Corporate leaders in the United States often draw leadership lessons — good and bad — from the examples set by American presidents. But in looking to the White House, it’s important to recognize that history’s take on presidential performance is subject to change, according to presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, who spoke at a recent Wharton Leadership Conference. He offered 10 rules for presidential evaluations that stand the test of time.

For example, he said, Dwight D. Eisenhower was considered something of a do-nothing president, ranking below Chester A. Arthur, during the dynamic Camelot era of John F. Kennedy. In contrast to the PR-driven Kennedy, Eisenhower used to say, “The job of the president is to persuade, not to publicize.” Indeed, the Supreme Commander of the Normandy invasion was so subtle and self-effacing as president that historians judged him mediocre.

Nearly 50 years after Eisenhower left office, however, scholars are revising their opinions. His presidential papers revealed a skilled political operator who worked quietly behind the scenes, but was driven by policy, organization and intellectual rigor. Despite pressure to rescue the French, he kept the U.S. out of Vietnam in 1954, reasoning with prescience that the cost of war in Southeast Asia would far outweigh any strategic benefits.

“There is no single rule for assessing presidential performance” said Smith, who addressed the recent 13th Annual Wharton Leadership Conference, co-sponsored by the Center for Human Resources and the Center for Leadership & Change Management. “Eisenhower illustrates better than anyone the need for each generation to revisit its assumptions” in light of new evidence, the performance of succeeding presidents and the perspective that comes with time.

“Americans have been revising their estimates of presidents for as long as we have had presidents,” said Smith, who has published biographies of Thomas E. Dewey, Herbert Hoover and George Washington, and is the presidential scholar in residence at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. People forget that the revered Washington “was in fact an enormously controversial president” who was burned in effigy and denounced as a “betrayer of the Revolution” while he was in office.

Bouts of historical revisionism and counter-revisionism explain why assessments of the nation’s leaders “bounce around like corn in a popper,” Smith said. For example, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the Kennedy and Nixon historian, favored “transformative” presidencies with charismatic leaders promoting a more powerful federal government, exemplified by Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt. A more nuanced approach, evaluating leaders in the context of their time rather than in hindsight, has kindled reappraisals of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and even Calvin Coolidge — all of whom tended to be underrated because they were modest advocates for a more limited role for government.

“The presidents who promise freedom from government” — Thomas Jefferson, Coolidge and Reagan — “are as legitimate in their own time and place as the presidents who, in effect, promise freedom through government” — the Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson, Smith said. “You can take a Coolidge seriously now, something you couldn’t do before Ronald Reagan.” 

10 Rules to Judge a President

Smith offered his personal list of “10 rules to judge a president” as a more objective approach avoiding the distorting effects of changing societal values, such as the pro-government activism of the New Deal and the 1960s:

1) History rewards the risk-takers. The list of presidents and the bold initiatives that pushed them up in the rankings are obvious, including Thomas Jefferson (the Louisiana Purchase), Harry Truman (stopping Communist aggression in Korea), Lyndon Johnson (Civil Rights Act of 1964), and Richard Nixon (dialogue with Red China).

But risk taking does not always conform to our notion of a “swashbuckling, agenda-setting executive” that began with Teddy Roosevelt 100 years ago. “Sometimes, doing nothing is the most difficult form of leadership of all,” Smith said. He cited George H.W. Bush’s diplomatic refusal, despite strong pressure, to attend “the photo opp of the century,” the destruction of the Berlin Wall that symbolized Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

“By not rubbing Mikhail Gorbachev’s nose in the humiliation of the demise of the Soviet empire, he made it possible for Gorbachev to go along with a peaceful integration of Germany and for the Soviet Union to support Bush’s coalition in the First Gulf War,” Smith said, noting that few would have predicted Soviet acquiescence to these American initiatives.

2) A president who actively campaigns for his historical place is engaged in a self-defeating exercise. Warren G. Harding hoped to be “the best loved” president and came to office in a landslide victory after promising a “Return to Normalcy” following World War I. In the end, Harding couldn’t extricate his administration from the Teapot Dome bribery scandal and quickly fell into obscurity, widely ranked among the worst presidents.

Smith said he found it “profoundly disturbing” that Bill Clinton pondered his legacy aloud with former advisor Dick Morris, who later wrote a memoir that included critical observations of the former president. According to Morris’s book, Clinton wondered if the fact that he had not led the nation during a time of war would diminish his ranking among the presidents. Surprisingly, “Clinton’s reputation and the significance of his presidency have risen significantly,” Smith said. “Clinton’s presidency is being weighed, as each president is ultimately, against his successors” — in this case, against George W. Bush’s record of war, deficit and economic crisis.

