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How to Rate Presidents According to Beltway Priorities

[ 116 ] February 22, 2013 |

This Chris Cillizza produced list at the Washington Post of the most underrated and overrated presidents is good for a laugh because it so reflects Beltway priorities. I know that these choices were sent in by readers, but they were of course picked by editors. While not all are terrible, there are some choice howlers. Here’s a couple:

*James Monroe: From “HistoryJonah” – ”His average standing in opinion and scholar polls is 14th. However, Monroe deserves a much higher ranking than that: He created a bipartisan cabinet, with pro-slavery Southerner Calhoun as Secretary of War, and the Northern anti-slavery diplomatic genius John Q. Adams as Secretary of State. Monroe acquired Florida, and admitted five states to the Union. In addition, his actions following the Panic of 1819 stopped the economy from completely spiraling and his Missouri Compromise helped stave off disunion for decades”

Ah bipartisanship. Does that even have any meaning in 1817? No. After the Hartford Convention, the United States was essentially a 1-party state with multiple factions. Plus, this analysis fails on its own terms. When Monroe put that cabinet together, Calhoun was still a nationalist who was not obsessing about slavery. That wouldn’t happen until his slow response to his state’s growing radicalism in the 1820s threatened his political career. Moreover, in 1817, slavery was a non-issue in American politics. It wasn’t until the Missouri crisis in 1819 that things got crazy all of a sudden. And while Adams was always anti-slavery, it wasn’t until his post-presidency return to Congress that he became a leader on it.

But bipartisanship! Yay! Why can’t Obama be like James Monroe?

* James Polk: From “mountainwestBob” — ”He said he’d do four things when he came to office, he accomplished them, left office after a single term, retired and died within about 6 months. His four things? Extended the southwestern U.S. to the coast (New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada), ‘fixed’ the northwestern boundary of the lower 48 with Canada (without war), ‘fixed’ the question or Florida’s status, and established a new national bank that stood until the 20th century.”

The old “We love presidents who do stuff, regardless of their horrible consequences.” “Fixed” the northwestern boundary without war. “Fixed” the southwestern boundary by lying to Congress to get a declaration of war against Mexico and then stealing half the nation. It’s all good if it leads to American domination.

* William McKinley: From “Greg Tatro” — “The country had been hashing and rehashing fights over currency (Greenbacks! Silver!) and the Tariff. William Jennings Bryan was nominated on a silver platform to run against McKinley’s gold standard platform. The early 1890’s are filled with riots, Coxey’s March on Washington, and depression. Many people have lost hope, especially the farmers in the West.
Four years after his election however, the economy that he campaigned to fix was booming. The currency question that defined politics of the past has been left behind in the hustle and bustle of this new era.”

Another favorite pundit fallacy–giving presidents credit for policies they had no control over. William McKinley had nothing to do with the end of the Panic of 1893 and subsequent depression. That ended because gold discoveries in Alaska and South Africa increased the world’s gold supply.

* John Tyler: From “SpyralJD” : “His actions helped ensure an orderly transition of power upon the death of President Harrison and set the precedent for similar transfers of power in the future. He governed in (what he perceived to be) the national interest and refused to be beholden to special interests or the Whig Party (i.e. Henry Clay). He may not have achieved as much as some other presidents but he prevented a damaging free-for-all following Harrison’s death.”

The mind boggles with this one. Tyler governed in the national interest–making aggressive pro-slavery expansion the policy of the United States without an electoral mandate to do so and naming John C. Calhoun Secretary of State! Calhoun proceeded to outrage the British with the Pakenham Letter, where Calhoun warned Britain that the US would not tolerate them getting involved in Texas to end slavery there. There was probably not a more hated president in his own lifetime than John Tyler. National interest indeed!!!

The overrated side is more predictable and somewhat less irritating, although including Washington makes no sense. But then there is the real laugher:

* Franklin Roosevelt: From “acre00″ – ”I would have to say that FDR is the most overrated president. His New Deal did little to help the Great Depression, and he was a major contributor to the current spending problem that we have today. That being said, I also don’t think he was a bad president. He was a good leader, keeping the American People optimistic through the Great Depression and motivated through WW2.”

