Every year around Presidents' Day, various media outlets trot out rankings of all U.S. presidents done by such supposed experts as presidential scholars, political scientists, or historians. The results vary little from year to year and use the "big lie" technique of steady repetition to train the masses to accept the academic elite's opinions about what makes a president "great" or a failure.
As you can tell from my wording, I think the rankings are rubbish. Far from being scientific, the conventional rankings simply reflect the biases and preferences of the academic herd.
1) Presidents who won reelection are generally ranked high. This confuses popularity or political skill with actual accomplishment.
2) There is a bias in favor of "presidents who served during a time of war." That's silly. It shouldn't be a black mark against a president that Americans enjoyed the blessings of peace during his administration.
3) An ideological preference for activist presidents is prevalent. For example, William Henry Harrison is ranked near the bottom -- not because he did anything damaging, but simply because the poor guy died 32 days into his presidency before he could accomplish anything at all. The progressive bias in favor of Big Government activism is blatantly obvious in the 2012 Newsweek survey of 10 historians whose top four presidents since 1900 were progressive icons: Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Woodrow Wilson.
4) Some of the rankings are starkly partisan. Example: A year ago, U.S. News published "The 10 Worst Presidents." Upon opening the page, you see six portraits of presidents. All three 20th-century presidents pictured are Republicans -- Warren Harding (ranked the 20th-century's worst president), Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon. Not pictured, but also on the list was George W. Bush. The other six "worst" were 19th-century presidents who were incapable (as any mortal would have been) to harmonize the country in the decades before and after the Civil War. Notably, there wasn't a single post-1900 Democrat on the list of 10 worst. What are the odds of that happening in a genuinely bipartisan survey?
Against that backdrop, I'm going to make a case that will drive progressives insane: Warren Harding was a far better president than Franklin Roosevelt.
What does the conventional, establishment wisdom say about these two presidents?
This is a photograph of Franklin D. Roosevelt taken on Jan. 19, 1937. (AP Photo)
Here are two typical examples: Last year, the Brookings Institute published a 2014 survey of 162 members of the American Political Science Association's Presidents and Executive Politics section. FDR ranked third and Harding second-worst. Similarly, a composite of four rankings done by presidential scholars between 2008 and 2011 placed FDR second and Harding third from the bottom.
Obviously, I judge these presidents on a different grading scale. My sole criterion, one based on my perspective as an economist, is: Which of those two presidents adopted policies that brought more prosperity to the American people?
Both men took office at a time when the country was in depression, but their policy approaches were diametrically opposite. Harding believed strongly in free markets and minimal government intrusion into economic activity, while FDR (like the Republican Hoover who preceded him) believed that a weak economy needed more government spending (what would later come to be known as "stimulus").
Thus, Harding cut tax rates and slashed federal spending virtually in half from 1920 levels by 1923. He got the government out of the way to give markets a chance to adjust. The result was an amazingly quick turnaround from a collapsing economy (a 20 percent decline in production in 1920-21) to a booming economy (production soared 6 percent in the '20s).
Another indicator of this rapid recovery was the unemployment rate. It had more than doubled from 5.2 percent in 1920 to an average of 11.7 percent in 1921, but as Harding shrank government's footprint, the unemployed rate tumbled all the way to 2.4 percent in 1923.
In fact, according to economists Harold L. Cole and Lee E. Ohanian, "Total hours worked per adult, including government employees, were 18 percent below their 1929 levels between 1930-32 [i.e., the Great Depression's early stages when Hoover was president] but were 23 percent lower on average during the New Deal [1933-39]."
Warren Harding. File Photo.
As FDR's own Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau summarized the failed deficit spending of Hoover and Roosevelt in 1939, "We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work...we have just as much unemployment as when we started...and an enormous debt to boot!"
In short, Warren Harding brought a quick return to prosperity to Americans in his relatively brief time in office while millions suffered years of misery and hardship under Roosevelt's faulty policies.
(Those policies, according to Roosevelt "brain trust" intimates Rexford Tugwell and Raymond Moley, were continuations of Hoover's policies, so for "experts" to rate Hoover a failure, but FDR great, is absurd.)
Disgracefully, the U.S. News article's assessment of Harding has become the standard unthinking refrain, "He was an ineffectual and indecisive leader who played poker while his friends plundered the U.S. Treasury."
"Ineffectual"? That's a ridiculous characterization of the president who oversaw the strongest, most rapid economic recovery in the 20th century, if not in all of American history (although I will concede to my Reaganite friends that the Ronald Reagan recovery was longer lived -- but that is because another Herbert Hoover didn't come along in the '90s to spoil it).
"Indecisive"? A few months after taking office in the spring of 1921, Harding was unequivocal in expressing his distrust of Big Government: "There is not a menace in the world today like that of growing public indebtedness and mounting public expenditures," and he then acted decisively to cut federal spending almost in half. In fact, we haven't had a president since (and perhaps not before with the possible exception of Andrew Jackson) who acted more decisively to cut federal spending.
"Poker playing"? What a lame complaint compared to John F. Kennedy's starlets and Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky shenanigans. In fact, a Democratic reporter who shadowed Harding tallied an 84-hour workweek, so Harding was hardly the lazy bum his critics slander him as.
Corrupt? Since the anti-free market ideologues can't discredit Harding on an honest assessment of his economic policy success, they invoke the Teapot Dome scandal in which two crooks in Harding's cabinet got richer through self-dealing swindles. Harding, though, was innocent and unaware of this abuse of the public trust. He was not personally corrupt, whereas FDR was.
The latter intervened with the IRS to save one of his favorite congressmen from disgrace and disqualification -- a Texan named Lyndon Johnson. (See Burton Folsom's illuminating "New Deal or Raw Deal?") Far worse, FDR corrupted our entire political system and constitutional order by using his unprecedented peacetime spending to direct federal dollars to where they were most needed to "buy" votes than where the economic need was greatest.
Surely, if one cares about the welfare of real people, Warren Harding did much more for Americans than Franklin Roosevelt. In my book, that makes him a much greater president.
Mark Hendrickson is Fellow for Economic and Social Policy with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.
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