Ranking the Presidents of the USA

Numbers 32 to 36 ranked highly

John Tyler

In response to my Presidents Day post about knowing all of those guys – they’re all guys – in order, led to a couple of discussions.

One involved a friend of mine whose kid, who I’ve known since he was a baby, has “very strong feelings” about ranking the Presidents. I think we all should have a “resident political scientist” (RPS), in our midst, and a credentialed one at that.

I find the exercise interesting, as an old poli sci major would. Yet I’ve always been mildly conflicted between whether President was successful and how that success or failure turned out historically. (I have one specifically in mind; see below.)

Nevertheless, here’s a list, not the whole roster. The comparative rankings I’ll refer to is the overall 2021 C-SPAN Presidential Historians Survey, linked to here. I’ll not create a full list of my own.

So it begins

1. George Washington, #2. Does he get nicked for owning slaves? Of course, true of many of the early dudes. But as anyone who’s heard Hamilton knows, part of George’s greatness is not staying around too long.

7. Andrew Jackson, #22. Jackson has tumbled over the years. But not far enough for the RPS, who would put him third from the bottom, ahead of only Trump and perennial cellar-dweller Buchanan. As abhorrent as I think he was, I’m not ready to put him down that low. Among other things, he kept South Carolina from seceding and paid off the national debt. Conversely, the spoils system started with him. And he’s responsible for the Trail of Tears.

Surely, he should be off the $20 bill. Incidentally, some versions of his dollar coin are flawed.

9. William Henry Harrison, #40. Seriously? Why is this man even ranked? Some polls exclude him. His only major decision was to give a too-long inaugural speech. Then he died a month later.

10. John Tyler, #39. Can we count the stuff after he left office? I think we do anyway, and I have a couple of examples. This traitor sat in the Confederate Congress for a few months before he died in 1862.

Leading to the Civil War

11. James K. Polk, #18. I was helping my daughter with her history homework last year. The fact that he met every major domestic and foreign policy goal he had set during his single term was impressive. But he led the country into a nasty war against Mexico, which accelerated the divide between free and slave states.

13-15. Millard Fillmore, #38; Franklin Pierce, #42; James Buchanan, #44. Worser and worse, as they say. Shortly after Fillmore’s ascent to the presidency upon the death of Zachary Taylor (#35), he supported the odious Fugitive Slave Law, part of the Compromise of 1850. Pierce, who was recently featured on CBS Sunday Morning, signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which fractured the Missouri Compromise more slavery in the territories.

Perhaps there was nothing for Buchanan to do. As JFK was quoted, “No one has a right to grade a president — even poor James Buchanan — who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions.”

16. Abraham Lincoln, #1. Perhaps no President has been more analyzed, for good and ill.

17. Andrew Johnson, #43. What might Reconstruction have looked like if not for him? An oversimplification, sure, but…

18. Ulysses S. Grant, #20. Few have been more rehabilitated than USG. Yeah, the Panic of 1873, but Reconstruction helped. So did his book.

20th century

29. Warren G. Harding, #37. When I was growing up, only some of the Presidents around Lincoln fared worse than Harding, with Teapot Dome.

31. Herbert Hoover, #36. Another “worst ” President growing up.

32. Franklin D. Roosevelt, #3. New Deal, WWII. Conversely, internment camps for the Nisei. Plus many provisions of the New Deal actually harmed black people. Much of the positive energy of the administration came from his wife Eleanor.

33. Harry Truman, #6. The fact that the military desegregated under his administration is a BFD for me. Berlin airlift, and reining in MacArthur are pluses.

34. Dwight Eisenhower, #5. Even though he likely wasn’t in favor of the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, he respected the process. So he sent in troops to desegregate Little Rock HS. He also created the armistice in Korea, despite opposition in his own administration. He initiated a massive interstate highway system. But he also gave one of the best farewells, warning us of the “Military-industrial complex.”

Ones I remember

35. John Kennedy, #8. I’d long thought that JFK was overrated, a function of his youth and being assassinated. He had that Bay of Pigs debacle, though the world DIDN’T go to war in ’62. He was coming around on civil rights in ’63. But I must credit him with the initiation of the space program that DID go to the moon in that decade.

36. Lyndon Johnson, #11. The most vexing President in my lifetime. On one hand, he pushed the civil rights legislation, sometimes in the name of his late predecessor. And he had a robust social welfare program. But the massive escalation in the Vietnam war was unforgivable.

37. Richard Nixon, #31. RPS’s mom would put Nixon in the lower echelon of presidents, “but maybe that’s just because I was in high school and college in the 70s.” I DESPISED Nixon politically when he was in office, over Vietnam response but also his war on drugs. The EPA was created, only Nixon COULD have gone to China, and a more robust health care COULD have happened except… Watergate, of course, was the public spectacle debacle that I watched on TV daily.

The unelected President

38. Gerald Ford, #28. ADD asked, “What are your thoughts about the one that was never elected President or Vice-President? That’s my favorite trivia question.” My favorite, “Which President was born Leslie Lynch King Jr.?” Now here’s my unanswerable question: would the Republicans push out Nixon if Spiro Agnew would have become President? I’ll acknowledge that I opposed Ford’s pardon of Nixon at the time, but I’ve softened on it.

