Ranking the Presidents (1900 to Present)
Today is Presidents Day.
Put another way, it’s an excuse to take the work day off.
Before we head off to the beach, or clean out the garage, or down that six pack, let’s use this day as it was intended, which is to remember the people who have resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
What follows is a ranking of the presidents since 1900. The start of the 20th Century up to the present era is the perfect time frame for comparison since that span includes the sum total of 20 presidents — all in the post-industrial age and when America took an active role in world affairs.
What measure did I use for my rankings? Well, there’s certainly a Liberal bias to the grading. But Liberal versus Conservative isn’t the primary criteria. Some Conservative presidents fare quite well in my rankings, while Liberals are graded poorly. Instead, I tried to look at the overall status of the nation, the role of the federal government during the term (and aftermath), and the state of the executive branch in particular when the President departed office, contrasted with the date of inauguration. In other words, did the President make the nation and the office better or worse? How did the country fare from start to finish? Most important — how did the President handle the events of the day, including wars, economic problems, scandals, and so forth?
Let’s find out. I expect some raised eyebrows. I’m convinced history has graded a few presidents wrongly, and I’ll explain why. Each President is also graded based on what I believe history will ultimately decide. Judgement certainly takes time, decades perhaps, in order to reflect back on the term and assess the full impact of a presidency. That makes the more recent Presidents particularly difficult to judge.
Here now are the presidents ranked 1 through 20 during the period 1900 to 2014:
1. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
The Good — Gets high marks for providing extraordinary leadership during two of the most severe crisis in our nation’s history — the Great Depression and World War II. Also gets high marks for providing hope and inspiration to millions during very tough times when unemployment was at a record high. Also a man of immense courage overcoming a crippling disability from childhood, which was largely hidden from public view during his years in office.
The Bad — Gets low marks for failure to do much on civil rights, and arguably joining the war effort somewhat late given the obvious growing threats aboad from Axis powers.
Why He’s Ranked Here — Most historians rank Roosevelt at or very near the top of all polls, with good reason. He took office at the depths of the nation’s worst depression and left the country (12 years later) as the most powerful country in the world, on the brink of a post-war prosperity boom. Introduced landmark “socialist” ideas like Social Security, comprehensive rural electrification, major works programs for millions of unemployed, and a long list of other initiatives geared towards the federal government taking an activist role in people’s lives for the common good.
HISTORICAL ARROW: POINTS UPWARD — As more time passes, we’ve come to recognize that whether we like it or not, government should be part of our lives and therefore it needs good people to run it as well as the resources to make things better.
2. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1908)
The Good — Gets high marks for progressive policies, widespread reforms, and unquestionable personal integrity. Also gets high marks for protection of government lands which created the National Parks Service. His direct intervention into the Panama Canal project helped make that a reality, which vastly improved trade and commerce in this hemisphere.
The Bad — Gets low marks on expansion/interventionalism, particularly in Latin America, and general hawkish nature. Also despite progressive reforms, was backed by the business elite, including the so-called “robber barons” of the day.
Why He’s Ranked Here — Roosevelt was in office during the most transformational period in American history when technology was changing the very fabric of daily life (cars, electricity, telephones — all rapidly expanded during ths first decade of the century). He also faced massive corruption and powerful monopolies which opposed his initiatives to raise wages, improve product standards, and impose new safety laws.
HISTORICAL ARROW: POINTS UPWARD — Now judged favorably by just about everyone across the political spectrum, championed by both liberals and conservatives. His stature should continue to grow as we come to realize what an exceptionally rare individual TR was in every way.
3. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
The Good — Gets high marks on presiding over the most prosperous period of American history, largely without any domestic or international crisis (the Cold War, aside). Despite conservative image, actually supported a number of progressive policies (integration of military), pro-labor laws, and massive government works projects — most notably the National Highway System (interstates).
The Bad — Gets low marks on aloof nature, known for spending more time playing golf than governing. Failed to stand up at any point to McCarthism. Also, did little to improve the problems of poverty and urban decay.
