Post-Election: Ranking all Presidents

Ranking Presidents:
One Historian's View

If only all presidents had heeded these words

Finding strengths and weaknesses is pretty easy for historians; after all, it's a profession with the benefit of hindsight. What is much harder is assigning rankings. Below is my assessment of the individuals who have occupied the White House. Some of the rankings are admittedly arbitrary. After all, what is the substantive difference between a #22 and a #23? Refer to the Pairing Presidents series to see what I wrote on each figure.

I am open to reconsideration as new materials come to light. This is also what historians do–evaluate based on available evidence.

Criteria Used:

1. Tangible benefits to the nation, not popularity.
2. Assessment of what was done while president, not overall careers. (Many people in life do well or poorly in one role but not another.)
3. How a presidency changed the nation. Greater weight was given for positive change.
4. The long-term effects of a presidency, not just what was done while in office.
5. Things with which we can actually associate a president, not folklore or conventional wisdom.
6. How doing this project changed my own thinking.

Rankings from Top to Bottom:

Not ranked:  William Henry Harrison or James Garfield. Neither was in office long enough for a definitive judgment. Grover Cleveland is ranked just once, though he was the 22nd and the 24th president

The best. Also the man who spoke the words in the first slide.
1. Franklin Delano Roosevelt:  By virtue of being the greatest reformer in history and for having to deal with both the Great Depression and World War Two. How lucky was the USA? The contemporary global alternatives included: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Tojo, Franco, and Salazar! No one has had a greater burden to carry–not even…

2. Abraham Lincoln: He was a better person than FDR and the Civil War was one helluva burden, but his leadership in ending chattel slavery in America is just a tick below FDR's war to destroy global enslavement as embodied in fascism.

3. Thomas Jefferson: Set the template for defining the power of the presidency and often acted against his own beliefs for the good of the nation.

4. George Washington: Setting up a brand new nation? That's a pretty neat accomplishment, as was his ability to rise above partisanship.
5. Theodore Roosevelt: He established the ideal of a POTUS as reforming activist and set the character for the Progressive Era. He was also an imperialist, but few doubted the U.S. as a world power after TR.

6. Woodrow Wilson: He was a prude and a racist, but he's also an effective Progressive reformer and the model of an idealistic president. His principles trumped pragmatism at times, but that's still better than those whom lack principles.

7. Lyndon Johnson: He was the second greatest reformer to sit in the White House and did more for civil rights than anyone since Lincoln. He'd be in the top three were it not for the Vietnam War. Alas, that's a major "were it not."

8. Harry Truman: He was often reviled, but Give-'em-Hell Harry was a tough cookie who followed an impossible-to-replace act (FDR). He gave the go-ahead to drop atomic bombs on Japan–acts that undeniably changed history no matter what one thinks of them. His Fair Deal couldn't match New Deal, but he ranks no lower than 5th among reforming presidents.

9. Andrew Jackson: I have to swallow my extreme dislike of Jackson as a person or policymaker—he's simply too important to ignore. Jackson redefined the Democratic Party, created the model for a negative state presidency, and played hardball politics better than most. Lots of what he did had negative impact—his tragic treatment of Natives, his refusal to discuss slavery, and his economic programs—but he transformed the presidency.

10. Dwight Eisenhower: I reevaluated Ike—along with lots of other scholars these days. In retrospect, his calm leadership during Red Scare II and the Cold War blunted many of their sharp edges. He effectively isolated Neanderthals within his own Republican Party, a lesson sadly forgotten. He kept us out of World War Three and that ain't nothing! 

11. James Monroe: Few rank him this high, but if we measure the future impact of a presidency, Monroe deserves high marks. The Monroe Doctrine simply changed American history–period! It was presumptuous, but in terms of hemispheric dominance, it's the founding document of the American centuries. He was also politically skillful.

12. Bill Clinton: Easily our sleaziest POTUS–but also one of the most politically skillful in American history. He is the last to balance the budget and he (not Reagan) repaired an economy ravaged by recession. The GOP hatred of Clinton is puzzling, as he enacted more of its agenda than did Reagan.

13. John F. Kennedy: Few presidents captured the national zeitgeist as well as he. The debate continues over his actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it resolved favorably. He was stronger rhetorically than in actuality, but JFK was the first president to connect with the Baby Boom generation–and the only one it has ever trusted!

14. John Quincy Adams: A presidency in drastic need of reassessment. He was one of the most skillful diplomats ever to hold the office, an advocate of building infrastructure, and an opponent of slavery. All three of these proved wise–but not until long after he left office. Call him a man ahead of his time.

15.   Ronald Reagan: If the USA had a symbolic office akin to the British Crown, Reagan would have been king. It doesn't, hence it's hard to rank Reagan any higher. His deficit spending, harmful social policy, and elitist economics have not weathered well and his ranking will probably go down. But Reagan deserves great credit for improving the national spirit in the wake of dispiriting 1970s.

16. Grover Cleveland: A decent man in office at a difficult time: the corruption-ridden Gilded Age. Cleveland sought reforms–not all of them wise–but with better skill than his contemporaries. His outspoken opposition to imperialism was, in retrospect, prescient. He struggled over racial identities–like most whites of his day–but he was the best of a non-inspiring lot.

17. James Madison: The War of 1812 was idiotic and should have never been fought, but Madison settled it on better terms than could have been expected. He then ushered in the Era of Good Feelings, the last time American politics truly were non-partisan.

18. Barack Obama: Speaking of bad wars…. Obama was, like Cleveland, the most admirable of a lousy generation of leaders–some of whom were vile. He ended one bad war and deescalated another. Health care reform, though rocky in implementation, might prove a turning point in human services--if it survives. Like Reagan, he was more inspirational than substantive, but sometimes presidents get credit for changing the national mood. Like Reagan, though, Obama might drop in the future.