Clinton’s most important legacy may be his success in “moving the Democratic Party to the middle of the road to a point where it had fiscal credibility and a muscular foreign policy, without surrendering its fundamental social justice principles,” Smith said.

3) There is no single theory of presidential success. Proponents of the “strong presidency” as a prerequisite for greatness often cite Teddy Roosevelt’s concept of stewardship: “The president was free to do anything he wanted that was not expressly forbidden by the Constitution,” Smith said. He offered an alternative theory valuing presidents who viewed stewardship as protecting taxpayers and who did not seek power by expanding government — a theory underlying reappraisals of Coolidge, Truman and Ford.

Derided as “silent Cal” (Dorothy Parker, when informed of his death in 1933, famously asked: “How could they tell?”), Coolidge deserves reappraisal “for his authenticity as much for his ideology,” Smith said. An introvert who battled with “paralyzing shyness,” Coolidge’s “reticence was matched by his canniness…. He created a public persona that held the world at bay while allowing him to indulge in a humor as sharp as Vermont cheddar.” Coolidge’s honesty and lack of an overpowering ego should be all the more valued in an age “when so much of our public life is riddled by fakery, when candidates without ideas hire consultants without scruples,” Smith said. “For lack of a better word, I would say that Coolidge was grounded,” exhibiting a strength of character that he said Truman, Ford and Reagan also possessed.

4) Presidents can only be understood within the context, conventions and limitations of their time. Invariably ranked among the greatest presidents, the populist Andrew Jackson fell from grace during the time period when historians realized that millions of Americans — women, blacks and Native Americans — had been politically or economically marginalized. Social activism led to a revisionist view that “changed the lens through which we viewed Jacksonian America.” Smith argues for a more objective approach in dealing with the past, “to understand someone in the context of their own time and not make the mistake of applying our conventions to an earlier time.” Those who judge presidents do not have license to simply dismiss earlier generations; instead, “the obligation is ours to try to understand them.”   

5) If presidents are governed by any law beyond the Constitution, it is the law of unintended consequences. Although Woodrow Wilson wanted to be the father of the “new freedom,” his idealistic vision was overtaken by the massive increase in government regulation and spending required by World War I. “In his second term, events beyond his control overwhelmed him. Foreign war, domestic upheaval, shameful outbreaks of racial and ethnic intolerance mocked his idealism and reordered his priorities,” Smith said.

6) Presidential power, although awesome on paper, is based largely on moral authority. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan understood how to use moral authority to achieve their objectives, although their goals were diametrically opposed. Broadcasting fireside chats to generate hope through the New Deal, Roosevelt banked “emotional credit and credibility” that he used throughout his presidency to win support for creating the modern social welfare state. Similarly, Reagan gained enormous influence through his response to the assassination attempt in 1981. “His legend began when millions saw a side of Reagan they never knew existed — the jokes that he cracked [and] the grace that he displayed,” Smith said.

7) The president requires a talent for making useful enemies. History’s most admired presidencies were often locked in struggles with adversaries who gave them power. “Roosevelt and Reagan had a genius for exploiting their opponents, whether European dictators in the 1930s or the Evil Empire that haunted [Reagan],” Smith said.

8) Every great president marches to the beat of his own drummer. Reagan personified the principle that great leaders “are essentially mysterious figures,” with capabilities not fully understood. Reagan’s national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, remarked: “He knows so little and accomplishes so much.”

9) The challenge posed by any crisis is equaled by the opportunity for leaders to forge an emotional bond with the people they lead to gain moral authority and expanded powers. Franklin Roosevelt, having rescued democratic capitalism, “was all but immune from” right-wing attacks accusing him of Stalinesque power abuses. Lincoln was called an “incipient dictator” for suspending habeas corpus barring unlawful detention, but Americans never doubted his belief that he had to suspend one clause in order to save the rest of the Constitution.

10) Greatness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Social and economic conservatism had their heyday under Reagan, demonstrated when Clinton declared the era of big government was over and produced balanced budgets. But the Reagan consensus that “markets were sacred” and “Wall Street invariably knew better than government regulators” has been repudiated, “at least provisionally,” by the financial crisis that led to Democratic sweeps of Congress and the presidency. “All of that is up for grabs,” Smith said, although it’s too soon to predict what will replace “the age of Reagan.”

How will historians rank George W. Bush? Much will depend on what happens in the Middle East, where two unresolved wars continue to weigh on his legacy. “If 30 years from now there is some semblance of stability and democracy, then deservedly or not,” historians may take a very different view of the Bush presidency, Smith noted. Still, he doubted that Bush’s reputation would undergo the dramatic reappraisal that has benefited Eisenhower. “I don’t know whether, when we look at the Bush papers, we’ll discover the same surprising wisdom, sophistication and concealed gifts that we now associate with Eisenhower.”