By modern Presidents, let us say the pos-WWII era.
That would mean Truman, Ike, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama, if we don't really know enough quite yet to evaluate Obama in the way that historians do, since we don't have the source material in the same way.
That's not a criticism or defense of Obama, just how historians look at things in real time. Obama has some characteristics of an Ike on the Left as to moderation, if his base hates that, and Republicans won't believe that, which is a combination that could destroy the country some might argue.
As to the modern President who has the single most to offer about how to think abut today and the near future, there's a very good case that it remains Ike.
As to the budget, Ike wouldn't unwind the welfare state completely in his day, and wouldn't do that now either, although he tried to keep a lid on it, and on national defense expenditures.
I think today he would see problems in Social Security and Medicare, but would also be humane as to who paid for changes, which would mean some downward adjustment in what he called the military-industrial complex, if probably the latter somewhat after we deal with some long run security problems that created that security complex in the first place.
He approached budgets and the military in his way because he was enough of an economist from his professional military education to know that if he followed that course, he therefore could keep taxes relatively low to keep the economy healthy which financed what the military wanted ,and to have some reasonable level of security for those the economy tends to leave in its wake, if only in his day so they didn't become communists.
Ike kept a close eye on expenditures and kept taxes down, and the economy managed to grow at a fast rate on balance, and all the while that meant that we could pay down the debt from WWII at similar levels to today. He still would spend money in a recession like in 1955 on the Interstate Highway System, if it was a little easier for Ike to pick that one out as to an infrastructure project people could get behind.
I bet he'd think Space and Energy would be the way to go now, since the former has spillovers into military technology and the latter has obvious potential security benefits, while emphasizing the former however as offering possibilities for cooperation with the Russian Federation, and China, along of course with our allies who are still the same in NATO, Japan, and Korea.
That's probably Ike's most important lesson right there for today: that the Center-Right has a vital place in American politics. Obama's probably at his best when he's Center-Left, like Clinton, if the bases on either side never like it, and try to sabotage it.
Lots of people secretly wish there were more Eisenhower Republicans right now, which is to say moderate Republicans. The funny thing is, even Ike wished there were more moderate Republicans at times, as the John Bircher John Welch accused even him of being a Communist because of Little Rock.
If Ike's a Commie while pointing 3,400 nuclear weapons with 7,200 megatons at the Russians and Chinese, I think Hitler would be a liberal Republican in that mental universe.
As to why to still like Ike, beyond the vital lesson of his budgeting, most like Simpson-Bowles with a mild amount of Keynes, first of all, Ike had a very clear head, something one would acquire at D-Day level decision-making as to consequences.
We also can't blame American politicians for not having to have done something like that, because that hasn't come up, which is actually a good thing, if, it might about to be with Iran.
It is quite possible that the decision on Iran is the most important since WWII, at least. If that sounds too much, what if Russia and China intervene, or the Persian Gulf is closed, or both?
Better think that through, or just know what statements to make it clear that it's your reasonable and seriously fair way to do that, or it's "everything in the bucket."
At least we know Obama did try to reach out to Iran, like the Russia-reset, as to something Ike had a lot of in his day: trust.
Ike was very thoughtful both as an officer and as President, but when he made a decision, he just lived with it, and did his best to have subordinates in place who would execute properly.
That's why at D-Day, after making the call to go ahead, he just wrote a note saying that if the landings failed, it was all his fault, and then went to sleep.
That's what he would do now with Iran.
He would draw his conclusion as to using force or not, or the ultimatum offer more properly, and then would live with having as he liked to say, "put his chips in the pot."
We kind of miss Ike now in modern American politics, if that sort of mentality is why he was so popular then, if the world's maybe a more nuanced place too.
If we are to attack Iran, that's the only way to look at it, a D-Day consequence decision potentially, and the same with North Korea and Syria if it comes down to that, since they are Iranian allies, and may well try to support an ally if attacked, no matter that our cause is a good one many would argue in terms of managing a dangerous stand-off between Iran and Israel.
