As he prepares to head back to the ranch come January 20, President Bush has embarked on a sort of "Legacy Tour," granting 10 interviews in recent weeks. When asked how his presidency will be remembered, Bush typically insists that "history" will be the judge. He's right—and right as well that historians may be kinder to him than his current, abysmal approval ratings would suggest. But that says less about Bush's success than it does about the perverse standards by which historians evaluate presidents. Judging by the perennial presidential ranking polls, historians reward presidents who dream big and dare great things—even when they leave wreckage in their wake. Odd as it may seem, given the manifest failures of his administration, George W. Bush has a fighting chance at presidential greatness.
John Yoo, the author of the administration's infamous "torture memos," has remarked that, "The greatest presidents are those who exercise executive power most aggressively." Most of the scholars who rank the presidents aren't particularly fond of Yoo or the president he served, but it's hard to see what legitimate grounds they'd have for disagreeing with his assessment. Indeed, more than five decades worth of academic surveys make it plain that the scholarly arbiters of presidential greatness reward presidents who expand their power. Some of them even admit it: In a 2003 article entitled "Reflections of a Presidency Rater," Barnard political scientist Richard Pious wrote that when he fills out presidential surveys, he downgrades those who "left the presidential office weaker than when they entered"—which is a strange position to take, unless one believes that there has never been a time in American history when the presidency has been too strong.
That perspective is all too common, unfortunately. How else to explain the fact that in virtually every scholarly poll, activist presidents dominate, and warrior presidents like James K. Polk, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman make the top 10? Polk's major distinction is an unconstitutionally begun war of conquest; Wilson, reelected because "he kept us out of war," radically expanded government power and brought us into a war most historians view as pointless carnage; Truman launched our first major undeclared war and was rebuked by the Supreme Court for claiming that his powers as commander in chief allowed him to seize American companies.
In the presidential rankings game, "doing no harm" gets you nowhere; it might even cost you points. Last year, US News did a cover story on "America's Ten Worst Presidents," where they averaged the results of a number of scholarly polls. William Henry Harrison, who died a month after his inauguration, made the bottom 10.
Is it any wonder, then, that presidents, who walk the halls with the portraits of past greats, sometimes long for an enormous crisis in which to prove themselves? More than once, Bill Clinton worried that the placidity of the '90s might hurt his legacy. "It's hard," he complained in 1999, "when you're not threatened by a foreign enemy to whip people up to a fever pitch of common, intense, sustained, disciplined endeavor." According to historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., JFK, who had hired Schlesinger as an aide (perhaps to get a head start in the race for historians' favor) once observed that war "made it easier for a president to achieve greatness." Former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan says he'd heard Bush remark that, "only a wartime president is likely to achieve greatness…. In Iraq, Bush saw his opportunity to create a legacy of greatness."
But something's gone wrong when a president's worth is measured not by how much harm he avoided, but by how skillfully he capitalized on crises in order to spur revolutionary change. If presidents are too quick to embrace war, if they find themselves drawn toward sweeping theories of executive power and an exalted, quasi-religious view of their station, perhaps that's because the people who fill out their report cards reward such behavior.
That's something to consider as Barack Obama takes office amid an atmosphere of crisis at home and abroad. If history teaches us anything, it's that the Audacity of Hope can all too often lead to the Arrogance of Power.
Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Cato 2008).