The best presidential leadership

Last week, a new survey of political scientists by Justin Vaughn at Boise State University and Brandon Rottinghaus at the University of Houston, ranked Bill Clinton as the 8e best president, just behind Dwight Eisenhower (7e). In case you were wondering, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington finished 1 and 2. Hard to argue with those rankings.

Clinton’s ranking is well ahead of Ronald Reagan (11e), Lyndon Johnson (12e) and John F. Kennedy (14e). Without forgetting Barack Obama (18e) that follows all of the aforementioned presidents.

My reaction to all of this is: Really?

To be fair, the factors that Vaughn and Rottinghaus assessed included diplomatic skills, ability to work with Congress, personal integrity, and military skill. These are good qualities, but my own bias is towards the actions taken and the results. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Clinton, Eisenhower, and Obama:

Clinton presided over a healthy economy and balanced budget, only the second president to accomplish this since the Great Depression. But . . . the economy began its push under Clinton’s predecessor, George HW Bush. Clinton’s presidency coincided with the Internet boom, something akin to the Industrial Revolution that happened about 100 years earlier and the advent of the telegraph and steam engines in the 1830s. In other words, he served as president during a period of historic global growth — something he had absolutely nothing to do with.

Clinton’s biggest initiative, his health care plan, was completely flattened in the first year of his presidency. And let’s not forget that he was impeached. Only the second president in US history to achieve this. But his popularity rating was high when he left office. So 8e better. Oh good?

Eisenhower ended filming in Korea within six months of taking office. Six months. Compare that to its predecessor’s three-year quagmire in Korea. Or the eternity of Vietnam under LBJ, Nixon and finally Ford. Or the five-plus-year simultaneous quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan under George W. Bush. Six months is truly astounding.

But that’s not all Ike has accomplished. He sent federal troops south to enforce the Supreme Court’s desegregation order—the first president to send federal troops under the Mason-Dixon line since Abraham Lincoln. He created NASA. He balanced the budget. And he created the Interstate Highway System – the most successful economic stimulus program in the history of the world. Higher productivity than the entire New Deal.

All this while performing the delicate balancing act of preventing the cold war from becoming a hot war. And, Ike was smart enough to avoid the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam, two disasters his successors blundered into. i think 7e the best may not be high enough.

Finally, President Obama. I know a lot of people are disappointed with him. His campaign rhetoric was so good, his call for change and hope so appealing. But only Franklin Roosevelt ever walked into the Oval Office with greater economic calamity facing him. And no president already was sworn in with the earldom in the midst of two wars. None. Already.

Obama pushed through his economic stimulus package despite a hostile Congress, and the economy recovered. The recovery was slow, but the financial crisis wasn’t called the Great Recession for nothing. And he succeeded in reducing the combat presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, he used a slow and steady approach to do so, but given that Truman (Korea); LBJ, Nixon and Ford (Vietnam) and Bush the Younger (Iraq and Afghanistan) all went years without withdrawing or before finally disengaging, Obama’s move appears to be successful.

And . . . Obama got health care reform – something Truman, Clinton and Nixon all tried and failed. Failed miserably. It’s too early to tell, but Obamacare, as it’s called, could end up being as important a part of Obama’s legacy as Social Security to FDR or Medicare to LBJ.

So Obama pulled the country out of recession, out of two wars, and passed a landmark health care bill that defeated three previous presidents, but he’s only 18.e better. Oh good?

Leadership lessons from all of this: Bill Clinton was the master of public relations. He made people feel good, made them feel like he really cared about them. Impressed them with his intelligence. None of this is a bad thing. But, as you can see above, if you want to use Bill Clinton as a role model, you better be damn articulate, damn charming, and incredibly lucky (the booming economy, the internet boom) .

If you want to deliver results for your stakeholders, you better follow Ike or Obama. Both men faced difficult realities head on and produced important results for their country. Decades after Ike’s departure, we still greatly appreciate what he has done. The jury is still out on Barack Obama, but it’s very possible that Americans are as grateful for Obamacare as they are for Social Security and Medicare. These are legacies of leadership that everyone would be proud of.

Kevin E. Boling