, "We see a lot of presidential polls and find they can be very subjective."
None of the Siena surveys have ever placed Reagan in the Top 10.
One recent poll "ranked President Reagan No. 1, and another ranked him No. 2," she said. "So he's still very popular, very top of the mind ... he helped end the Cold War and bring pride back to America."
Grover Norquist, chairman of the Reagan Legacy Project, was much more critical, ridiculing the judgment of "a bunch of so-called historians," and saying that while "putting him below Bill Clinton makes sense. Putting him above Ronald Reagan does not."
He called the result "kind of silly" and "so much driven by people's prejudices."
While Mr. Norquist was critical of the current president's policies and noted his declining popularity, he said Mr. Obama simply should not have been included in the survey at all.
"You can say 'it's too early to judge,' " he said. "That would be defensible."
"Real, grown-up historians know that you can't tell how successful a president has been after just 18 months of his term. The smart historians know that presidential terms last for four years and some for eight years. The ones who got high SAT scores know that," he said.
The White House declined to comment on the survey, with a spokesman saying they'll leave those sorts of evaluations to historians.
A similar controversy came up after Mr. Obama was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize with his nomination coming less than two weeks after taking office.
The White House said at the time it was surprised by that award. And in his acceptance speech in Norway, Mr. Obama acknowledged "considerable controversy" over the award based on his being "at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage," and said that compared to some of the other laureates, "my accomplishments are slight."
Since 1982, the Loudonville, N.Y., college periodically has asked historians and other scholars to rank American presidents on 20 categories. These include "personal attributes" such as imagination, integrity, intelligence and willingness to take risks; "ability," such as leadership and communication; and "accomplishments," such as economic, foreign policy and working with Congress.
Mr. Obama ranked highly on imagination (sixth place), communication ability (seventh place) and intelligence (eighth place), and ended up ranked overall as the 15th-best president.
Tom Kelly, an American history professor emeritus at Siena and co-founder of the survey, attributed the stability of the results at the top to the fact that "it takes about 25 to 50 years" for a U.S. president to "settle in" to his place in history.
For instance, when Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower left office, they were both considered unsuccessful, he said. But as events unfolded and more research was conducted into their administrations, both Truman and Eisenhower entered the "top 10" rankings.
The Siena survey, he added, is sent to some 2,200 college department heads, who then pass it to those who are best qualified to assess presidents. The survey is quite detailed and takes several hours to fill out, Mr. Kelly added.
As for Mount Rushmore, it seems unlikely that a new face will be added anytime soon.
In 1999, there was talk among some Republicans to add Reagan to the iconic landmark, but critics said there was no room for a fifth face, and any new construction would endanger the fragile structure.
Mr. Norquist would be happy with such an honor, though, and said Reagan definitely belongs in the Top 5 alongside the icons of Rushmore.
"Ronald Reagan defeated the Soviet Union without a war; Ronald Reagan turned the economy around; Ronald Reagan ended double-digit inflation ... he laid the groundwork for 20 years of prosperity," he said. "And the defeat of the Soviet Union is not an accomplishment that could be reversed."
Theres also no indication the public would join the scholars in naming FDR as the most deserving addition to Mount Rushmore.
A November 2009 online poll taken by "60 Minutes" and Vanity Fair magazine asked which of seven presidents should be added to Mount Rushmore.
The top vote-getter was John F. Kennedy (29 percent), followed by Reagan (20 percent), FDR (18 percent) and Mr. Obama (16 percent).
As for other recent presidents, George W. Bush, who ranked 23rd in the 2002 survey, plummeted into the bottom five (39th place) in the 2010 survey. Among the two other living presidents, George H.W. Bush ranked 22nd, and Jimmy Carter ranked 32nd.
The younger Mr. Bush was ranked especially poorly in categories of handling the economy, communication, ability to compromise, foreign-policy accomplishments and personal intelligence.
Mr. Norquist said putting Mr. Bush in the bottom five was defensible, calling his eight-year term a disaster "that brought us Obama, [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi. Those are hanging offenses, and I don't see how you can escape responsibility for that."
His tongue still firmly in his cheek, he said "that may not be" the reason the historians ranked Mr. Bush so low.
c Victor Morton and Kara Rowland contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.
Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...
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