Survey rates Clinton 15th-best president

C-SPAN: Reagan 9th, Obama 12th

WASHINGTON -- Hope native Bill Clinton was a better-than-average president, but not as good as the most recent Democratic commander-in-chief, according to a survey of historians and political scientists.

The 91 authors and academics who participated placed Clinton 15th out of the 43 ex-presidents. That's three spots behind Barack Obama and six steps behind Republican Ronald Reagan.

The third Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership was released Friday by C-SPAN.

The list of historians includes two University of Arkansas experts: history professor Randall Woods and Robert Maranto, who holds the 21st century chair in leadership in the department of education reform.

Clinton's spot in the presidential rankings was unchanged from 2009, the last time the survey was conducted. In 2000, Clinton placed 21st.

"He's sort of holding steady at 15 -- which is not a bad number," said Douglas Brinkley of Rice University. "That means you were a successful president."

A few slots higher and he would've been in the top tier, the history professor noted.

"The top 10," Brinkley said, "are the greats."

Abraham Lincoln led the list, as he did in previous years. George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt were next in line.

The leaders were judged based on 10 criteria: economic management, public persuasion, moral authority, administrative skills, crisis leadership, relations with Congress, international relations, vision/agenda-setting, commitment to equal justice for all Americans and "performance within [the] context of [the] times."

Obama got high marks for pursuing "equal justice for all," surpassing all but Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson. But he was ranked 39th for his "relations with Congress."

Clinton placed third in the economic management category, trailing only Washington and Lincoln.

But he ranked 38th in the moral authority category, surpassing only Richard Nixon and a handful of others.

Clinton fares best when it comes to pocketbook issues, historians said. Unemployment dropped during his administration and the stock market soared.

"People remember the peacetime economy and the balanced budget," said Robert Browning, a professor of political science and communication at Purdue University and director of the C-SPAN archives.

But they also recall Clinton's scandalous conduct.

"It's something that people will always remember," he added.

Clinton's overall rating doesn't surprise Maranto, one of the survey participants from Arkansas.

"I think that's reasonable. [There were] a lot of policy successes in the Clinton term. I think people look back on the '90s with a certain nostalgia," he said.

Absent the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the last-minute pardons of international fugitive Marc Rich, among others, Clinton likely would have scored higher, Maranto said.

Clinton's sexual relationship with an intern, which he had denied under oath, led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives and his subsequent disbarment. The last-minute pardon of Rich, the ex-husband of a major Democratic and Clinton presidential library donor, spawned a federal investigation; the case was closed without charges being filed.

Maranto said it's not easy to evaluate Clinton on the ex-president's home court.

"We're from Arkansas, right? If we don't know the Clintons personally, we know people who work with them. We know people who like them. So it's hard for us to be objective," he said.

Judging Obama is difficult because his presidency just ended; it's too early to determine whether some of his policies were successes or failures, Maranto said.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says the jury is still out on Clinton, 16 years after his presidency.

"We all enjoy these periodic surveys, but they capture a moment in time. Opinions about presidents are constantly evolving. Least reliable are the judgments about recent presidents, and that certainly includes Bill Clinton," Sabato said via email.

As the decades pass, researchers re-evaluate past leaders and revise their opinions.

In 1960, historians would've ranked Dwight Eisenhower's presidency as "mediocre at best," Sabato said. In the latest survey, he was deemed the fifth-best chief executive.

Browning also believes the numbers will continue shifting.

"It's still early for Bill Clinton," he said. "It takes awhile for people to really get their place in history."

Metro on 02/18/2017