His New Deal did little to help the Great Depression, eh? First, that’s demonstrably not true because when FDR decided to reduce government spending in 1937, the economy tanked, thus showing that his policies were helping people. And if they failed to end the Depression, that’s because they weren’t big enough. These arguments about FDR and the Depression always conveniently forget one big thing. The spending in World War II that got the nation out of the Depression? It was government investment in the economy. Just because it was for war doesn’t mean it doesn’t show how powerful federal spending can be in stimulating the economy.

In any case, you can so read Beltway projections about Obama in this list. Funny stuff.


Comments (116)

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  1. Cody says:

    Where is the Bush one!!?!? Guess we need to give it a few decades. I’ll give it a crack!

    *George W. Bush: from “Longhorn911” – “I would say George W. Bush is the most underrated President, because he accomplished so many bipartisan legislative achievements in his term. In addition to never putting private interest in front of pursuing the defense of America against Al-Qaeda, he also kept the nation economically thriving.”

  2. Data Tutashkhia says:

    Il n’est pas de sauveurs supremes. Fuck the great man theory of history, fuck the ‘great men’, and the horses they rode in on.

  3. Sean says:

    Polk is an interesting case. Is he “underrated?” I think his presidency actually points up the silliness of the question. Most people who know much of anything about him (which is to say, not very many people) would agree that he indeed had those four goals, and that he did indeed achieve them. I can’t really think of another 1-termer who had such a huge impact on the future of the country. The fact that Polk was also (1) a dick, and (2) lied us into a war of choice in order to accomplish his goals makes him sort of the red-headed step-child of impactful American presidents. But we’ve never even thought about undoing his legacy by giving back TX, NM, AZ, CA, NV, etc. to Mexico. We’re all sort of living in JKP’s America, even if most of us don’t know who he was, and wouldn’t like him if we did. How do you rate someone like that?

    GWB is easy to dismiss as a crappy prez, because though he also lied us into a war of choice, that war ended in disaster, not the acquisition of huge amounts of territory, some of which had shit-ton of gold in it. But if Iraq had “worked out” would we think if GWB differently? The fact that Iraq had about 0% chance of working out (no WMD to begin with, difficult to impose democracy from abroad, etc.) kind of just points up JKP’s ruthlessness – it’s easy to steal a sparsely-populated territory from a weak neighbor, it’s hard to find WMD that don’t exist, or create democracy from dictatorship while being a foreign occupier. But again, JKP was a bad man who did bad things, and yet we’re all benefiting from those things, and have never made even the suggestion of overturning them. How do you rate that?

    • lawguy says:

      On the other hand Polk does kind of get a nod from Grant since according to Grant it was Polk who started the war that caused the Civil War. Although, I do not think that Grant ever mentions Polk by name.

      So I guess there would be a kind of greatness there.

      • Craigo says:

        “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”

        That’s Grant, in his memoirs.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

          Far be it from me to disagree with Grant, but I’m somewhat unconvinced. Though the Civil War (and the rest of US history) obviously look totally different without the Mexican War, the grease-fire of slavery would hardly have quietly disappeared as a problem had the territories acquired from Mexico not acted as water thrown on it.

          • Craigo says:

            I’m not sure I agree with him either, but I think he clearly did not rate the unmentioned Polk highly. (Earlier in that section he calls the war “the most unjust ever waged by a stronger nation against a weaker one.”)

            Important to note that Grant was writing in the 1880s, by which time Reconstruction was over, the black codes were creeping across the South, and Grant had left office in disgrace, his civil rights accomplishments undone. The slaves were free, but little more than serfs, and at a horrible cost. I can see why Grant would take this view.

    • elm says:

      The Polk submission was clearly plagiarized from They Might Be Giants. Same argument, many of the same words.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        But they left out the best words of all: Napoleon of the Stump!

