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Cerebral Corner

Page history last edited by mberry 13 years, 5 months ago


Welcome to the Cerebral Corner


Here we take a bit more of an analytic approach to the Presidency. This stuff may be dry…. But it’s called the “cerebral corner” for a reason. The topic will be analyzing and judging Presidents. Enjoy!



Evaluating our Presidents


     It is often that people pose the question, “who was your favorite president?” We usually answer with the name we are most familiar with, the president that we know did something. But is this really the way we can judge a president? How about when we are going to the booths to vote for the next candidate – how do we make a decision then?


     Many scholars and historians have addressed the various methods on how we can objectively evaluate a president (or presidential candidate). Most believe that he must be first judged as a person, and then according to the role he will be pursuing. This, in essence, is how we can analyze any leader throughout history – their personality, intentions, ambitions, and effectiveness. Still, the issue is not exactly cookie-cutter level.


     Scholar Richard E. Neustadt argues that one criterion for evaluating a president is “presidential power.” By this he means the influence that the president, himself, can generate. Neustadt furthers this argument saying that influence can be studied by the way the President influences “certain men in given situations” or how he acts in general to “boost his chance for mastery in any instance.” [1] Specifically, the President must address his office, the Congress, the citizens, and international community. This is an interesting approach because it does not place critical importance on what the President actually gets done since all presidents, Neustadt argues, are “clerks” and have to do something. At the same time, those ‘great’ presidents who do exert influence will undoubtedly get things done.


     To understand this concept, let’s take some of our Presidents. Andrew Jackson, as mentioned earlier, was one of the most influential of our chief executives. In person, he had a tough, chivalric attitude and did not back down from any challenge (he once killed a man who slandered his wife in a duel). This garnered him support from the American public and his personal supporters. These traits also transferred over to his policy-making as he did not fear to challenge his cabinet or Congress. In fact, Jackson famously had the “kitchen cabinet,” a subdivision of his normal cabinet, because he distrusted some of the members and hence sought a closer council[2]. He was also not afraid to use vetoes. How does this guarantee power? Well, if you’re scared of your boss telling you no or not even listening to you, you would be more likely to listen to what he says. Not to mention, the fact you can’t really do anything about it shows how powerful you are. This seems so simple, but in reality, not many people possess such affirmative personalities. On this regard, it should be noted that merely using vetoes is not a sign of influence. Grover Cleveland rejected more congressional legislation in any one term than any other president, but that says little about him (other than that he was a bit arrogant). Instead, we must look at the issues being addressed in the bills – Jackson’s vetoes involved the national bank and economic conditions, while Cleveland vetoed many private bills designed to compensate Civil War veterans. 


     On a final note regarding Neustadt, he mentions that although everyone depends on the president, he is “not guaranteed an influence commensurate with the services performed” because people cannot empathize with his position. We must keep this in mind next time we judge a president[3]


     There are other ways to evaluate a president. Author James David Barber presents the view that the “total character” of the president is what defines him. The presidency is a position that centers much of the emotions of politics, but it is also led by an emotional person. Barber’s argument is that if we can identify those emotions and how our leaders respond to challenges, we can better judge him/her. Interestingly, he draws a fine line between “character” and things like “world view” and “style” which Barber believes are very important aspects of a person. He says, “Character provides the main thrust and broad direction,” while “world view” is something that uses character and is further influenced by family, culture, and the environment. “Style” is how all these components are revealed to the public. If we are able to analyze these qualities in a person, including how they were instilled in the subject (their background, etc), we can better understand our chief executives, and make the right choices come election time [4]


     Practical examples of this include Abraham Lincoln, who by nature was a reconcialatory man. In the beginning, he never had intentions to attack the Southern states, but circumstances changed his "world view" and induced him to wage the Civil War. This is a direct instance of how a person's character is fairly static, but their world view and actions change according to the situation.

     From just these viewpoints, it is clear that we must not tag a person a good president so easily. A leader, like all other persons, is a very complex individual. To truly judge him/her we must analyze their views and how effective they are in promoting them. Only then can we ensure strong leadership for our country.



After discussing all these things on evaluating presidents, you might ask, "how has the general public viewed them?" Below is an average approval chart of post World War II presidents. The numbers on the left indicate the percent, while the labels on the bottom are explained below. Notice that, on average, there wasn't profound changes in approval rating. But the men in office were certainly different. What does this say about the general public and their view on the president (as opposed to the ones explained above)?




Graph 3.2: The average approval ratings (in percentage on the y-axis) of Presidents post WWII – from 1 -11, Harry Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr. [5]


Wanna see more cool graphs on presidential eligibility? Go here: http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/info-presapp0605-31.html


Previous Section:  Who Were the Presidents                                                                                                             Next Section: In the World Today




  1. Neustadt, Richard. "Presidential Power." American Government: Readings and Cases. 7th ed. Ed. Peter Woll. US: Pearson Longman. 2008. Page 265
  2. John Faragher, Mari Buhle, Daniel Czitrom, and Susan Armitage. Out of Many: A History of the American People (Upper Saddle River, NJ; Pearson Education Inc. 2007). Page 359
  3. Neustadt, Richard. "Presidential Power." American Government: Readings and Cases. 7th ed. Ed. Peter Woll. US: Pearson Longman. 2008. Page 266
  4. Barber, James D. "The Presidencial Character." American Government: Readings and Cases. 7th ed. Ed. Peter Woll. US: Pearson Longman. 2008. Page 272-275.
  5. Data from http://www.gallup.com/poll/113641/despite-recent-lows-bush-approval-average-midrange.aspx.

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