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From Van Buren to Bush, a better way to rank US presidents

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Indeed, Carter, who is underrated as president, reduced government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) faster than any other modern president, began deregulation of many industries, and nominated Paul Volcker to serve as Federal Reserve chairman. He was The main architect of the "tight money" policies that helped trigger the Reagan and Clinton booms.

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.

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