WASHINGTON -- As President Barack Obama was sworn into a second term, statistician Nate Silver tried to determine whether that might cause historians to give him more respect. But one could also argue that to be truly great, presidents must win a "third term" by having a key ally succeed them.
First, win a second term.
As Silver noted on his blog, Five Thirty Eight, 20 presidents won a second term, boosting their rankings in a composite of the four most recent surveys of historians:
"Winning a second term is something of a prerequisite for presidential greatness, at least as historians have evaluated the question. It is also no guarantee of it, as the case of Richard M. Nixon might attest. But the eight presidents who are currently regarded most favorably by historians were all two-termers (or four-termers, in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s case)."
Then, win a ‘third term.’
Only one president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, has ever actually served a third term. Since the 22nd Amendment was ratified in 1951, it’s not possible for a president to win more than twice. But many two-term presidents have been succeeded by members of their administrations.
Assassinations, death in office and a resignation complicate the picture. But using Silver’s composite list of historian’s picks for top presidents, eight of the top 15 arguably earned a "third term.
In order of their rankings by historians: (2) Franklin Roosevelt, who was followed by his vice president, Harry Truman; (3) George Washington, who was followed by his vice president, John Adams; (4) Theodore Roosevelt, who was followed by his secretary of war, William Howard Taft; (5) Thomas Jefferson, who was followed by his secretary of state, James Madison; (9) Ronald Reagan, who was followed by his vice president, George H.W. Bush; (11) Andrew Jackson, who was followed by his vice president, Martin Van Buren; (12) James Monroe, who was followed by his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams; and (13) James Madison, who was followed by his secretary of State, James Monroe.
A caveat: Truman became president when FDR died in office, but he was then elected to a term in his own right.
There’s always an exception.
Calvin Coolidge (27) was followed by his secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover, but still ended up with a low ranking.
You can still be great without a ‘third term.’
That’s not to say that the only great presidents are the ones who get "third terms."
Abraham Lincoln is ranked first, though his vice president, who took office after his assassination, didn’t even win the nomination in the next election. Harry Truman (6), Woodrow Wilson (7), Dwight Eisenhower (8) and Lyndon Johnson (10) were followed by presidents from the other party, but are highly ranked.
You can also argue about where to properly place Ulysses S. Grant (16), who was followed by fellow Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who lost the popular vote, and Bill Clinton (18), whose vice president, Al Gore, won the popular vote but lost the election.
But it sure helps.
The two lowest two-term presidents in Silver’s ranking, Richard Nixon (29) and George W. Bush (38), were followed by a president from the other party.
The bottom line: Wait until 2016.
To get a good sense of where Obama may fall in future rankings, you’ll probably have to wait until 2016 to see if he wins a "third term." Which is fine, because it’s way too early to be talking about this anyway.