      • John says:

        Except the dude got wrong the 4 point program – completely forgets tariff revision and fucks up the description of the Independent Treasury system.

        • Jay C says:

          Not only that: but AFAICR, only one of those “points” – fixing the Canadian/NW US border issue seems to be a standard historical fact: the Mexican War issue has been discussed here; but WTH did Polk have to do with Florida (it did become a state the day before JKP took office)? Or a “national bank”??

    • Just Dropping By says:

      But we’ve never even thought about undoing his legacy by giving back TX, NM, AZ, CA, NV, etc. to Mexico.

      Minor nitpick: I’ve seen it suggested that Grant (IIRC) contemplated precipitating some sort of crisis with Mexico to “lose” the Arizona and New Mexico territories back to the previous owner because they were so economically worthless.

      • Just Dropping By says:

        I should add +1 to your overall point though. Polk was not a good man, but he is clearly “underrated” in terms of recognition of his impact on the development of the country.

    • Wrye says:

      And not just the Southwest, either. Rightly or wrongly, a North America where Washington and Oregon are part of Canada (and you can find old British maps where they are part of British North America) is a very different one indeed.

  4. Matthew Stevens says:

    I think it’s to the credit of most Americans that we don’t consider Polk one of the “great” presidents. Conquering vast tracts of other country’s land usually gets a leader good press.

    • mpowell says:

      I think it’s more subtle than that. Most Americans have no idea that the land was taken from Mexico. At best, they’re aware that it may have formerly been Native American land. If they knew we actually fought a war to acquire CA? They would probably celebrate that. Though you could argue that the world is better off with a US owned CA.

      • mark f says:

        Mexico would just look weird sticking up on the side like that.

      • Just Dropping By says:

        I’m pretty sure that a significant majority of Americans would be able to say that California was taken from Mexico. That isn’t a fact that’s covered up in American history classes in my experience and, because it happened before the Civil War, it means most American history classes actually have time to cover it too.

        • Bloix says:

          I think that most Americans living east of the Mississippi would have no idea that California had ever been part of Mexico.

          • FMguru says:

            California was its own country for a brief period (all hail the California Republic). This is always fun to bring up when Texans start bragging about how their state is special and uniquely independent-minded because they’d been a sovereign country once before (there’s also the matter of the Kingdom of Hawaii).

            1845-1850 California (Bear Flag Revolt, Sutter’s Mill gold strike, statehood) is an amazingly chaotic and interesting period of history, and one that I need to learn more about.

        • mpowell says:

          I’d give 10-1 odds that if you asked 100 random American adults a majority of them would not know that CA once belonged to Mexico, much less what that it was taken from them by war. I’m well aware that the issues is covered in standard classes, but that doesn’t mean the students were paying attention or that they remembered.

          I say this because a friend of mine (pretty ignorant historically) challenged another friend (history major) that he knew more about history than the majority of people. After the history major’s random sampling of students on his college campus he had to concede the point. People know almost nothing about history.

  5. Daniel says:

    Monroe’s entry is particularly hilarious. His accomplishments:

    Acquired Florida which, in practice meant embroiling the United States in a pointless and wasteful thirty year war with the Seminoles, expanded the reach of slavery, and forced women and free blacks from the protections of more liberal Spanish law.

    Admitted five states to the Union, which was done under the terms of the Louisiana Purchase and spearheaded by Congress.

    Stopped the Panic of 1819 from spiraling out of control, which simply isn’t true. He did next to nothing to stem the tide of the panic.

    Helped reach the Missouri Compromise, a deal which he did little to broker and was designed to solve a crisis his own weak leadership enabled.

    I also love the line about how John Tyler served “(what he perceived to be) the national interest.” Talk about a low bar!

    • SamR says:

      I also find it insane that they laud his “bipartisanship” for including pro-slavery people in his cabinet. Not b/c “bipartisanship” isn’t the right word for it, but because for the love of God, isn’t there anything that’s a moral red line for these folks? “Well, those abolitionists are extremists, they don’t want anyone in the US to be able to hold other human beings in a state of permanent involuntary servitude where neither they nor their children will have legal rights of any sort. Frankly, I think the abolitionists are anti-freedom, the freedom to own slaves.” Unreal.

