As historians know full well, Presidential reputations sometimes take decades to settle out, experiencing ups and downs in the meantime.
For example, Harry Truman left office in 1953 quite unpopular.
Over time, though, his stock gradually rose as society came to appreciate — after the fact — his straight-talking populism, common sense, and decency.
It also helped that, unlike contemporaries, later generations were less inclined to see him in FDR’s (enormous) shadow.
Ironically, Truman’s successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was another politician who left office under appreciated.
Viewed through the prism of the tumultuous ’60’s and turbulent ’70’s, the relatively placid ’50’s that Eisenhower presided over could easily inspire nostalgia a generation later. The nation’s top general in World War II, his prescient valedictory warning about the “military-industrial complex” has also endeared him to posterity.
Finally, later generations, who only caught glimpses of JFK’s charisma on movie reels, were more inclined to focus on JFK’s substance and record (promising but incomplete) rather than his style (dazzling).
Today’s Crop of Leaders
So, roughly two years into what appears to be shaping up as The Great Recession, how do today’s leaders and recent-leaders fare?
Using a scale of minus-100 (-100) to plus-100 (+100), here’s my take on the shifts to date:
Paul Volcker. Then: 50; Now: 100. Net gain: +50. Steered the country through the last comparable mess in the early ’80’s. Never worked for Goldman Sachs — or aspired to. None of this would have happened on his watch. Tall Paul, indeed.
Alan Greenspan: Then: 90; Now: -75. Net loss: -165 (sets “the Biggest Loser” bar for a long time). “The maestro” now “the charlatan.” Every one of his major tenets and policies have now been discredited if not repudiated, i.e., : 1) markets are self-regulating; 2) the Fed’s job is to mitigate the damage from bubbles, not identify and prevent them; 3) financial actors pursue self-preservation above all other goals (wrong! they chase short-term profits and maximum compensation); and 4) excessively accommodative monetary policies don’t risk liquidity traps (wrong! they do — and we’re clearly in one now).
Bill Clinton: Then: 40. Now: 10. Net loss: -30. The “Party Hearty” President from Arkansas (by way of Yale and Oxford). If the 1990’s were the 1920’s redux, that makes Clinton this era’s Coolidge — a feel good, go-with-the-flow leader whose lieutenants (Rubin, Summers, et al) did everything they could to keep the party going.
Ronald Reagan: Then: 60. Now: 40. Net loss: -20. Yeah, he gets splattered by this, too. Conservatives’ darling, he pushed the pendulum rightward at a time when there was a strong case for it (sorry, liberals, but the Great Society overshot, and Carter never measured up). Unfortunately, the pendulum . . . kept going.
On the other hand, Reagan’s resolve and optimism were a welcome tonic after Carter’s malaise. He also gets much credit for the demise of the Soviet Union (“a good thing,” as Martha Stewart would say).
Bonus question: if Reagan had been President 20 years later, would he have recognized the financial excesses, and shifted course? (He did finally fire Don Regan, formerly head of Merrill Lynch, but mostly because he was a jerk, not over policy disagreements).
Herbert Hoover: Then: -90. Now: -40. Net gain: +50. OK, he screwed it up. But it was harder to get right than we thought. At least his Treasury Secretary did what he thought was best for the country, not his own pocket or Goldman Sachs’.
FDR: Then: +70. Now: +90. Net gain: +20. Another beneficiary of “it was harder to get right than we thought.” They were lucky to have him (and where’s ours??)
George W. Bush: Who?