When evaluating presidents, what weight do you give to the actual policies they pass or support? Can someone be a "good" president while supporting policies that are morally awful?It's a hard question to answer. I try to evaluate them based on policy "success" in which success means that it worked...but what works and what doesn't is, admittedly, not always an objective call. I mean, sometimes is it: losing a war is generally objectively less successful than winning a war -- or avoiding a war. And it's at least somewhat possible to objectively characterize winning and losing a war, isn't it? But even there it's dicey (did the US win the Gulf War? Seemed so at the time, but if it set up an unstable situation which made the Iraq War -- and perhaps the September 11 attacks -- more likely, then is that policy success?). And when it gets to domestic policy, it's even more difficult.
Nevertheless, that I guess I'd say is that I look at process, and at policy success; if a policy is enacted, accepted, and generally considered successful, then it counts as policy success. I try, in this, not to impose my policy preferences, but the obvious critique that any observer is going to impose his or her own policy preferences on what counts as success is a perfectly fair one. The only question is: is there anything better?
Meanwhile, longwalkdownlyndale asks:
Who do you think are the most overrated and underrated presidents, other than Wilson and Carter who you've written about a bunch in the past.I've written on this in the past...The overrated president recently has been JFK, who does well in scholar surveys and very well in popular polling. I think TR is a bit overrated. Wilson, obviously. I think on balance Nixon is overrated...there's a school of thought that he was good on policy even while being a crook, but that tends to overlook both Congress's responsibility for much of what gets credited to him...and Vietnam. Reagan is overrated these days; he has a fair chance to catch JFK for most overrated, I suppose.
Underrated? I'm with those who pick Grant. I'm not really a Harding booster, but I'm willing to buy the notion that he's underrated, since he's often considered a bottom-five president and I don't see how he rates that low. I think Ford is a bit underrated.
All that said, there are two huge disclaimers necessary. First: the "ranking the presidents" game is fun, and I'd argue that it helps us to think about the presidency...but it's a game, not a science or even a serious study. And, just as important, the question of overrated/underrated turns mostly on how presidents are, in fact, rated. JFK is overrated in my view as the 10th greatest president, and insanely overrated as a top-5 president...but he's just fine as a middle-ranked president. So knowing whether he's over or underrated depends a lot on an accurate assessment of the rankings.