I've been thinking, since the passing of George H.W. Bush, about presidents who were underrated, both in their time and in history. It stands to reason one-term presidents might be unfairly undervalued more than two-term presidents. I certainly think that our singular four-term president did a lot of harm in ill-designed social programs that were structured to be too popular to ever be substantially changed, and considering he regularly ranks in America's top 3 or 5, he's probably over-rated.
But anyhow, this idea that, when thinking about over- and under-rating of public officials, we can look at election results to see how they were contemporaneously rated, it caught in my mind. It's worth sharing my thoughts on another President whose impact I think would polarize people more now than ever, including in his own time.
This is a minor obsession I've had for years – the way we, the public, relate to presidents has been defined by Martin Van Buren. He wasn't a big personality, he was basically a government worker who kept being promoted. That hadn't really happened before, despite the depth of experience many Founders brought to their later presidency, and considering it happened in 1836, I think it's fair to say it was beyond the sight of the Founders. When a system changes in some important way to be different from how the system designers imagined it, be extremely cautious. And yet these days it's basically assumed by a lot of people that government work prepares you for other government work. I suppose this is true, to an extent. The power-playing element of the system certainly gives that solution stability. But I'm not sure it's good, and I'm less sure we should voice it as the public standard.
I want people to take the job seriously, don't get me wrong. The Trump-era desire to return to the previous system lacks that critical element, I feel.
But being a good person isn't the same as being a good ruler – and that's a very wise thing to guess, in this large field of mistakes to make – so I don't know why people assume being a good bureaucrat makes you a good ruler. That seems less likely, even though it contains a lot of wisdom too (albeit a different sort of wisdom).
So for a lot of American history, very well read people imagine good rulers as good bureaucrats, and about half the presidents we've seen fit that model. Sometimes they come from the military, sometimes from congress, who knows where. But it's not hard to notice the closer a President hews to this archetype, the less effective they are as President, despite being almost universally competent, and very frequently good people.
For all of this, credit the personal political success of Martin Van Buren.