Charisma. A commanding presence. Leadership.
These are all terms used to describe Americas best presidents, and they already are being used by some to describe Barack Obamas calm, confident demeanor.
But is a great president one who inspires the country to move in a certain direction, even if that direction ultimately is wrongperhaps leading us into an unnecessary war or creating new government programs the country cant affordor should a president be judged by different standards?
Who, in fact, is better: a dull and uninspiring president, such as Calvin Coolidge, who quietly does the right things, or bold and confident leaders, such as Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, who pull the country into war, increase the size and scope of government, and expand presidential powers beyond what the Constitution intended?
Presidential rankings should be based on what a president does to promote peace, prosperity and libertythe foundations of our constitutional democracynot on style or personality.
Give me the dull guy who does the right things every time over the charmer who pushes policies that undermine personal or economic freedom.
Did the president use restraint in international affairs? Did he pay more than lip service to the rule of law? Did he show respect for the limits of executive power spelled out in the Constitution? Did he do everything in his power to guard economic freedom and civil liberties? Was he a good steward of the taxpayers money? These are the key questions, not whether he was popular, delivered memorable speeches, or was adept at multi-tasking.
A president should not be viewed as a good president, or even a successful president, if he effectively implements policies that damage the economy, provokes avoidable conflict, or undermines our liberties.
Presidents cannot be blamed for what they inherit: accumulated decades of government growth, stifling regulation, damaging court precedents and bad law. Such policies cant be changed overnight.
Dull, drab or quiet presidents rarely are rated high. Those who are charismatic, can deliver a good speech, feed us memorable sound bites and, in the 24/7 television and YouTube era, look good on the small screen usually are put in the top ranks.
Consider Theodore Roosevelt, whose bigger-than-life personality and bravado have produced both excessive fascination with and admiration for the man.
Roosevelt had a zest for life and seemingly boundless energy. Although he came from a wealthy family, Roosevelt had been a cowboy and served in the Spanish-American War, becoming a war hero. Analysts still are fascinated by his Rough Rider image. Yet Roosevelt was a less-important president than William McKinley, from whom he inherited the office after McKinleys assassination.
In strictly policy terms, I would rank Coolidge, or Silent Cal as he became known, ahead of Teddy Roosevelt, ahead of his cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and ahead of the two most-popular presidents of the modern era: John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
This is not to suggest that presidential personalities should be discounted entirely. If the president uses his persuasive powers to promote proper policies it is a plus. Beyond this, however, personality shouldnt really matter.
Even great presidents who serve during uneventful times unfortunately seem to get lost in the crowd. Coolidge had the misfortune to lack charisma, generally avoided government activism, and served during a time of peace. Today, he is all but ignored by historians. But I rank him among the best presidents.
Though most Americans today seem to want non-stop action from the White House, the best presidents are often those who approach the job with caution, allowing the American people to flourish economically, politically and socially with minimal government interference.
The American presidency is a unique office. Those who hold the office should be judged not only on their short-term economic record, but on whether they promoted peace, adhered to the rule of law, and protected individual rights and civil liberties.
Barack Obama appears to have the right stuff. But will he do the right things?
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
Full Biography and Recent Publications