Ranking America’s Presidents

How should we rank America’s presidents? C-SPAN asked ninety-one “professional observers of the presidency,” including historians Douglas Brinkley, Edward Crapol, Robert Dallek, Annette Gordon-Reed, Allen Guelzo, David Kennedy, and Walter McDougall. Each participant ranked our previous chief executives in ten equally weighted categories. You can find the full results here, but a few highlights:

• The top four remained unchanged from 2009, the last time a presidential transition prompted this survey: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Teddy Roosevelt.

Mount Rushmore National Monument
From left to right, the 2nd, 7th, 4th, and 1st rated presidents according to the new C-SPAN survey – Creative Commons (Dean Franklin)

• The bottom three is also the same: James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Franklin Pierce, with Buchanan claiming the lowest rating in seven of the 10 categories.

• Dwight Eisenhower made the biggest move, jumping from #8 to #5, with John F. Kennedy dropping two spots (to #8) and Harry Truman one (to #6).

Meacham, American Lion• Barack Obama entered the list at #12 — and #3 at “Pursued Equal Justice for All.” By comparison, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton debuted at nos. 36 and 21, respectively.

• Apparently the impact of Hamilton on historians has been overstated, since its less-than-flattering characterizations of them didn’t hurt either Thomas Jefferson (steady at #7) or James Madison (up three to #17).

• I wonder if the 2016 election had presidential scholars rethinking the merits of the populist Andrew Jackson, whose five-spot drop was largest in the pool. (Though he still stayed in the top 20.) By the same token, it’s worth pointing out that the last Republican president before the current officeholder gained three spots and climbed out of the bottom ten.

• Other presidents falling significantly in the rankings: John Tyler (#35 to #39), Gerald Ford (#22 to #25), Martin Van Buren (#31 to #34), Chester Arthur (#32 to #35).

Then here are ten categories, with the top- and bottom-rated presidents and those whose status rose or sank the most since the 2009 survey:

Category Top-Rated Largest Gain Bottom-Rated Largest Drop
Administrative Skill Lincoln Madison, Taft, L.B. Johnson (+5) A. Johnson Jackson, Van Buren (-5)
Crisis Leadership Lincoln Reagan (+4) Buchanan Ford (-5)
Economic Management Washington Grant (+5) Hoover Tyler (-8)
International Relations F.D. Roosevelt Madison (+9) Buchanan Hoover (-6)
Moral Authority Washington J.Q. Adams, Grant (+4) Buchanan Ford (-10)
Performance within Context of Times Washington Grant, Hayes, Garfield (+4) Buchanan Arthur (-5)
Pursued Equal Justice for All Lincoln G.W. Bush (+5) Buchanan Wilson (-8)
Public Persuasion F.D. Roosevelt G.W. Bush (+11) Buchanan Ford (-11)
Relations with Congress L.B. Johnson G.W. Bush (+9) A. Johnson Jackson (-7)
Vision/Setting an Agenda Lincoln G.H.W. Bush (+7) Buchanan Taylor (-6)

9 thoughts on “Ranking America’s Presidents

  1. Thx for the reply, Chris. You are correct. It’s the 3rd such poll; none were held after 2004 and 2012. I counted wrong. Still, in 2001, what made them think they could put Clinton’s presidency into a historical context so soon? Why at that moment in history, when Clinton left office high in the polls but leaving his Democratic Party an electoral wreck, did someone decide to conduct this survey before the smoke had even cleared?

    That is politics, not history. If one judged Harry Truman or LBJ positively at the close of their presidencies–who were each so wretchedly unpopular and besieged by events they declined to run for re-election–he would be laughed at. But now LBJ’s Top 10. Harry Truman’s 6th!

    For those two examples alone, this survey is exposed as worthless as serious history. It’s simply too soon, especially if the lion’s share of these experts most likely voted for those they’re presumably judging impartially–and would vote for them again!

    Further, this is not a rating of presidents or presidencies as advertised or at least understood by the general public: It’s a subjective set of criteria with even more subjective 1-10 ratings of “ten qualities of presidential leadership.” Thus 2 1/2 years of Jack Kennedy can somehow be rated above Ronald Reagan’s greatly significant two terms. I expect such silly outcomes from Gallup, but not social “scientists.”