  6. Carbon Man says:

    I’d like to know if Loomis (or anyone else) thinks California and Texas etc. would have been better off as places to live had they stayed under Mexican rule.

    • sharculese says:

      Also, too, if California had never been admitted to the Union, would Bill Ayers still have ghost wrote Obama’s memoirs?

    • somethingblue says:

      Yes, much better off. The churros would have been better and more plentiful, with extra powdered sugar.

    • spencer says:

      Who the hell knows? Maybe if Mexico had held onto those lands and the resources they contained, their entire history would be different – including economic history and their history of political corruption.

      You see, you change one variable – especially a large one like that – and you have to start rethinking how it affects everything else that follows … oh, why the fuck am I bothering? You’re completely impervious to thought anyway.

      • Djur says:

        But Mexico is run by Mexicans. Obviously it is genetically doomed to corruption.

      • John says:

        As soon as gold was discovered, Mexico’s days of running California would have been numbered. The gold would have brought gringos, and the gringos would have had no interest in being an outlying province of a corrupt, incompetent regime in Mexico City. Nor would the Mexican government have the practical ability to impose its rule over California by force. I don’t see how you can construct a plausible alternative timeline that results in California being part of Mexico in 2013.

        The most likely outcome at that point becomes annexation by the US in one way or another. I suppose an independent California republic is conceivable, but it seems rather unlikely to me.

        • Snarki, child of Loki says:

          Well, an independent California DID happen, for 26 days.

          Just enough time to legislatively swipe everything that wasn’t nailed down (and some things that were) before the US came in and took over with a big “can’t take that stuff to court, it was like that when we got here”

          If California was still an independent country, it would have colonies on Mars.

        • jefft452 says:

          “Nor would the Mexican government have the practical ability to impose its rule over California by force”

          Not sure, Mexico’s poor performance in the American war was a surprise to the international observers at the time
          It could be true that the Mexican army just seemed to better then they were, and that they always were and always would be a paper tiger, but Mexican defeat was hardly a forgone conclusion in 1840

    • Murc says:

      It’s impossible to determine with any degree of certainty. I would generally say “No, they probably wouldn’t be.” But it’s hard to say.

      Why do you ask? I’m not sure I understand the point of the question.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I for one like to make my pancakes out of masa.

    • Hogan says:

      Huevos rancheros, vato.

    • DocAmazing says:

      The Spanish enslaved the Indians of California. The Anglo-Americans killed them off.

      In terms of “places to live”, it depends on who is doing the living.

  7. Craigo says:

    The cognitive dissonance of “the New Deal didn’t end the Depression, the Second World War did!” has always been striking. FDR did many good things, and made many mistakes as well – among them, not being enough of a Keynesian.

    • Joshua says:

      It’s mind-boggling. At one point during WW2, wasn’t gubment spending something like 55% of the economy? This spending, whicht even hackiest of right wing hacks (Amity Shlaes) admits got us out of the Depression… somehow proves that government spending cannot get us out of a depression.

      • JKTHs says:

        Yes, the US dropped from 15% unemployment to 1% unemployment in about three years while spending the most the federal government ever has in its history.

        But ya know, nowadays the job creators need our love and affection.

        • rickhavoc says:

          And to pile on a bit here, the government spending that Polk’s Mexican folly induced (aka the Civil War) spurred historic economic growth in the US…war is the health of the state and all that.

          • Craigo says:

            Real wages actually dropped significantly during the Civil War compared to World War I or World War II.

            Wages roses and unemployment fell after the war in the North and West, due to large portions of the labor supply being dead or maimed. That lasted right up until the railroad sacammers crashed the economy.

            • rickhavoc says:

              Wages? Get with it man, wages are so 1970s. Ain’t nobody gots more wages in a generation or two these days.

              It does depend on how you describe the US in the 1860s. By one reading, the US economy grew by 50% if you leave out the section of the country that was being ripped apart. Things were not so good there, but it was their idea.

