The Presidential Perception Gap

When it comes to ranking the presidents, there's plenty of disagreement between historians and the public. Douglas Schoen and Jessica Tarlov explain why. Plus, Newsweek's ranking of the 10 best presidents.

09.24.12 8:45 AM ET

Who was or is the best president of the United States since 1900? Newsweek recently polled 10 eminent historians and 600 randomly selected Americans about our country’s presidents. And the differences in their responses were striking.

The top two finishers among the public were Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, while the top two finishers among the historians were Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush both made the top 10—9th and 10th, respectively—in the public’s list, but not the historians’ rankings. And Lyndon Johnson and Woodrow Wilson—3rd and 4th, respectively, in the historians’ poll—didn’t make the public’s top 10.

How to account for these divergences? The most obvious explanation is that historians, true to their profession, seemed to place a greater emphasis on the distant past, while the public’s selections skewed toward recent decades.

Ronald Reagan clearly looms large over recent history, especially for conservative voters. And it is easy to see his salience now: Americans continue to hope for a dramatic economic recovery similar to the one he oversaw in the early 1980s (though we have yet to see evidence that either Obama or Romney can deliver it).

Bill Clinton seems to play a similar role for liberals—a recent president they can look to as a successful economic steward. His favorability rating has been steadily climbing since 2009, when Obama took office and Hillary Clinton became secretary of state. And over the summer, when this poll was conducted, Clinton was well on his way to a record-high approval rating of 66 percent heading into the conventions. As a result, it shouldn’t be surprising that Clinton’s ranking with the public is far higher than it is with historians.

What about the sharp divergence between historians and the public on LBJ? One way to explain this is the publication over the past decade of books three and four of Robert Caro’s series on Johnson—Master of the Senate and The Passage of Power. These books have focused renewed attention on Johnson’s record—probably more so among academics than among the general public. It may also be that the tragedy of Vietnam—Johnson’s great failure—weighs less heavily on historians than it does on the public at large.

Other smaller differences are also worth noting. Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy exactly reversed positions in the two polls: Eisenhower was rated 7th by historians and 8th by the public, while JFK ranked 6th with historians and 4th with the public. This is especially interesting since the two men presented a strong contrast in styles. Eisenhower has been given more and more credit in recent years for his major accomplishments—institutionalizing the welfare state and beginning the process of integrating America—but these were subtle advances. Meanwhile, Ike was light on personal charisma. By contrast, JFK was perhaps our most personally charismatic president of the past 112 years, but he arguably had fewer substantive accomplishments while in office. In their inverted rankings, we may be seeing the different ways in which historians and the public weigh personal likability versus policy achievements.

Then there is our current president, Barack Obama—ranked 5th by the public and 10th by historians. Part of this divergence may be explained by the public’s bias toward recent history. But part of it may also be explained by the personal likability factor: the public has, according to polls, continued to like Obama personally even as it has given mixed reviews to his performance as president. Perhaps, too, the public remains less cynical about the possibility of “hope and change” than more jaundiced historians.

Editor’s note: Some of the Top 10 presidents as chosen by a special panel of historians were ordered incorrectly in an earlier version of this story. The rankings have been corrected.