If you’re a fan of the “presidential ratings game” — the ongoing attempt to rank American chief executives and group them in categories such as great, near great, average, or failures — you will enjoy Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.
Robert W. Merry, editor of The National Interest and a James K. Polk biographer, does more than offer his own ratings. He examines the ratings process itself; probes the biases that lead some presidents to benefit from inflated ratings while others suffer from unwarranted criticism; and attempts to add a new, more objective measure to the ratings process. There’s a reason the book’s subtitle mentions “voters” before “historians.” Merry thinks previous presidential ratings systems have been too quick to dismiss the verdicts rendered by voters themselves. He attempts to integrate electoral results into the ratings system to a greater degree, including assessments of whether a president was able to turn the office over to a successor from the same political party.
While Merry seems inclined to follow the popular bias among presidential assessors toward activist presidents — his favorite category is called “Leaders of Destiny” — he does not let that bias blind him to the fact that activism in pursuit of dubious goals offers no great reason for praise.
The verdict is still out on our 44th president, according to Merry, but he points to some disturbing signs that could block Barack Obama’s entry into the club of “Leaders of Destiny.”
Obama, who likes to use the word “audacity,” clearly saw himself as a presidential Man of Destiny. But history tells us that, while America’s Leaders of Destiny always kicked up intense opposition, they also managed to build broad new reservoirs of support that mixed up the old flows of partisanship, demographics, and ideology. From Jefferson to Reagan, they all left behind political coalitions based on new political alignments. Obama’s bold governance didn’t bring such new voters into his fold; instead, it stirred significant numbers of his election-day supporters to abandon him, at least for a time. Rather than uniting his party and dividing the opposition — a hallmark of any realignment president — he did the opposite, uniting the GOP and splitting his own ranks.
After turning his attention to discussion of Obama’s stimulus measures, energy bill, and federal health-care overhaul, Merry concludes “much of Obama’s policy formula simply wasn’t in line with voter desires and sentiments.”