Evaluating Presidents (and Other Leaders)


I made a quick trip to Plains GA in February 2017 to hear President Jimmy Carter teach his Sunday school class. That motivated me to think about how I evaluate presidents (and other leaders).


As I study presidents, and other leaders, I find myself evaluating them in three categories:

character, vision, and effectiveness. To do this is necessarily subjective. There is no way to do purely objective analyses of these categories. Even when quantifiable numbers can be used, such as in the rate of inflation or unemployment, there are other factors in play, such as what happened in the years immediately before that leader’s tenure and what happened that had nothing to do with the leader. In terms of character we largely rely on what we read about the leaders, since we, except in rare circumstances, did not or do not personally know the leader and have access to his or her inner life. Thus, we do well to read from several sources, making our evaluations on the access and biases those sources had or have. Vision is, perhaps, the area in which it is easiest to make evaluations, though it may be the most subjective. We tend to evaluate a leader’s vision in terms of how it fits with our own sense of vision.


Confession: since we have had only men serving at presidents of our country (a situation I hope will change in my lifetime), I mainly will be referring to men. Insofar as I do that, it is my blind spot. American history is filled with outstanding women leaders, such as Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Barbara Jordan, Pat Summit, Dorothy Day, Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Billie Jean King, Oprah Winfrey, Sandra Day O’Connor, Hillary Clinton, Nikki Haley, and Eleanor Roosevelt, naming just a few. Women are leading at high levels of business, medicine, and science as never before. The number of women serving in congress keeps growing. Yet we still have not had a woman serving as president.


Second confession: the first president I vividly remember is Kennedy, so my first-hand observations are from Kennedy to Trump.


  1. Character. This is not just personal morality, though that usually plays in the equation. It has to do with a sense of the integrity of the person, which is how the parts of that person fit together. A good number of our presidents, though I can’t say for certain how many, have had extra marital affairs, some while in office. In Kennedy’s time and before the press didn’t report on these affairs; there was a different code than by Clinton’s time when the press reported widely on his sexual behavior, both before and during his presidency. It would have been interesting, had Kennedy’s life not been tragically cut short, to see if that code would have changed in his presidency, had he been re-elected and served two full terms. I don’t know just when the code changed, but media reporting is different now.


That many presidents have had extra martial affairs disappoints me, but it is not the only criterion we have for evaluating character.


Among other values, I look for humility, decency, and honesty. Humility doesn’t mean weakness. It can’t be an acted out to show the person’s humility; trying to look humble is the embodiment of pride. Humility is a genuine recognition of one’s human flaws and limitations. President Washington set the model in his farewell address, and then by insisting that he be treated like an ordinary citizen in his post-presidency. President Ford modeled this when he was thrust into office because of Nixon’s resignation. His most memorable statement of it was, “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln. My addresses will never be as eloquent as Mr. Lincoln’s. But I will do my very best to equal his brevity and his plain speaking.”



Decency is not easy to define in this context. It has to do with interest in the other person, with sympathy for those suffering, with a sense of fairness for all and a commitment to it, especially those for whom life is more difficult and challenging. Decency is about humanity. It was evident when President Obama visited the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston and led the congregation in singing “Amazing Grace.” It was evident when Obama wept with the parents of the 20 young schoolchildren killed in Newtown CT. It was evident when President George W. Bush visited the site where the twin towers stood, the national wound still fresh as smoke billowed from the carnage, and greeted the workers struggling to find the remains of those unaccounted for. It was evident when President Reagan spoke to the nation right after the Challenger tragedy.


We never get total honesty from a president. The nature of the office means that the occupant of it cannot tell us everything and sometimes must intentionally mislead us for security and strategic purposes. Still, we look not to be misled by our national leader. We look for a president to speak accurately with the available facts. When President Nixon, under fire for the White House cover-up following the Watergate break-in, said, “your president is not a crook,” it rang hollow. Not long after that he resigned the office in shame, though he was a brilliant political tactician with comprehensive global knowledge. When Trump boasts of the largest audience ever to see a president inaugurated, and refuses to retract the boast when photos make clear his error, his credibility, that is, his believability, is undermined. When, now in his second year as president, he continues this pattern (claiming his first state of the union address had the largest audience in history, when it ranked 9th of such addresses since 1993), his believability if undermined.