His problem was that he was tasked with cleaning up messes: Nixon, but also Vietnam, inflation, an economic downturn. Ford’s social policies were liberal by today’s standards, notably his support of the Equal Rights Amendment, but he didn’t have a lot of political capital, especially after the 1974 Congressional elections, which brought in a wave of Democrats. He did the best that he could. His wife Betty, though: SHE was a force.

Oh, and his appointed Veep was Nelson Rockefeller, considered a liberal, but he ran with BobDole in 1976 and lost.

39. Jimmy Carter, #26. The Camp David between Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachim Begin was a highlight. But the ongoing energy crisis was a drag. He had solar panels installed on the White House (and Reagan had them taken down.) Of course, the Iran hostage crisis sunk him.

A different job

40. Ronald Reagan, #9. I always thought Reagan should have been king. A cheerleader for America. He was good at that, actually. But his policies, from trickle-down economics to anti-union policies to a larger war on drugs to ignoring HIV/AIDS for years. But he knew how to sell it like an actor. Getting shot and coming back healthy certainly helped. He DID appoint the first woman to SCOTUS. The fact that he said to Gorbechev “Tear down this wall” and the Berlin wall came down a couple of years later means he gets to take credit.

41. George H. W. Bush, #21. Breaking his “no new taxes” promise helped to sink him.

42. Bill Clinton, #19. He had to face that horrendous wave of Contract On America tools such as Gingrich. Even at the time, I dismissed the idea that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 would be a boon to competition in local cable markets. His war on drugs was as bad as recent Republicans. He did select Stephen Breyer and RGB for SCOTUS. His impeachment was silly, especially given the behavior of some Republicans, such as Gingrich, which we didn’t know at the time.

21st century

43. George W. Bush, #29. Going into Iraq was the big debacle, though his Hurricane Katrina response was lousy. Oh, yeah, and the 2008 economic collapse. #29 seems high.

44. Barack Obama, #10. He signed the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) when so many others had tried and failed. He also backed the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and ended Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. it appeared Obama was working hard on his economic stimulus program in response to the Great Recession even before he was inaugurated. Unsurprisingly, he talked a lot about race, which I thought was appropriate.

45. Donald J. Trump, #41. Tax cuts for the riches. His disturbing relationship with Putin in Helsinki and subsequently. Amazingly racist comments. His bromance with Kim Jung-un. His pathological need to try to undo everything his predecessor accomplished, from Paris climate change to the Iran nuclear agreement. He lied all of the time, even about things not worthy of the effort. His administration developed the COVID vaccine, but his messaging undermined its success. Still, it was the Big Lie over the 2020 election and his culpability on 6 Jan 2021 that truly puts him so low on my list. Twice impeached.
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This is difficult, but my bottom five probably are Buchanan, Trump, Pierce, Harding, A. Johnson. Tyler, Hoover, and W would be in the next five.

 

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

3 thoughts on “Ranking the Presidents of the USA”

  1. Ooo, fun! I think about this stuff a lot (Bachelors and Master in Poli Sci, so OF COURSE I do!) . . .

    Off the cuff, I’d go with this Top Ten:

    1. Lincoln
    2. FDR
    3. Washington
    4. T. Roosevelt
    5. Obama
    6. Eisenhower
    7. LBJ
    8. Jefferson
    9. Polk
    10. Truman

    At the bottom of the pile, I’d pick:

    45. Trump
    44. Buchanan
    43. A. Johnson
    42. Tyler
    41. Pierce
    40. Fillmore
    39. Taylor
    38. Nixon
    37. Harding
    36. G.W. Bush

    I’d say the five most under-rated Presidents in the middle parts of the pack are:

    1. Cleveland
    2. Van Buren
    3. G.H.W. Bush
    4. Monroe
    5. Taft

    And the five most over-rated Presidents in the middle parts of the pack:

    1. Reagan
    2. Clinton
    3. Wilson
    4. Jackson
    5. Kennedy

    I don’t include W.H. Harrison or Garfield in the mix. I think Harrison probably did his legacy a favor by dying soon after election. But then I think Garfield’s death was possibly one of the Nation’s great tragedies, as he seemed poised to be a truly great leader in his time, and he died not from his assassin’s bullet, from from medical malpractice. Candice Millard’s “Destiny of the Republic” is one of the most fascinating Presidential biographies I’ve ever read, about Garfield. A truly incredible story.

  2. Wilson and Clinton are definitely overrated, and I don’t disagree with any of your others. And Cleveland – DEFINITELY underrated.

  3. Someone ranked GWB 29th? That’s ridiculously high. I’d put him very close to rock bottom; my triumvirate of Worst Presidents is probably Buchanan, GWB, and 45. Buchanan put the country in the ditch, and 45 presided over a startling shift toward outright fascism in America (and he may well get another shot at it). As for GWB, in addition to his many policy calamities, it scares me how many people who are terrified of where 45 left things seem to genuinely believe he came out of nowhere. All 45 did was lead the Republicans where they’ve been dying to go for YEARS, and a lot of the groundwork for what the Republican party has become in 2022 was laid in the GWB years (and, quite honestly, before that–GHWB gets docked heavily by me for his Lee Atwater race-baiting electoral strategy, and Saint Ronald himself looks worse and worse to me as I learn more and more about him).

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