Why He’s Ranked Here — Eisenhower was undoubtedly the beneficiary of a well-timed presidency when the United States was the world’s only industrial power, due to the mass global cleanup after World War II. He demonstrated bipartisanship and remained a consistently popular, unifying figure (due in part to his previous role as a war hero). He also famously broke ranks from his own party at the end of his term, giving his ominous “beware of the military-industrial complex” speech, which turned out to be one of the bravest and most insightful statements of the 20th Century.
HISTORICAL ARROW: POINTS NEUTRAL — It’s difficult to foresee Eisenhower’s place in history moving any higher. But no one can argue the United States prospered during his presidency.
4. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)
The Good — Gets high marks on effectiveness as a post-war leader, particularly on issues relating to the Cold War. Was the ideal steward for the country during a time when the nation shifted from a military to peacetime economy. No nonsense style and common-man approach to governing was far different than any predecessor.
The Bad — Gets low marks on domestic agenda, which failed to produce the necessary follow up to FDR’s “New Deal.” Was too quick to engage troops in Korea, and made a number of questionable military judgements which either prolonged the war or ended the conflict too quickly (with no resolution), depending upon one’s point of view.
Why He’s Ranked Here — In general, Truman was an effective president who inherited a myriad of global responsibilities that could have been badly mishandledhad had someone with less capability been in office.
HISTORICAL ARROW: POINTS UPWARD — Truman was never a wildly popular president. He was expected to lost the 1948 election. He also had the misfortune of following one of the greatest presidents in history. That said, Truman’s stock has gone up in recent decades as we come to realize he provided a calm and steady hand at the controls of the world’s most powerful nation.
5. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
The Good — Gets high marks for avoiding the largely unnecessary European conflict known as World War I for as long as possible. In addition, he’s to be credited for creating of the League of Nations, an early precurser to the United Nations formed some 20 years later. A true intellectual and statesman.
The Bad — Gets low marks for handling the post-war economy, and realtively few domestic accomplishments. However, his final years in office were inhibited by serious health problems.
Why He’s Ranked Here — Wilson’s leadership probably saved many American lives. Nations were clamoring to engage in World War I, while Wilson remained (at least diplomatically) neutral during the first three years of the war. Had the United States joined the war effort earlier, it might have cost another 100,000 lives without serving any purpose. However his final grade suffers somewhat since his domestic agenda was hardly progressive.
HISTORICAL ARROW: POINTS DOWNWARD — Wartime presidents usually fare well among historians. However, the closer we examain the Wilson period, the less that’s impressive. Though he tried to establish an international forum for diplomacy which would have been a mahor breakthrough, he couldn’t even get the U.S. to join the organization. The world paid the price for this lack of foresight some 20 years later.
6. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969)
Gets high marks for a revolutionary domestic agenda, in the form of what was called the “War on Poverty” and creation of “The Great Society.” Moreover, his support and tireless work on behalf of civil rights was more intense than any president since Abraham Lincoln. Gets low marks for escalating the Vietnam War unnecessarily, which ended up destroying both the man and his presidency — not to mention costing tens of thousands of lives. One of American history’s most tragic political figures, Johnson was both feared and beloved, courageous and indecisive — depending on the moment. He personally jammed three major civil rights bills to final passage often against violent opposition of his own party. His work on this issue led most historians to conclude that this cost the Democrats the South for the next 50 years, and counting. He created Medicare as we know it today. He initiated major programs for education, the arts, the enviroment, and even imposed gun controls (see Gun Control Act of 1968). Meanwhile, the NASA space program enjoyed astounding growth and accomplishment during this period of intense government activism. Unfortunately, the stain of the Vietnam War and afternath tarnished what might have been one of the greatest political periods in the nation’s history when it was undergoing massive change, and even upheaval. HISTORICAL ARROW — POINTS UPWARD
7. Gerald R. Ford (1974-1977)
Gets high marks for restoring confidence in government and returning the executive branch to respectability following the Watergate scandal. His stable leadership and calm disposition is just what the country needed following a serious Constutional crisis. Gets low marks for failing to accomplish much while in power, although it’s probably unfair to judge him alongside the others on this list since he served only slighlty longer than half a full term (Ford took over the presidency after Richard Nixon resigned). In retrospect, judged favorably by both parties. Might had graded higher had he won in 1976, in which case Ronald Reagan probably would not have been elected (in 1980). HISTORICAL ARROW — NEUTRAL
8. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
