Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Ranking the Presidents of the United States

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Yesterday in this space I presented an overview into my political belief system by reviewing the votes that I have cast in the one dozen presidential elections in which I have been eligible to vote.  That amounted to one person's view of the modern presidency.  Now I would like to expand the perspective and look at the men who have served as our nation's top leader from the point of view of persons who are professionals in the fields of history and politics - people who are way above the pay grade of this enthusiastic voter.

I came across a publication in the magazine section of the local Walgreen's a couple of months ago entitled "American Presidents:  The Greatest . . . and the Worst!"  It was a slick affair that had many biographies of forty-one of the forty-three men who had served as President of the United States from George Washington through Barack Obama.  As the ultimate purpose of the magazine was to rank those individuals from most to least effective, two were omitted because they served extremely brief tenures:  William Henry Harrison who died of pneumonia just thirty-two days into his presidency, and James Garfield who was assassinated after serving only six months.  Remember also that while our Presidents number up through Obama at forty-four, only forty-three individuals have actually served in the office because Grover Cleveland holds down two numbers for being elected to two non-consecutive terms.

To achieve a ranking on the Presidents, this publication took into account five individual polls and then aggregated their numbers.  The first was a poll of presidential scholars that was conducted by historian Arthur Schlesinger in 1996.

The second was the Wall Street Journal 2005 poll of the Federalist Society and included "130 prominent professors of history, law, political science, and economics" who were "ideologically balanced." 

The third measure was the C-Span 2009 poll where Rice University professor David Brinkley asked 65 historians to rate the Presidents on qualities which included public persuasion, economic management, and moral authority.

The 2010 Siena College poll was the fourth measure used in the ranking.  It asked 238 scholars to rank the Presidents in 20 categories.

The final poll used in the project was of the American Political Science Association, of which 162 members responded.  It was conducted in 2015.

A few anomalies occurred during the process including that of Reagan, who had been number twenty-five in the Schlesinger poll, rocketing all the way to number six in the poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal, the top two spots in the Siena College poll went to the Roosevelts, Franklin and Theodore, respectively, and finally, in the American Political Science Association poll, Bill Clinton finished unusually high at number eight.  The editors of the publication did note that despite a span of two decades in polling, the results remained fairly stable.

The Rankings:  The publication separated the Presidents into four levels:  Icons, Greatness in Action, Capable Hands, and Feet of Clay.


1.  Abraham Lincoln:  The Great Emancipator and the man who successfully waged the war to preserve the Union.

2.  George Washington:  The originator of the office and the man who set much of the precedent for being President.

3.  Franklin D. Roosevelt:  The indomitable spirit who brought America out of the Great Depression and led the country through most of the Second World War.

Greatness in Action:

4. Theodore Roosevelt   5. Thomas Jefferson   6. Harry Truman   7.  Dwight Eisenhower   
8.  Woodrow Wilson    9.  Andrew Jackson

 Capable Hands:

10.  John F. Kennedy   11.  James K. Polk   12.  James Monroe   13.  Ronald Reagan   
14.  Lyndon B. Johnson   15.  James Madison   16.  John Adams,  17.  Bill Clinton 
18.  Barack Obama   19.  William McKinley   20.  Grover Cleveland   21. George H.W. Bush 
22.  John Quincy Adams

Feet of Clay:

23.  William Taft   24.  Martin Van Buren   25.  Gerald Ford   26.  Calvin Coolidge 
27.  Rutherford B. Hayes   28.  Chester Arthur   29.  Ulysses S. Grant   30.  Benjamin Harrison 
31.  Jimmy Carter   32.  Zachary Taylor   33.  George W. Bush  34. Richard Nixon,
35.  Herbert Hoover   36.  John Tyler   37.  Millard Fillmore   38.  Franklin Pierce,
39.  Andrew Johnson   40.  Warren Harding   41.  James Buchanan

That's the list, and while I don't agree with some of its finer points (In what kind of a world, for instance, would a Bill Clinton outrank a Barack Obama?), it does seem to be a fairly accurate accounting of the impact that each of these men had on the country they served.  Abraham Lincoln would have certainly been my own pick for best President ever, and while Jimmy Carter disappointed many with his lackluster term in the White House, if there ever is a ranking of the achievements of Former Presidents, I have no doubt that Carter will be at its pinnacle.

I won't be around if this same survey of polls in conducted again in fifty or one hundred years, but I would appreciate it if someone would email me a copy!


Don said...

Passage of the years can often lead to strange outcomes. In the 1960s and 70s, I despised Richard Nixon. With every breath of my being, I detested everything the man stood for and most of what he did.

But upon these years of reflection, I'd move him up on the list for a couple of significant accomplishments. First and foremost was the opening of diplomatic relations with China. Only a Republican could have gotten away with that move at the time and there's no telling if any future Republican would even have considered it. This move led to detente with the Soviet Union and a considerable lessening of fears that a nuclear winter would descend on the U.S.

Almost unbelievably, Nixon established the EPA and signed into law the Clean Air Act --- again, things that no other Republican and few Democrats of the time would have considered.

Pa Rock said...

Nixon also signed the act that brought about Amtrak - one of my favorite public transport systems. And yes, time has done much to heal that heel. But as an old Nixon hater myself, it still makes me smirk just a little to realize that he ranked lower than the misunderestimated George W. Bush!