As to level headedness, certainly Ike was capable of becoming livid, but he was not one to fly off the handle either. It probably helped being raised in poverty in Kansas as to acquiring a certain emotional distance from difficulties of the moment, and that emotional distance is usually the best way to make complex decisions.
As to the comparison group of modern American Presidents, Lyndon Johnson had an on balance well-intentioned heart, but ended up all over the place, as to what lessons one should draw about Presidential leadership, other than possibly to be careful of Texans with big dreams.
He and W. Bush were both Texans who overreached fundamentally, if Bush didn't go nearly as far as Johnson did, since he only fought one real war while trying to reform Social Security, instead of expand it like Johnson, and that while going to the Moon, and conducting a massive reform of race. It was very exciting, and exhausting, with Johnson, which is why Nixon plus Wallace over Humphrey was really a 1968 conservative landslide.
Obama in a way emulated W. Bush some might argue by trying healthcare reform and Afghanistan, except that in his defense, the budget is imploding because of health care costs, so that had to be done at some point anyway.
Ike did introduce some ideas in that field, if the AMA smacked him down.
Think what one will of how that issue was approached, or the obvious motive for doing so as to the political constituency in the Democratic Party that loves the idea of universal insurance, there was boldness in that initiative, if it also got away from the President as to what it was all about in public discourse, in which Ike's lesson as to budgets was the one that some argued most practical politically and policywise.
Obamacare is an empty vessel in any event, as a practical matter, rather than as the political football that it has become, a Rorhsach test of contemporary America, like "Change," Forward."
" Change what? Go where?"would be Ike's response, and "Why?"
That's why we have elections, to answer such questions.
As to the post-war comparison group, Nixon was close to greatness, but clearly allowed his insecurities to undermine his judgement in the Watergate affair that undid his legacy. Ford didn't have the proverbial snowball's chance really, if under the circumstances, we were lucky he was there.
As to lessons from Ike and Nixon, when Gary Powers got shot down in the U-2, Ike stood up and took responsibility, if after the cover story was blown. For all the second guessing about that admission, it was actually Krushchev's fault to make such a mound out that molehill, as to blowing apart the Paris Summit and re-intensifying the Cold War, especially after Ike apologized rather than throwing Allen Dulles of CIA under the bus.
As to decisive use of force, that can hardly be questioned with Ike, who therefore didn't have to do that really, save in Lebannon, and with no casualties.
No Iranian regime would have ever dreamed of holding an embassy hostage under Ike, nor would Ike have been such a micro-manager as Carter, even as on the flip side of that, part of the reason Mossadegh got replaced in Iran was because Ike was ill at the key moment, and delegated to Dulles far too much. Carter had some bad luck as to timing in life, and as to energy, well, part of the considerations in bombing Iran unquestionably have to do with our allies dependence on that particular energy, and our general dependence here on petroleum as well, and so Carter wasn't all bad.
Ike lived in a different time as to personal issues in a candidate, as Kay Summersbee was known to everyone in the D.C. circuit, and only once even hinted at, as to the case for leaving such things out of politics, as doing that really hurt the country with someone who would otherwise gone down without an asterisk as a great President, Bill Clinton.
Clinton on the other hand was pretty Ike-like on the budget, if from the Center Left. Some Keynes, but a lot of Rubin-accounting, as people consider the approaching decisions of the "Fiscal Cliff."
I bet Ike would do Simpson-Bowles, moderate Entitlemtent reforms inclusive, and support space, while winding down wars as is Obama, like he did with Korea, and note, Ike could have pulled the trigger at Dienbienphu, and chose not, if of course Vietnam is not Iran, and was never going to be a nuclear armed state, and moreover, that decision was made at the height of American power over the international system in reality, and so now there would be a different set of constraints.
But as to how to approach things, I like Ike.