    I find the historiography far more interesting. See

    PARTISANSHIP AS A SOURCE OF PRESIDENTIAL
    RANKINGS
    Joseph E. Uscinski and Arthur Simon

    http://www.joeuscinski.com/uploads/7/1/9/5/71957435/partisan_bias_in_rankings.pdf

    This study looks for evidence of a
    partisan bias in the ranking polls. Concentrating on the modern presidency, we find that
    presidential partisanship is a potent predictor of rank; academic raters consistently rank
    Democratic presidents ten places higher on average than Republican presidents. We also
    compare the rankings from academics to rankings from non-academics and show that
    academic raters favor Democratic presidents more than non-academic raters. Our
    findings suggest, in accordance with previous literature, that partisan attachment affects
    the subjective judgments that presidential ranking polls inherently require.

    This is what folks like me mean by fake news, Chris, and also why we Great Unwashed are so hostile to the academic powers that are, their opinion and bias passed off as fact and “science.”

  2. I rarely respond to Tom on this blog because I’ve long since learned that conversation with him is pointless. (And I’ll delete any further comments from him – he sometimes forgets that this isn’t his blog and writes comments that end up longer than the original post.) But for the sake of others who might be reading… I do think he’s right to question the wisdom of trying to assess a president whose term in office has just concluded; it’s probably why you can see so much volatility in the numbers for George W. Bush and why we’ll most likely see similar fluctuations whenever the next change in president presents an opportunity to re-evaluate the Obama administration. In fact, we just discussed this very problem on Friday in my Intro to History course. In theory, even the most recent past is within the realm of historical study, but the more prudent course of action is to wait for the perspective that comes with temporal distance.

    But I think you can acknowledge that limitation and the basic subjectivity inherent in any kind of exercise like this without going off the deep end and dismissing leading historians and political scientists as shrill partisans dispensing “fake news.” I share this survey solely as a conversation starter, and perhaps to prompt you to pick up one of the many book-length assessments of individual presidents that these scholars have written.

    1. I think he’s right in one relatively narrow sense – it’s foolish to rank presidents as soon as their terms end. Everything else in his comment… Well, for a more thoughtful conservative critique of this exercise from someone who participated in it, see Robert Merry’s post at The American Conservative: https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-greatest-presidents. And this is not the first time Tom has written like this; this is a familiar pattern.

      1. Tim – I don’t know why the comments didn’t show up before. Sorry it’s been a hassle for you, but I’m glad you had a chance to register your opinion.

      2. Well, that one showed up, so let me try my comment again:

        Merry’s post is excellent, though I strongly disagree that failing to live up to his standard is grounds for banishment. To the contrary, Merry’s point is that these polls are equal biographies of historians as they are their subjects: “viewed collectively and over time, they show trends in the country’s political thinking and offer a pretty solid overview of presidential performance.” You can’t show a trend in the country’s thinking without starting soon after the tenure is over. If this were only a biography of a president, historians wouldn’t bother embarrassing themselves. But if it’s also a biography of a NATION, then you take the snapshot.

        So is “the country’s thinking” here whatever is represented by the collective opinions of historians? Should us non-historians just be quiet? Seems an odd an imperious tack to take while historians are judging a period that ended mere weeks ago. That’s not history; that’s recent memory. As Tom said, it’s simply too soon.

        Unless you put the asterisk, there’s something unhistorical about it, something dishonest, even if unintentionally. It is difficult to judge these sorts of things, and Merry is probably right to suggest they are not very useful until you’ve done several iterations so you can measure the biographers just as they measure their subjects. But it is quite a job to muster the charity and goodwill to historians not to simply conclude it is a farce to publish a “snapshot” until you can juxtapose it with at least two or three others. Until then, what is the point of publishing an early snapshot that, by itself, is at worst rubbish as a work of history, and at best, useless as a work of history — at least until many more years have passed and more snapshots accumulated?

        Even then, why take the snapshot so soon — days! — after a just-finished tenure? Presumably, historians have political feelings, and as Jon Haidt’s work shows, tribalism is a real problem in the social sciences. What assurances can be offered by participants in polls judging President Obama, for instance, that their judgment is not affected by their opinions of recent politics? How can history evaluate such fresh takes without those assurances?

        How, in short, can the recent CSPAN poll ever tell us more about presidents than it does about historians?

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