The Right Way to Measure Presidential Success

The only valid, sensible way to judge a president involves an evaluation of whether the nation thrived or suffered under his leadership.

In place of our current obsession with charisma, eloquence and flair, we need a new focus on practical results: asking only whether a given leader left office with a stronger, more prosperous America than the country he inherited.

Presidents Day provides the ideal opportunity for new historical perspective on our longstanding failure to apply this principle.

For instance, we generally dismiss the furry-faced chief executives who presided over the magnificent years of the late 19th century, when the United States rapidly overcame the devastation of the "war between the states" and became the world's leading economic and military power.

Between 1870 and 1900, the population of the country more than doubled while the gross domestic product more than quadrupled, producing an altogether unprecedented improvement in the standard of living.

Important new states entered the union (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming) while American society absorbed and assimilated a vast tidal wave of immigrants.

Major cities (including Chicago and Seattle) burned to the ground in devastating fires, but rebuilt themselves with stunning rapidity and elegance, while American inventors and industrialists provided the technology to change daily life around the world. The nation lived at peace for the better part of 30 years, until a crisis in the Caribbean produced "the splendid little war" against Spain -- a brief, decisive, immensely popular conflict that left the United States a dominant force as far away as Asia.

As summarized by the editors of American Heritage in their book "The Confident Years":

"It was period of exuberant growth, in population, industry and world prestige. As the twentieth century opened, American political pundits were convinced that the nation was on an ascending spiral of progress that could end only in something approaching perfection. Even those who saw the inequity between the bright world of privilege and the gray fact of poverty were quite sure that a time was very near when no one would go hungry or ill clothed. These were indeed the Confident Years."

Michael Medved, best-selling author of "Right Turns" and "The Shadow Presidents," hosts a syndicated daily radio talk show focusing on the intersection of politics and pop culture. He blogs at

Describing the legacy of this Gilded Age, Berkeley economics professor J. Bradford DeLong declared that that the era "gave the average American the highest standard of living and the most productive industry in the world in the first half of the 20th century."

Despite these dazzling achievements, historians grant very little respect to the leaders who presided over all this prodigious dynamism: Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley.

According to the 12 major surveys of historians taken between 1948 and 2005, five of the seven presidents in this group rank as decidedly "below average" while Grover Cleveland (the only Democrat in the bunch) and William McKinley (the triumphant commander in chief in the Spanish American War) barely make it into the "high average" (not even the "above average") category.

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