Gets high marks for fixing some serious problems, which led to things like welfare reform, and some immigration reforms. He even famously said, “the era of big government is over,” — which sounds more like a conservative. Left country with a huge budget surplus after leaving office. He also presided over a strong economy during most of his presidency. Also, successfully brought Middle East conflict to a standstill (at least for a short time) with creation of Palestinian Authority, a monumental accomplishment. Gets low marks for lacking personal ethics, which should have led to his impeachment (forced removal from office). Reason has nothing to do with sex, but rather clearly lying repeatedly to a Grand Jury. Clinton was the beneficiary of taking office at the perfect time. His presidency coincided with two major events which spurred a boom economy. First, came the growth of high tech and shifting consumer patterns toward the Internet, which created immense expansion and wealth for many. Second, during the 1990s the U.S. economy didn’t have to absorb the problems associated with the fall of the U.S.S.R and Eastern Europe, which put a drag on most of Europe with currency conversion, high unemployment, and do forth. HISTORICAL ARROW: POINTS DOWNWARD
9. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
Gets high marks on restoring pride in both the nation and the presidency, as well as presiding over many of the events which eventually led to the downfall of Communism in the Soviet Union and most of Eastern Europe. Naively optimistic to the point of delusional. Became the catalyst for “trickle down economics,” a failed Friedman-esque spinoff of the Shock Doctrine, which continues to attract devotees. Likely suffered some form of early dementia late in his presidency, which may have impaired his ability to govern. Wildly popular at the time he was in office, evidenced by two landslide election victories, Reagan’s final place in history is difficult to determine. He was immensely likable and honest. Yet, his accomplishments aren’t quite all they seem. He was certainly a transformational fifure and the father of the modern conservative political movement. That said, as we become further removed from the imagery, we begin to see the Reagan years as a reactionary period in history when government was vilified and the private sector was given license to take everything. We’re now paying the heavy price for this imbalance of power, with banking failures, economic crisis, and gross wealth inequality. HISTORICAL ARROW: POINTS DOWNWARD
10. Barack Obama (2009-present)
Gets high marks for restoring economic stability without major disruptions following what was close to a global meltdown. Also gets high marks for national security initiatives which have kept the nation safe from terrorist attacks. Gets low marks for unnecessarily continuing two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) for too long. Also gets low marks for abandoning many of the progressive principles which got him elected, and then re-elected again. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is still too early to judge, but could me a major breakthrough towards what’s hoped will eventually be universal health care. But Obama has continually caved in on just about every major issue to the opposition in what he claims was intent to reach bipartisan cooperation. This appeasement hasn’t worked and may have very well cost him his historcial window of opportunity. The government is now politically gridlocked worse than ever (which is certainly not entirely the fault of the president). Way too early to judge, but will apparently end up ranked somewhere in the middle of the pack. Average, at best. HISTORICAL ARROW — NEUTRAL
11. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
Gets high marks for several bold foreign policy breakthroughs (strategic arms limitations talks with Soviet Union, and opening up diplomatic relations with China). Also gets high marks for surprisingly liberal domestic agenda, which included a continuation and expansion of many “Great Society” programs first signed into law by LBJ. Nixon’s domestic agenda was never conservative. He even sought to regulate oil companies (created the Department of Energy). He even went to far as to propose universal health care in 1974, a concept that would be unthinkable today even for Democrats. Gets low marks for a myriad of personal character flaws, all on display during the Watergate cover-up, which led to his rightful resignation from office. Critics would say Nixon was morally bankrupt, and perhaps even mentally unfit for high office. His defenders would claim this to be Machiavellian. Neverthless, the presidency, the government, and the nation were all far worse off for his years in office (at least in the short term), an unfortunate fact that no amount of foreign policy triumph can scrub away. The longer term view of Nixon is probably more favorable. HISTORICAL ARROW — NEUTRAL
12. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
Gets high marks for personal integrity and skills in diplomacy. Gets low marks for the deep recession which hit hard during the early 1990s. Bush Sr. took office with perhaps the best resume of anyone in history, having held numerous positions of authority in government for most of his life (Congressman, Ambassador, Director of the C.I.A., and Vice President). He seemed willing to compromise with the opposition to get things done (and paid dearly for it breaking his “no new taxes” pledge). His handling of the Iraq War (Dessert Storm) was a diplomatic marvel, but it also didn’t finish the job, which triggered another invasion of Iraq a decade later. A mixed grade is probaby deserved here, although he’s now starting to look a lot better given the three presidents who came afterward. HISTORICAL ARROW — POINTS UPWARD
13. William H. Taft (1909-1913)
Look this one up yourself.
