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Eight Rules for Judging a US President

Posted July. 31, 2009 08:50,   


“There is no single rule for assessing presidential performance.”

Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University, a renowned historian and a scholar of U.S. presidents, said this at the 13th Annual Wharton Leadership Conference.

He suggested eight rules for a more objective assessment of the chief executive, saying opinions of the commander-in-chief "bounce around like corn in a popper.” Smith’s eight rules for judging a president were posted on Forbes.com.

① A leadership style of doing nothing is more difficult: Think Thomas Jefferson, who purchased the Louisiana territory in 1803 from France, Lyndon B. Johnson, who passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Harry Truman, who stopped communist aggression in Korea, and Richard Nixon, who began dialogue with China.

They were risk takers while in office but history rated them highly. The most difficult leadership decision could be doing nothing, however. George H.W. Bush snubbed the historic moment of the Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989 to prevent angering Russia.

② A president’s power comes from moral authority: Franklin Roosevelt built emotional credibility as he encouraged Americans to overcome the Great Depression in his radio speeches. Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt and underwent surgery in 1981. He reassured Americans when he jokingly said, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”

③ A great president had a “great enemy”: Franklin Roosevelt had Benito Mussolini of Italy and Adolf Hitler of Germany, while Reagan had what he called the “evil empire” in the Soviet Union. Their fight against their enemies made people believe they were the proud warriors defending their people’s freedom.

④ A great president should have an air of mythology: Reagan’s national security adviser Robert McFarlane said, “He knows so little and accomplishes so much.” In other words, Reagan personified the principle that great leaders are essentially “mysterious figures.”

⑤ Popularity is not legacy: The beloved Warren G. Harding turned into the worst U.S. president after scandals broke out after his death. Criticism increased and newly discovered facts showed that he lacked ability in the course of becoming president and lacked quality as president. Harding, however, won his battles and helped bring stability afterwards.

⑥ Don’t judge a president by today’s standards: Modern scholars undervalue Andrew Jackson, who expanded voting rights from certain white people with land to all white people, but said he paid little attention to women and blacks. For a correct assessment of a president, the thoughts of the people and conventions of the times should be considered.

⑦ Accepting “unintended consequences”: Woodrow Wilson wanted to become a father of a “new freedom” toward a small government, but failed in the wake of World War I. His vision was overtaken by an unexpected event.

⑧ Even a weak president has a legacy: History generally is kind to strong presidents. Yet Calvin Coolidge, who was considered indecisive, should be reassessed in that he protected taxpayers and refrained from expanding the government.