It is disheartening to know now that a series of our presidents—including Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon—regularly lied to us about our involvement in Vietnam, assuring us over and over that the war was winnable by our troops, when they knew it was not winnable and lied repeatedly as over 50,000 of our armed forces were killed there.


  1. Vision. In electing presidents, we usually look for the articulation of vision that lines up with our own vision. Vision can too readily be equated with the oratorical skills of the leader. While compelling speaking skills command attention, they alone do not constitute vision and something they mask a lack of vision. A charismatic speaker may end up saying very little of substance and still rally and rouse enthusiastic crowds.


In my lifetime I think the two most effective presidential orators were John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, and they could hardly be more different in personal style and political philosophy. But both could turn a phrase and make memorable moments. Barack Obama could employ soaring rhetoric in the black preaching tradition, but often came through as more professorial. George W. Bush was known for his imprecise syntax. Lyndon Johnson could put his listeners asleep, even when articulating grand visions.


To put things more simply than they really are, Kennedy inspired a new generation to public service, Reagan resonated with middle America in his optimistic vision, Obama may have been at his best in responding to national acts of violence, Bush 43 brought us through the tragedy of 9/11, and Johnson worked with Congress to enact two of the greatest pieces of progressive legislation in our history: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Some of these presidents were great speakers and some were not, but they pressed their visions for our country upon us with some effect.


III. Effectiveness. This might seem the easiest of the three categories to measure, but it is far from easy, in part for the cautions I already stated. Numbers and statistics can be made to say almost anything. In the Olympics my favorite events are those not dependent on a panel of judges, though some of those events are among the most beautiful and demanding. In terms of awarding the winning medals I prefer events where the winner is the one who crosses the finish line first or throws the farthest or hits the target most often.


When these categories are considered there must be acknowledged that we are not unbiased in most cases. For example, I admire Jimmy Carter so deeply and in so many ways that I am hardly impartial. I want to give him every benefit of the doubt and shade every analysis and interpretation in his favor. On the other hand I did not like Ronald Reagan in the same way and, while I acknowledge some of his accomplishments as being extraordinary, I am not prone to give him the benefit of every doubt and the best shading in every interpretation. That is simply so for all of us. Admitting it will help us to appreciate our blind spots and perhaps appreciate the insights of others observers that see things in different ways than we do.


In Lincoln’s presidency, with the unprecedented challenge of a number of states seceding from the union and forming another government even as he was preparing to take office, he held unswervingly to two seemingly irreconcilable commitments: to end of the shameful practice of human slavery in our country once and for all and to keep the union together, including the states in rebellion. Though it took a war of great cost and loss of life, his vision was achieved, even if imperfectly.


In my critical grid I award up to five points for each category; hence, the highest rating I can give is 15 points. I give that rating to two leaders readily: President Abraham Lincoln and UCLA men’s basketball coach Johnny Wooden. With time I will have others in that highest rating, but not many. Anyone getting 12-14 points will be doing well. For example, I give Jimmy Carter five points for both character and vision, but just two points for effectiveness (had he been elected to a second term his effectiveness would likely have been higher). I don’t give Reagan as high a rating in character, but I give him the highest rating in effectiveness. I am still pondering how I evaluate his vision. I give JFK a lower rating for character, largely for his reckless sexual behavior, but I give him high marks for vision and for effectiveness, noting how much he accomplished in not quite three years (his handling of the Cuban missile crisis, the development of the Peace Corps, the vision for the Apollo space mission to the moon, and the early stirrings of the civil rights movement resonating with the White House).


Whenever I see good leadership, I delight in it, at whatever level of life. How do you evaluate leadership, presidential and otherwise?

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