(Bloomberg View) -- With Washington's Birthday coming up -- whether you call it Presidents Day or any variation of that, that's what it is -- a new poll asks Americans what they think of modern presidents (except for Harry Truman, who I guess has passed out of recent memory). The results aren't surprising, but they do show some large gaps between what the public thinks and what scholars think.
John F. Kennedy is at the top of the public's list, and most experts continue to believe he's overrated. He ranked 14th overall in a survey of 2015 political scientists who are presidency scholars, and fifth among the presidents from Dwight Eisenhower through George W. Bush, although Kennedy did better among a 2017 C-SPAN survey of historians and presidential biographers. (If I recall correctly, I was one of the respondents to the 2015 survey.)
The president who the public underrates the most? Ike. He's in seventh place in the new poll, but both political scientists and historians consider him the best of this group. So why is Kennedy so well-loved and Eisenhower ignored and, perhaps, forgotten?
There are a lot of theories. Some think there's a generational effect as the baby boomers didn't really remember Eisenhower but did remember Kennedy; some think that Kennedy's assassination gave him an aura of greatness; some credit Kennedy's good looks (enhanced, perhaps, by the fact that we have far more color footage of JFK while Ike is invariably seen in black and white). There's also the undeniable fact that Kennedy's family and supporters deliberately campaigned for his reputation after he died.
But I think a big part of it is party-based. Neither one has a large party gap in the Center for Politics survey. Republicans like Kennedy -- he has by far the best other-party score of any of these presidents, and his score among Republicans is higher than the overall scores of everyone but himself and Ronald Reagan. On the other hand, Republicans don't like Eisenhower very much; he scores lower than either Bush, far lower than Reagan and Donald Trump, and only a bit better than Gerald Ford. Oddly enough, I suspect Kennedy winds up getting more points as a Cold Warrior than Eisenhower, despite the fact that Ike successfully managed the competition with the Soviet Union for eight years while Kennedy had a far more rocky time of it in a shorter tenure.
Essentially, modern Republicans have run the relatively moderate (but highly successful) Ike out of their party, and substituted in Kennedy instead. I'd be interested in the extent to which that's an elite or a mass phenomenon, but it's probably some of both. At any rate, it's too bad. Dwight Eisenhower deserves a far more robust reputation among the general public than he currently holds, with his accomplishments outside the presidency far more impressive than any other 20th-century president. Plus, he was a first-rate president.
Republicans today surely have serious objections to many of Eisenhower's decisions in office, but they should reclaim him -- and, if they were smart, they would think about ways that a much more conservative party today could emulate some of Ike's best qualities, regardless of how they feel about his policy legacy.
1. Dave Hopkins on Trump and the rest of the Republicans pushing each other to be even more conservative.
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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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