Ranking presidents on the economy

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How do you judge a president? Some say leadership during war is the ultimate test. Others believe the president’s ability to pass key legislation matters most.

But for many Americans, the ultimate measure of a president is his or her ability to lead the nation to economic prosperity.

Mark Zachary Taylor, assistant professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, has looked closely at the economic performance of every president from 1789 to 2009. He says the best performers share certain key characteristics.

Could you explain why your study is different from the other presidential ranking systems?

First, purely economic rankings are rare. Instead, the most widely reported presidential rankings involve surveys of dozens or hundreds of scholars in which economic performance is only one of many criteria aggregated together into a single score.

Second, in the few studies that separate out economic scores, performance is often judged qualitatively rather than analyzing statistical data in a methodologically robust manner.

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Finally, the few data-based economic rankings that have been published are either limited to only the post-World War II presidents, are generated by think tanks that advance particular schools of political-economic thought, or are compiled by hobbyists and nonscholars.

In a nutshell, could you explain the methodology used to gather the data for your study?

I assign grades to each indicator, then calculate “grade-point averages.” In calculating the grades and GPAs, each of the economic indicators is weighted equally and graded in an intuitive manner, (where) better economic results earn higher grades.

Also, it is not clear precisely when a new president becomes responsible for the behavior of the macroeconomy. Since there is no consensus as to how long of a “honeymoon” should be granted, the ranking exercise was calculated separately for honeymoons of zero, one and two years.

What criteria did you grade the presidents on?

The GPAs were compiled using data on the economic indicators most often used by mainstream Western economists and the media to judge macroeconomic performance. Base measures score change in real per-capita GDP (gross domestic product), as well as changes to the internal balance (change in inflation rate, change in unemployment rate) and the average external balance (average trade balance as percent of GDP, average budget surplus as percent of GDP) during each administration.

Secondary measures track percentage change in (the) Dow Jones industrial average, change in interest rates, percentage change in the U.S. dollar price of the British pound and change in the share of national income received by the wealthiest 5 percent.

What are some of the correlations you found between the characteristics of presidents and their economic performance?

The correlations suggest that above-average economic performance is enjoyed by presidents who:

  • Belong to pro-business political parties.
  • Work with a Congress in which only one house is dominated by the same party as the president.
  • Serve during wartime.
  • Were raised in middle-class environments.

Interestingly, presidential intelligence and open-mindedness may count only at the extremes. The top 10 most “intellectually brilliant” or mentally “open” presidents scored on average a substantially higher economic GPA than the bottom 10, but there was no significant correlation overall.

Conversely, presidents with below-average economic performance often:

  • Belonged to parties that are relatively pro-farmer, pro-labor or pro-consumer.
  • Entered a homogenous federal government in which one congressional house flipped parties — especially Republican administrations that lost a house of Congress.
  • Were raised in relatively lower-class environments.

Finally, some low correlations were also of interest. There were no substantive correlations between presidential economic performance and:

  • Pre-political career. Lawyers, military men and farmers all averaged roughly the same.
  • Birth order.
  • Historical greatness, as judged by surveys of scholars.
  • Mainstream versus dark-horse presidents — but those with fewer than two years or more than 20 years in (Washington) D.C. had lower-than-average performance.

Ultimately, what can be concluded from your study?

The economic rankings reported are not intended to create the impossible — for example, a perfectly unbiased and error-free ranking of the presidents. Rather, the objective here is to eliminate bias and statistical error where possible, and to be transparent about that which might remain.

If one goal of science is to advance empirical measures through experimentation, then the data-based rankings above are meant seriously as a step in this evolution. More importantly, we should not err in letting the perfect (or near perfect) be the enemy of the good, which these rankings can do, which is to provoke constructive debate over presidential performance and responsibility.

For example, these rankings highlight the fact that even nonpartisan, nonideological decisions about scope and historical context have a subjective component, which can affect performance metrics. That is, economic performance is the product of a multitude of forces and actors. The effects of some of these variables may not be realized for decades. Therefore, any ultimate judgment on an individual president will depend on the judge’s scope conditions.

Thus, it is important for rankings, and their advocates, to be clear about their subjective aspects rather than advance the pretense of objectivity. Since such naive candidness will likely be infrequent, it is imperative that scholars enter this debate so as to identify and publicize the nonscientific or biased aspects of agenda-driven rankings. The rankings presented in my study demonstrate one way to approach the problems of responsibility, subjectivity, time, et cetera. Readers are encouraged to dig deeper into history, gather data, try their own rankings, and perhaps use them to think more deeply about how they view — and vote for — the president.

Put simply, the message of this article is that, if “It’s the economy, stupid,” then we need to make stronger efforts to properly judge economic performance, and to assign credit and blame where they are most deserved. These rankings are meant to constitute a scientific step in this direction.

We would like to thank Mark Zachary Taylor, assistant professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, for his insights.

Click here to see which presidents ranked highest and the lowest.