Economists David Henderson and Zachary Gochehour find a “troubling” predictor of what increases public perception of “presidential greatness”: a high level of American lives lost in combat during that president’s tenure.
More of their takeaway:
Our data analysis suggests that wars in which a large percentage of the U.S. population is killed will, all other things equal, cause historians to judge as great a president on whose watch those wars occurred. Certainly, this was the perception of presidents Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. It was probably also the perception of other presidents.
This conclusion is troubling. Most presidents, after all, probably want to be thought of as great. When they spend resources on war, they are spending almost entirely other peoples money and lives. They get little credit for avoiding war. Martin Van Buren, for example, effectively avoided a war on the northern border of the United States.8 How many people know that today? Indeed, how many people have even heard of Martin Van Buren?