14. William McKinnley (1887-1900)
It’s 2 am as I write this. I’m not doing this one.
15. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
Gets high marks for charm and style, as well as being a major inspirational figure in history. Also, deserves notable place in history for creation of NASA and the space program. Gets low marks for repeated foreign policy blunders and unwillingness to act sooner on civil rights. Unquestionably the most overrated president in American history, Kennedy inherited the nation at the height of prosperity and at the pinnacle military power and world influence. Yet he accomplished virtually nothing while in office, and proved to be a foreign policy disaster. His gross incompetance at the 1961 Vienna Peace Summit and role in the failed Bay of Pigs excursion led to the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, which is often misjudged by history as an American victory (the Russians got exactly what they wanted out of the deal, which was the removal is U.S. missiles from Turkey). As for civil rights, Kennedy was a no-show until things got so bad he finally had to act. He didn’t give an address to the nation on this critical issue until mid-1963, more than two-and-a-half years into his presidency. The Kennedy mystique and his tragic death made him into a saint, when the record actually shows he did very little to merit the adulation. HISTORICAL ARROW — POINTS DOWNWARD
16. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
Gets high marks for nothing I can think of. Gets low marks for corruption. A terrible president, who only avoided the bottom of the ladder by dying before his first term was complete. To his credit though, he reportedly gambled away the White House china in a poker game and drank alcohol openly, even though this was during Prohibition. So, the man wasn’t all bad.
17. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
A fine and decent man. A horrible president. In way over his head from the moment he took office until he left the White House. Didn’t have a clue how to govern with authority. By just about any metric, the U.S. (especially the economy) was far worse off after the Carter years, although some of this was due to the global energy crisis and events way beyond his control. Handled the Iranian Revolution poorly from the start, which ended up wearing down his presidency. Carter’s one notable accomplishment was negotiating the treaty between Israel and Egypt, quite historic for its time. A great ex-president, however. HISTORICAL ARROW: POINTS NEUTRAL
18. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
Gets high marks for cleaning up the mess left by his corrupt predecessor. Gets low marks as the worst “do nothing” president of the 20th Century. Coolidge assumed office unexpectedly following death of Warren G. Harding and served slightly more than one term. Believed in laissez-faire style government, which led to the Great Depression a short time after he left office.
20 (tie). George W. Bush (2001-2009)
Gets high marks for…..give me a year or so, and I might think of something. An atrocious president by any measure. Fabricated an excuse for going to war, then started yet another — both of which have turned out to be the longest conflicts in American history, and also the costliest from a financial standpoint. Left country on the brink of a global meltdown stemming from his administration’s policies in favor of deregulation. Military, national security, and private contractor bureaucracies exploded out of control. Anti-intellectual, tethered to religious right, tax cuts for the rich, (then) record deficits, on and on. Arguably the worst president in history other than Andrew Johnson.
20 (tie). Herbert Hoover
Thugh he wasn’t entirely to be blamed for the Great Depression, Hoover’s failure to engage the power of his office and use the authority of the government (as FDR would do a few years later) made the crisis much worse and pushed this nation to the brink of collapse.
Writer’s Note: As you can see from some glaring ommissions, this essay is woefully incomplete. I wrote it at 2 am in a hotel room after driving 6 hours. Note to self — don’t take on cast topics like this during holidays.