Why you should care
Because nothing attracts glory quite like death, and that’s true for presidential legacies as well.
When Barack Obama steps down from the presidency, he can point to a legacy with a number of impressive achievements related to peace and prosperity, including presiding over a sustained period of economic growth (after avoiding a potential depression), winding down two wars and the signing of an Iran nuclear deal. Advancing national security and prosperity sounds well and good, but if Obama believes this will be enough to catapult him into the top tier of American presidents, he may have another thing — and legacy — coming.
According to recent findings from two politics professors at New York University, the factor that best predicts how well-regarded a U.S. president will be by historians is:
the number of American war deaths during their tenure in office.
“Fighting wars has been good for presidents,” Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith conclude in their book, The Spoils of War: Greed, Power, and the Conflicts That Made Our Greatest Presidents. And, they note, it is “much better for a president’s legacy and his reelection to oversee death than to oversee growth.” From Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman, many of our most highly regarded presidents also presided over the most U.S. war deaths (taking into account the number of years they served and the nation’s population at the time). Of the 10 presidents who oversaw no war deaths, only one — Calvin Coolidge — served more than four years in office.
Correlation, of course, does not mean causation, and so Bueno de Mesquita and Smith set out to investigate the phenomenon more thoroughly. James Madison once warned of presidents’ inevitable “ambition, avarice, and vanity,” and the scholars say he was right to be wary, arguing that even the presidents whom we consider to be the most principled have tended to act in their own political self-interest, particularly when it came to the decision to go to war. For example, in weighing the political impact of Lincoln’s 1858 “House Divided” speech — which advanced both his political career and the prospect of war — Bueno de Mesquita and Smith argue that “we cannot escape the conclusion that he … maneuvered the country to the brink of dissolution and had no intention to pull it back … once his election was secured.”
Obama’s record of relative peace and prosperity could well hurt his legacy …
To be sure, America’s constitutional system of checks and balances can constrain a president’s oversize ambitions. “The law actually prevents presidents from doing great things,” Eric Posner, a University of Chicago law professor and co-author of The Executive Unbound, argued on a recent episode of Freakonomics Radio. “But the great presidents,” Posner added, “are the ones who basically push it aside.” While the Constitution and the law can reduce the risk of truly dangerous behavior, Bueno de Mesquita tells OZY, it is in the domain where presidents are not so greatly constrained — foreign policy — that “they too often plunge us into costly and pointless disputes.”
What might this mean for our soon-to-be ex-president? Obama’s record of relative peace and prosperity could well hurt his legacy, says Bueno de Mesquita, and don’t be surprised if the standing of George W. Bush, a relatively poorly regarded war president, eventually improves.
If vain, ambitious commanders-in-chief who are prone to confrontational foreign policy stances and pushing the limits of their own power do relatively well in the eyes of posterity, then who knows what we will be saying about President Donald Trump in 50 years.