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Where They Stand: How Voters, Pollsters and Historians Judge Presidents

September 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The National Interest's Robert Merry argues presidencies rise and fall as voters judge presidents' performance. Merry decided to explore how voters' perceptions compared with those of historians. He joins Judy Woodruff to talk about his new book, "Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians."
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a new book compares how historians view presidents with how voters view them.

It comes from journalist Bob Merry, editor of “The National Interest” magazine. “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians” identifies the greats, near-greats, acknowledged failures, and those whose legacies have fluctuated.

I spoke with Bob Merry recently.

So, Bob Merry, very early in this book, you say you’re not a personal fan of the ups and downs of rating presidents, but you decided to write a book about that. Why?

ROBERT MERRY, author of “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians”: Well, I like the game.

And I think we rate first basemen and shortstops and great singers. And we rate our presidents. It’s inevitable, because we have got our history. And the presidency is at the fulcrum of American politics, which means that it’s at the fulcrum of American history.

So, the question is, who are these guys and how do they operate and how do we assess them? And how — which I think is what I bring to this decision — how did the American people asses them at the time? And that’s what I try to get in to, because I think that’s what’s fascinating.

 

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also say early on that you found the judgment of historians, of history, largely coincides with the views of voters, the electorate at the time these men held office. Why do you think that is?

 

ROBERT MERRY: Well, I think it’s because the voters are not foolish. And the historians understand that the voters know what they’re doing when they make these judgments every four years.

But I think that’s why President Obama’s statement which he made a year into his presidency that he would rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president doesn’t really make sense.

Because if you’re shooting for history, you need to go through the American voter in order to get that good judgment from history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also say I think toward the end of the book — you point out you think the president really does want to be elected to a second term. There’s no question about that.

ROBERT MERRY: I think we see that every day, don’t we?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the book really is a walk through history. And we don’t have time to go through all the categories, but tell us what the most successful presidents have had in common?

What do we see in them that we haven’t seen in the other presidents?

ROBERT MERRY: The presidents that I call the leaders of destiny are the presidents who are consistently ranked highly by the historians, the historian polls, the rating the president game.

Number two, they are two-term presidents succeeded by their own party or partial terms, meaning the electorate liked them at the time.

And, number three, they all set the country upon a new course. They changed the political landscape. And those presidents that I identify are Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, T.R., and FDR.

And I think that Reagan, who is not there in terms of the historical poll, but he’s there on the other two criteria, may get there as well eventually.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And at the other end of the spectrum, the presidents who didn’t make it, I mean, without going through that whole list, what is it that causes presidents not to make it? What causes them to stumble?

ROBERT MERRY: You know, these presidents are all amazing politicians. You don’t become president without being a great politician.

But this is a tough job. And this is going to crush people who don’t know how to grab hold of the levers of power and move them in the right direction.

James Buchanan, we will take that as a great example. I consider him to be our worst president.

James Buchanan was elected four years before Lincoln. The country was in crisis. It was in deadlock. And it needed a leader who could break that deadlock. And he proved not only incapable of doing it, but he wasn’t even very interested in trying to do it. And therein lay his failure. And he deserves to be down there as a result.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is it a matter of — the eternal question, a matter of the times or the man, or both?

ROBERT MERRY: Well, that’s a great question.

You can’t be a great — you can’t be a leader of destiny, as I describe it, and change the political landscape simply because you got elected president and willed to do it.

The country has to need that or want that. And not every president is elected in that time.

So, as de Gaulle said, a leader, a great statesman can not really be effective unless he knows the quality of his time. And the quality of your time — take Eisenhower as a great example. Eisenhower didn’t try to dismantle the New Deal. Many of his Republicans in that party wanted him to. But he knew better.

He knew that he still lived in the New Deal era even without Roosevelt. And, therefore, he wasn’t going to try to dismantle it or repeal it. And, so, he understood the tempo of his times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bob Merry, you and I were just talking about the polarized, politically polarized time that we’re living in now.

Is there something about today’s hyperpartisanship, do you think, that makes it harder to be a great leader, to be a great president, or has that always been the case in one way or another?

ROBERT MERRY: No, this is a very difficult time to be an effective president, because the country is in deadlock, not just in deadlock over normal issues, but over issues that get to the definition of our nation.

Now, when that happens, as it did in the 1850s, the country is — becomes very difficult to move.

And it takes a president like a Lincoln or like a Roosevelt or like a Jackson or a Jefferson who can actually do that. And whether we will get that president through this election is really very much an open question, it seems to me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if you’re a voter, Bob Merry, and you’re reading this book, listening to you right now, you’re looking at these two candidates this year, the incumbent, Barack Obama, the challenger, Mitt Romney, what test do you apply to them as you think about who would make a good president to bring us through this difficult time?

ROBERT MERRY: Well, I say in this book that I believe that presidential elections are largely referendums on the incumbent or the incumbent party.

And, therefore, I think the voters are going to ask the question that Ronald Reagan put so succinctly and so brilliantly: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

Or maybe even better, Judy, is the country better off than it was four years ago?

And they will ask that question, as they always do in these referendum elections. And they will come up with their answer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You know, on that point, Bob, you call for the candidates to campaign with an eye to governing, to think ahead to what it’s going to be like if they’re elected, if they’re serving.

Are they doing that in this election, in this campaign?

ROBERT MERRY: No, I don’t think they’re doing that.

If you believe, as I do — and others may not — that these elections are referendums, then it means that the incumbent needs to run on his record. And the effort to dismantle and destroy the image and the standing of his opponent, that doesn’t really make a lot of sense.

And it’s harmful actually in terms of how he’s going to bring the country together once he’s reelected, if he isn’t — if he is reelected.

In the case of the challenger, he needs to — if you take my thesis, what he says isn’t going to make a huge amount of difference, because it’s the record of the incumbent that is going to be the answer to the question of who wins.

But if he wins, he’s going to have to govern. And that means he’s going to have to have a mandate. And he can’t have a mandate if he’s just giving squishy, soft answers to questions that are facing the country.

That’s why I think that the selection of Paul Ryan is probably healthy in regard of sharply delineating the issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because the choice is clearer…

ROBERT MERRY: Correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … is what you’re saying.

Bob Merry. The book is “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.”

Thank you very much for talking with us.

ROBERT MERRY: Thank you, Judy. Enjoyed it much.