Who is overrated in the Siena College survey of presidents?
There are a few ways of going about this. I'll start with an easy one: who rates significantly higher in the Siena study than in other, more or less similar, surveys of experts?
Start right at the top. Well, almost at the top: #2, Teddy Roosevelt. Sienna moves him from #3 to #2 this year, but every other recent survey has him 4th or 5th. Siena loves the last two Virginians, Madison (#6) and Monroe(#7); the 2009 C-SPAN survey was much more typical, placing Monroe at 14th and Madison 20th. I don't know why they do better in Siena, but for Madison especially that's consistent going back to the original Siena survey in 1982, when he ranked 9th. Moving down the list, Bill Clinton is at 13, which is a bit higher than he's placed in other such studies.
What do I think? I don't really get TR worship; successful president, yes, but top three material? I don't see it at all, although again I have more knowledge of Wilson on to the present than I do of TR. Top ten, fine, I think, but he's not close to the top three. I think there's a strong case for Madison, as the president who first had to deal with how to fight a war in a democracy -- and I think he acquitted himself reasonably well, if you take the fact of the war as a given. I'll go along with Monroe being overrated at #7.
The big overrating, however, is easy: John F. Kennedy, ranked 11th. I keep thinking that the Kennedy mystique will start to fade, but here we are fifty years down the road and there's no sign of Camelot's pull getting any weaker. Just to pick one thing...respondents rank Kennedy #6 at "executive appointments." Uh, McNamara? Bundy? Really? Nor was the Kennedy White House particularly distinguished, except for their loyalty to the president; I think there were some able people, but they hardly stand out from other presidents (well, except I suppose for Nixon) in the era of the Presidential Branch. I can imagine average, or even above average, but close to the top? No way. Calling his relationship with Congress well above average (#13) seems odd to me, too; Kennedy is much better known for failing to get things through Congress than he is for passing legislation. And given how short his presidency was, a 16th in "avoiding crucial mistakes" seems awfully generous, given the Bay of Pigs -- and that would be without taking a Kennedy-friendly view on Vietnam. I don't think Kennedy was a failed president at all, and one you get past the top few the bar gets surprisingly low surprisingly quickly, but a #11 for Kennedy seems far too high.
The other president who I think is seriously overrated here is Richard Nixon, at #30. Looking at the individual ratings, respondents place him higher than I would almost across the board. Nixon is mid-pack as a communicator (#26)? I don't see it -- I know that the (pre-presidential, of course) Checkers speech was a massive hit, but as president I think he must have been worse, unless you're just giving all the TV-era guys a break. 20th in party leadership? I'll spot you Tyler, but outside of that, Nixon has to be competitive for the bottom spot -- easily the worst, I'd say, in the 20th century. Relationship with Congress? They give him a very low 36th, but I think that's several spots too high. Similarly, are there really six presidents with worse executive appointments than Nixon? Granted, there are some solid choices, especially for those who like Kissinger, but Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Colson, Dean, Mitchell, Kleindienst, Stans, Gray, Spiro T. Agnew...that's quite a list. And the idea that Richard Nixon is the 11th greatest president in foreign policy accomplishments strikes me as missing the elephant in the room (that would be Vietnam), and at the same time overplaying Nixon's accomplishments. I'm not sure that Nixon is really a bottom five president, but I'm not sure he isn't, and I think he's easily a bottom ten president.