01 February 2013

A Comprehensive Ranking of the (Luck & Efficacy of the) Last 7 Elected Presidents

I've compiled a table that rather comprehensively measures the sum of presidential luck and efficacy. (You get to decide just how those two are mixed.) It ranks presidential performance for the first term of presidents from Nixon to Obama, who just finished his first term.

This seems to me a fairly comprehensive measure. It includes net new wars, changes in murder rates, GDP growth, changes in unemployment rates, changes in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and end of term approval ratings.  By this ranking, Clinton and Reagan dominate but Obama and HW Bush do surprisingly well. (I'll leave the reader to decide if Obama is to Clinton what HW Bush was to Reagan. Personally, I think that's a loaded comparison unlikely to leave anyone particularly happy.)

I didn't just capture presidential performance. I scaled it against all the other presidents' performance in their first term. For instance, Reagan's approval rating in February after his re-election was 60%, which was 11% better than average. So, in the approval rating column he got a 111%. Murder rates went down about 2.4% during the average first term so Obama's drop of 4% in the murder rate got him a score of 166% (66% better than average). I wanted all the numbers on the same scale (although obviously numbers with wider swings give presidents more opportunity for piling on points).

Some numbers we want to go up (like GDP growth and changes in the Dow) and some we want to go down (like murder rates, unemployment rates, and net new wars).  The total tallies the negatives and the positives into a comprehensive score, using absolute values for all.

I'm sure that others could do better but this is a pretty telling table even without the sum of positive effects column. One fascinating thing is that while approval ratings tend to determine whether you get re-elected, this comprehensive score seems to better forecast legacy. Clinton and Reagan are easily the most popular modern presidents. George W Bush and Nixon are not popular in spite of being re-elected (Nixon by a landslide). Nixon's score was killed by the sharp rise in murder and unemployment rates and fairly anemic stock market performance. He may not have fared well in the history books even without Watergate.

Perhaps we'll never know whether these presidents were all more like fleas made to feel  frightened or triumphant by the behavior of the elephant they were riding or were mahouts (elephant jockeys) able to actually influence the speed and direction of this unwieldy mass we call America. I do believe that while presidents have only a small amount of influence it is still more than any other person in the country. Further, I think that the choice of a president reflects something about the mood and direction of the country, a preference for policies that do have a very big influence on outcomes. A country that chooses a Reagan is expressing very different intentions than one that chooses an FDR or Carter. Presidents may not make a big difference but they do reveal moods and a direction that can lead the country to very different places.

Finally, while I don't believe in grades, I'll nonetheless translate the table into the following grades:
Clinton, A
Reagan, B
Obama, C
HW Bush, C
Carter, D
W Bush, F
Nixon, F

[A note about this comprehensive measurement. I'm happier with this table now that the numbers are scaled but am still open to suggestions about how to improve or what more to include.]


Anonymous said...

How are you calculating over 1 million jobs created during Obama? There are over 8 million less people working today than there were during Bush. You cannot reference the unemployment

Cal said...

Hmm, i like your approach. But as much as I do not like W, I think you are over weighting the wars. This makes your table become a mostly a measure of wars started/ended. Also, all wars are not created equal. I would suggest weighting wars by their impact on the debt, or cost relative to GDP, or maybe something reflecting the number of US casualties. Still some what flawed (eg, Afghanistan and Iraq are not equally defensible), but probably a more credible measure?

Ron Davison said...

Anon - not sure where you get your numbers to find the ones that I used, look at bls.gov.
Cal - I think that you're right. It does become hugely weighted by wars with this measure. I still like the idea of net wars started (because almost inevitably that impacts fatalities, debt, etc) but you are right that a air support for a town in Libya is not the same as a decade plus occupation of Iraq. (Blogger scratches head, walks away still unsure how to do this ...)