19. William Howard Taft: It was his misfortune to follow into office a living legend (TR), and quarrel with him. Still, he was more of a trustbuster than Roosevelt, and was a reformer in his own right.

20. John Adams: As a Founder, his reputation is safe. His presidency wasn't up to those standards, but as the second president, Adams eased the transition from one administration to another. The Alien and Sedition acts were a mistake, but he appointing John Marshall to the Supreme Court changed the nation.

21. Chester Arthur: deserves to be reconsidered. His before and in the presidency is akin to Jekyll and Hyde. He healed the nation after Garfield's assassination and struck a blow to the spoils system. Arthur sought to deal humanely with Natives—imperfectly, but sincerely.

22. Jimmy Carter: The economy was weak under Carter and several traumas occurred during his time in office, but Carter's presidency is undergoing a rethink. Carter was admired in many parts of the world and did much to repair relations with Latin America. He also brokered a historic Arab-Israeli peace accord. Don't be shocked if future scholars flip Carter and Reagan.

23. Zachary Taylor: His presidency also deserves new light. It was short, but Taylor's opposition to extending slavery into newly acquired territories was admirable. Would it have prevented the Civil War? Maybe not, but Taylor stands out as the least bellicose president in the two decades preceding the conflict.

24. Herbert Hoover: He is generally ranked low, but he neither caused the Wall Street Crash, nor was he heartless. He tried to stem the economic bleeding, but–like most observers–failed to realize how bad things were. Before the Crash, Hoover implemented progressive reforms.

25. Richard Nixon: Nixon is the hardest president to evaluate. His time in office was marked by moments of progressivism punctuated by petulance and nastiness. Vietnam was a disaster, the opening of China a watershed. I am among those who think Nixon was mentally ill.

26. George H. W. Bush: The elder Bush is often more than a blip in discussions of the American presidency, but he did preside over the end of the Cold War. He'd look better were it not for unnecessary ventures such as the first Gulf War.

27. Martin Van Buren:  He is among those presidents who lacked the courage of their convictions. He opposed Jackson's banking policy but didn't reverse it; hence he stumbled over the Panic of 1837. Nor did he stop Jackson's horrific Indian Removal policies, or act on stated opposition to slavery.

28. Calvin Coolidge: The taciturn Coolidge was popular in his day, but historians now see his laissez-faire economic policies as greatly responsible for the 1929 Wall Street Crash. He was also aggressively non-progressive.

29. Gerald Ford: Ford was an accidental president whose sole achievement was to calm the public after Watergate. He then squandered good will with his pardon of Nixon and through his inept handing of the 1970s recession.

30. Benjamin Harrison: is practically the textbook example of a president with decent instincts but unable to convince either opposition Democrats or fellow Republicans to act on his initiatives. As a result, Harrison stumbled over civil service reform, the tariff, African American rights, monetary reform, regulating trusts, and most other initiatives.

31. William McKinley:  This is a presidency in need of a downgrade. McKinley wrote the playbook on reinventing the GOP as a party more interested in catering to Big Business than in paying attention to black rights, farmers, or greenbackers.  This had long-term negative impact in that it eventually ceded working people and farmers to the Democrats (and, after FDR, African-Americans as well). The party of Lincoln became the party of Wall Street.

32. Ulysses S. Grant: Grant cared about civil rights, but he was a terrible civilian leader who struggled with alcohol, details, and his temper. Although he is thought to have been honest, there weren't many within his administration for whom that was true.

33. Millard Fillmore: He was virulently anti-immigrant, prone to belief in conspiracies, and unable to keep either Southern expansionists or rising Northern abolitionists at bay. In all ways he was an unworthy successor to Zachary Taylor.

34. James K. Polk: Polk is often ranked as high as #10, but this is because he was the victorious president during the Mexican War, which brought great territorial gain. One must ask, though, if this war should have been fought, and that answer is a resounding "no." That's especially the case given that the cause of the war was manufactured. Polk blatantly longed for a Western slave empire led by the USA.

35. John Tyler: was as bad as Polk, but with no war victory to his credit. He was obsessed with annexing Texas and expanding slavery. Polk and Tyler put together did much to create many of the tensions that led to the Civil War.

36. Rutherford B. Hayes: Let's start with the fact that he became president through the most crooked election in presidential history. Then he abandoned Reconstruction and sent federal troops to smash a national rail strike. An awful presidency.

37. Andrew Johnson: He took office after the assassination, but Andrew Johnson was no Lincoln! He battled Congress and misread the political winds. His shortcomings probably didn't justify impeachment, but he was not the man to lead Reconstruction and he so discredited it that it failed.

38: Warren G. Harding: He was completely out of his depth and the only thing his advisors didn't steal was the Oval Office desk. Qualifications do matter–it's a bad idea to elect your drinking buddy to the presidency.

39. George W. Bush:  He was a liar, a thief, and a fool. His only redeeming quality was that he reassured the nation after 9/11. He promptly squandered every ounce of global goodwill resulting from 9/11 and domestically played the politics of division on a Nixonian scale. It's hard to imagine there were two presidents worse than he but, alas….

40. James Buchanan: This is basic: when part of the nation secedes and you're in office, you're expected to do something about it. Buchanan was a copperhead at heart and a do-nothing by disposition. His pro-slavery views were the icing on a slime-covered cake.

41. Franklin Pierce:  Some historians rank Pierce above Buchanan, but I reserve the Ignominy Prize for a president whose putrescence was active, not passive. Bleeding Kansas, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and acceptance of the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution…. New Hampshire actually named a college for this guy? Why?

Thanks for nothing! Lucky for him, the name "Franklin" was redeemed!

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