            • Hogan says:

              Those workers should have made money the way real Americans did: selling tainted meat to the Union army.

      • Djur says:

        They handwave it away by saying that war somehow makes all the moral evils of government spending disappear, because the money is going to blowing people up.

    • snoey says:

      Also to the claim that ordinary “spending” is bad and what we need is “investment”.

      We built tons of the most technologically advanced things we could make, hauled them halfway around the world, and blew them up.

    • gocart mozart says:

      Defense spending is the only government spending that creates jobs and also doesn’t contribute to the deficit so win win.

    • UserGoogol says:

      There are certain arguments where military Keynesianism is the only kind of Keynesianism that works. They aren’t very good arguments, but there’s a certain emotional intuition to the idea that defeating other countries in war is an economic boon to the attacker, so on a psychological level I wouldn’t call it cognitive dissonance.

  8. daveNYC says:

    I love the FDR one. Reducing his role to morale officer, never mind that England and the USSR might not have held out against Germany without our material. Not to mention that an isolationist president might never have gotten involved in WWII at all.

  9. Warren Terra says:

    Surely the “John Tyler Was A Nice Guy” most-underrated nod is a parody, right?

    Possibly also the Thomas Jefferson one – which (1) asserts that the Louisiana Purchase “fell in his lap” as if it was inevitable we’d buy, and as if he’d done nothing to push it forward; and (2) ignores the more complex reality that no-one is greatly impressed with Jefferson as a successful President, but rather for drafting the Declaration and other contributions his writings made to how we defined our infant nation.

    • John says:

      I think it is pretty inevitable we’d buy the Louisiana Purchase under any plausible administration. The idea that Jefferson was an overrated president seems pretty reasonable to me.

  10. Jackdaw says:

    If the They Might Be Giants song can be believed, one of Polk’s four goals was not “fixing the question of Florida’s status” as “mountainwestBob”‘s original quote claims, but instead reducing tariffs.

  11. Retief says:

    But which is the most underrated knife-fighter? Isn’t that the real question?

  12. md rackham says:

    If Polk’s promise was to extend the southwestern U.S. to the coast, then wasn’t acquiring “New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada” a bit short of the goal?

  13. Bruce Vail says:

    The John Tyler entry is also notable for what it omits.

    Tyler is the only former President to serve in an official capacity in the government of Confederate States of America. I believe he was elected to the Confederate Congress, but died (of natural causes) before he could serve out much of his term.

    I think that technically makes him guilty of treason.

    • Aidan says:

      The Tyler one was astonishing to me. It takes a lot for something idiotic in The Fix to astonish me. The part about him refusing to be beholden to THE PRIORITIES OF THE PARTY THAT VOTERS ELECTED TO THE PRESIDENCY makes me want to bash my head into the wall. There’s no greater accomplishment to the Broderites than having your entire cabinet resign and getting kicked out of your own party because you decided that the will of the people and the platform of the party is irrelevant.

    • Murc says:

      There’s no technically about it. John Tyler was guilty of treason, as was every member of the Confederate government and every Confederate volunteer.

      • Bruce Vail says:

        I learned about Tyler’s service to the CSA during a visit to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, VA, where he is buried in a modest plot adjacent to the grave of James Monroe.

        The cemetery is pretty much a shrine to the Confederacy, which is the reason why, is suppose, that it is said to be the most popular tourist attraction in Richmond.

  14. Adam Malka says:

    Let it also be known that Monroe’s actions to “stop the bleeding” of the 1819 panic was to sign a bill that effectively bailed out the many land speculators who had created the mess in the first place. It wasn’t necessarily bad policy, at least at the time: it was probably the least worst thing they could have done by that point. But that’s also the point. The 1821 Relief Act was the last resort of a desperate federal government that had rubber stamped land speculation, and with it a bubble, for years. Way to go James Monroe.

  15. commie atheist says:

    “HistoryJonah” HAS to be Jonah Goldberg.

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