The late historian Stephen Ambrose, biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower, argued in his book "Eisenhower: Soldier and President," that an author's partisanship distorts the attempt to rate the effects of presidential decisions. A "more fruitful" way to judge a president, Mr. Ambrose wrote, is to assess "how well he did in achieving the tasks and goals he set for himself at the time he took office."
Such valueless judgments are the opposite of how historians should judge our presidents. By Ambrose's standard, any president with the skill – or the favorable conditions – to get his programs enacted could be labeled a good or great chief executive, even if the programs hurt the country. Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush would all rank high in such a system, because they were all reasonably effective in getting (misguided) policies implemented.
But consider the cost of that effectiveness: Wilson's policies arguably helped foment World War II, and they certainly led to bigger and more aggressive government. Johnson's policies helped create welfare dependency as an American way of life. And Bush's policies both dragged us into an unnecessary war in Iraq and, with the addition of Medicare's prescription drug benefit, provided for the greatest expansion of government in recent history. All three were effective; all three were wrong.
Presidents also are frequently evaluated on how they respond to crises – rather than whether they could have prevented them. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt are consistently ranked among America's greatest presidents. All three served during periods of great turmoil: the Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression/World War II.