I did overrated, so I guess it's time to talk about underrated presidents in the new Siena College survey experts.
Once again, I'll just by looking at the other similar surveys. Who does worse by Siena than they do elsewhere?
Start with Ronald Reagan, who Siena has at #18 (he was at 17 last time around for them, in 2002).. Reagan's been doing a bit better than that in other surveys...he's been around 10th in most of these things over the last fifteen years. Siena has William McKinley at #21, about half a dozen spots lower than the other surveys. Neither Siena nor last year's CSPAN survey like Rutherford Hayes very much (#31 and #33); Hayes usually comes in mid-20s. That one seems like the flip side of moving Grant up, no? And Siena is down on Benjamin Harrison, placing him at #34 while most others have him at or above #30.
Who do I think is underrated? Well, I've already said that I think putting Washington at #4 is awful -- comparisons are tricky enough that I'm not going to complain if he's #3, but I usually place him right at the top -- and yes, I see a very large gap between the third and fourth spots, so I think putting any of Washington, Lincoln, or FDR fourth or lower is a major mistake.
Who else? Siena places George H.W. Bush at #22, and Gerald Ford at #28. I think both of these men, neither of whom I think was really cut out to be a president, could both be a bit higher. Bush really was a conservative, interested in preserving the status quo and managing necessary change wisely. That worked well for him in the major events of his presidency, the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union. It worked out less-well in the Middle East, especially, I think, with respect to Iraq, and it generally worked out badly for him with regard to the economy, where Bush will get credit from deficit hawks for long-term responsible management, but he did little about short-term suffering. I also think Bush...well, he wasn't quite a demagogue, but I think that he really didn't have much commitment to democracy. That he's remembered for looking at his watch during his debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992 is appropriate: he never gave much indication that he cared what ordinary people thought about things, apparently having as little regard for the activists and grass-roots interest within his own party has he had for those of the other party.
The things is: the events in Europe was really very important, and one can imagine all sorts of ways they could have gone wrong; Bush deserves, in my view, enormous credit for it. He's hurt in these sorts of ratings because ideological conservatives -- or should I say "conservatives" -- have decided to give Ronald Reagan all the credit for the end of the Cold War. I may do a separate item about Reagan, but for now I'll just say that to me, everyone from Ike through Reagan was just carrying out the strategy established during the Truman administration, so if anyone gets credit for winning the Cold War is should be Truman. Bush, however, had a very different and difficult challenge, and I've never seen an argument against giving him very high marks for it.
As for Ford: it's hard to think of anyone else who had worse luck in the situation he inherited. A mess of an economy, the last stages of losing a war, a Congress completely aligned against him, and his predecessor and half his administration in legal trouble. And, of course, no president has ever taken office with less of a mandate from the people. Sure, mandates are largely fictional, but sometimes fiction helps. Let's just say that there wasn't anyone in Congress who even considered the possibility that he owed his election to Gerald Ford. Given all that, I think Ford acquitted himself reasonably well.
Of course, with Ford, all anyone is really focused on is the pardon. I think it was the right thing to do; I think that the trial of Richard Nixon would, in fact, have consumed the nation. Nixon famously tried to argue that one year of Watergate was enough, and he was wrong about that as long as he was in office, but once he was gone I think there's a fair argument to be made that two years of Watergate was, in fact, enough. Yes, Nixon richly deserved prison, but the nation deserved a functioning political system, and the pardon helped that to happen. So overall, on Ford, I think he did well with what he faced, and that's really all anyone can ask of a president.