Obama’s Place in History

President Obama delivers his second inaugural address.

Photo: Pablo Martinez/AP

This is only the first week of Barack Obama’s second term, but it’s never too early to contemplate a president’s place in history. Statistician and champion election predictor Nate Silver does just that in his latest FiveThirtyEight post titled Contemplating Obama’s Place in History, Statistically.

Mr. Obama ran for and won a second term, something only about half of the men to serve as president have done (the tally is 20 or 21 out of 43, depending on how you count Grover Cleveland). We can also note, however, that Mr. Obama’s re-election margin was relatively narrow. Do these simple facts provide any insight at all into how he might be regarded 20, 50 or 100 years from now?

In fact, winning a second term is something of a prerequisite for presidential greatness, at least as historians have evaluated the question. It is also no guarantee of it, as the case of Richard M. Nixon might attest. But the eight presidents who are currently regarded most favorably by historians were all two-termers (or four-termers, in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s case).

Silver goes on to compare historical rankings of re-elected presidents to those defeated in their bid for re-election. As expected the re-elected presidents rate better overall, with thirteen rated at least good compared with six rated fair to poor. In contrast, only one defeated incumbent, John Adams, ranks notably above average.

The worst presidents, though, are found among those that for one reason or another did not run for re-election. This group includes, perhaps unfairly, those who died while in their first term in office. Of these, only JFK ranks in the top ten, and Silver grants that this is probably due in part to a sense of unfulfilled promise.

He then goes on to rate re-elected presidents by electoral vote share and shows that the higher rated presidents tend to win by larger landslides with rare exception (Nixon). Due to Obama’s relatively small margin in comparison to this more rarefied company, Silver predicts his historical ranking to land around 17th overall, between good and average.

This is a good analysis, but it misses one important statistic, a measure even rarer than a successful second term that has only been achieved by four presidents in the last one hundred years. An accomplishment I talked about in the wake of the President’s reelection.

Obama is the first Democratic presidential candidate to win a majority twice since FDR. He’s the first candidate of either party to accomplish this feat since Ronald Reagan, and one of only four total in the last one hundred years. Here are the numbers from Wikipedia:

  • 1932 FDR (D): 57.4%, Hoover (R): 39.7%
  • 1936 FDR (D): 60.8%, Landon (R): 36.5%
  • 1940 FDR (D): 54.7%, Wilkie (R): 44.8%
  • 1944 FDR (D): 53.4%, Dewey (R): 45.9%
  • 1952 Eisenhower (R): 55.2%  Stevenson (D): 44.3%
  • 1956 Eisenhower (R): 57.4%, Stevenson (D): 42%
  • 1980 Reagan (R): 50.7%, Carter (D): 41%, Anderson (I): 6.6%
  • 1984 Reagan (R): 58.8%, Mondale (D): 40.6%
  • 2008 Obama (D): 52.9%, McCain (R): 49.7%
  • 2012 Obama (D): 50.4%, Romney (R): 48.1% (count in progress)

FDR, Eisenhower, Reagan, and Obama. In the last 100 years, that’s it.

(NOTE: The final count for the 2012 election was Obama: 51.1%, Romney: 47.2%)

So how do these presidents rank?

  • FDR: 2
  • Eisenhower: 8
  • Reagan: 10
  • Obama: TBD

The last three, prior to Obama, are all in the top ten. This is a far smaller and more exclusive club, and I wish Silver had included this statistic in his analysis. But, of course, we need to look at all the presidents who’ve won at least two popular vote majorities to get a complete picture.

  • FDR: 2
  • Washington: 3
  • Jefferson: 5
  • Eisenhower: 8
  • Reagan: 10
  • Jackson: 13
  • Monroe: 14
  • Madison: 15
  • McKinley: 19
  • Grant: 23

I regret that I don’t possess the statistical chops to create a regression like Silver did with his data. His prediction of 17th fits in this range, but feels a bit low to me. Given that a lot has been made lately of Obama being the “liberal Reagan,” I could see him landing around the middle of this list, maybe displacing Reagan and cracking the top ten, or maybe falling just short and bumping Polk (11th) or LBJ (12th).

Of course all of these numbers are subject to change as a greater historical distance tends to yield a more accurate assessment. Eisenhower used to be viewed as mediocre, Reagan is still somewhat divisive even with the passage of time, and of course Obama still has his whole second term to cement his legacy. But no matter what, given how polarizing a figure our president is, decades will pass before we can have a real perspective on his place in history.

So perhaps it’s too early after all.

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