This Smithsonian Magazine article discusses a new book by Robert Merry on rating the presidents. This book goes beyond historians and pundits rating them, to the voters of the time:
In his new book, Where They Stand, Merry opens up the rating game beyond historians, to include what voters and contemporaries said in their own times. The editor of the National Interest, a foreign policy publication, argues that while historians’ views are important, presidential greatness is best seen through the eyes of voters of the president’s time. The greatest of the “greats,” in other words, have the election records to show it. They earned the trust of Americans in their first terms, won second terms and, in some cases, paved the way for their party to maintain control of the White House for the next four years....
In your book, your big claim is that we should listen to the electorate at the time of the president’s term, and not just historians. Why do you put such emphasis on the voters?
Presidential politics is like retailing. The customer is always right. In our system, we put faith in the voters, because that is at the bedrock of how we think we should order our affairs politically. If you don’t believe that, then it is kind of hard to believe very strongly in American democracy.
The whole idea is that the voters emerge with a collective judgment, maybe even occasionally a collective wisdom. I happen to buy that. Therefore, I felt that the polls of historians were significant. I didn’t debunk them or toss them aside. But I thought they were incomplete, because they didn’t always take into account what the voters were saying, thinking or doing with regard to their presidents contemporaneously. I wanted to sort of crank that into the discussion.
This is something I see all the time as I teach a modern US history survey class. I have my students do an oral history interview on the Cuban Missile Crisis, which of course means President Kennedy is discussed. It is amazing ot me how many people just worshiped, and still do, him. Yet when you talk to them, what they are rating him on is charisma and what they think he could have accomplished, so the spectre of possible greatness. But that doesn't change that if you asked them, they'd say he was a great president. Yet if you asked him, I'd talk about possible potential and refuse to make that distinction (it proabbly also helps that I'm not old enough to remember his assassination). So, long story short, I think that bringing in contemporary opinion to go with the historian's appraisal would be very interesting!
The author here goes on to tell the interviewer what he thinks is presidential greatness:
Greatness is as greatness does. It is really a question of what a president has accomplished with the country. Reagan’s question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” is very apt. Put another way, is the country better off? How is the country different? Are those differences good or are they not so good?
The great presidents all did something that changed the political landscape of America and set the country on a new course. That’s not easy to do. That is really the key to presidential greatness.
Merry rates 6 presidents as "Leaders of Destiny:"
The six, in order, are Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt. I happen to believe that Reagan will get into that circle, but right now, the polls of historians don’t quite have him there, although his standing is rising rather dramatically.
The six leaders of destiny pass a three-part test. They are consistently hailed among the greats or near greats by the historians. They are two-term presidents succeeded by their own party, meaning that the voters liked them both times that they served. And then, as I described earlier, they transformed the political landscape of the country and set it on a new course.
What were the major traits that these presidents shared? They all understood the nature of their time, what was really going on in the country, what the country needed, what the voters collectively were hungry for. There are a lot of presidents who don’t understand their time; they think they do, but they don’t. You have to have a vision. All of these leaders of destiny were elected at a time when the country needed tremendous leadership, and these presidents are the ones who stepped up and gave it. Then, they have political adroitness, the ability to get their hands on the levers of power in America and manipulate those levers in a way that gets the country moving affectively in the direction of that vision.