One of my favorite hobbies is presidential politics. I don’t know how I became interesting in presidential history and leadership, especially growing up in a family where that was the least of their interests. My only guess is that I was intrigued by Ronald Reagan and how, to a young child, he looked like a grandfather.
I’m so keenly interested in the presidents that I could probably name something about each of the 43 men who have served as president. I’m not sure if this is something to brag about or not. We will leave it at that for now.
During President’s Day weekend, we often see lists attempting to rank the presidents from greatest to, well, not so much. Of course, these lists are subjective based on the criteria used to rank and any personal biases. I recognize that my addition to these lists will be subjective and based on my own biases, as well.
My criteria is this: Impact on the country that is still being felt; interactions with the issues of the time; and leadership ability. The last meaning simply could the president inspire people or were they someone who was forgettable even in their own time.
With this as the background, here is my list of the greatest presidents. Each will include comments on their presidencies.
1. Abraham Lincoln – It’s hard to argue against Lincoln, because of his leadership during the Civil War. To accomplish all he did through great personal distress (melancholy) is quite amazing.
2. George Washington – We often rank Washington as the best, because of his leadership during the Revolutionary War. However, Washington had a difficult task of being the first president. He handled the duty well, and gave the office the precedent of a two-term president.
3. Franklin Roosevelt – His expansion of government in the wake of the Great Depression is still felt today. His leadership during World War II guided a generation well after the war and his death.
4. Thomas Jefferson – I doubt Jefferson would place himself this highly. He didn’t even put the fact he was the third president on his tombstone. He had both foreign and domestic successes during his presidency.
5. Ronald Reagan – It takes time to be able to properly evaluate a president, and I think we are now reaching the point where we can do so with Reagan. His leadership, along with others, helped to end the Cold War.
6. Theodore Roosevelt – The Panama Canal connected the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. The creation of the National Park Service preserved some of our country’s greatest landscapes.
7. James Monroe – The Monroe Doctrine, written by future president John Quincy Adams, set the stage for the United States to be the dominant political and military force in the Western Hemisphere.
8. Woodrow Wilson – He led the United States into World War I and his League of Nations served as the forerunner to the United Nations.
9. Harry S. Truman – He is perhaps more known for his upset win over Thomas Dewey in 1948, but his Truman Doctrine perhaps started the Cold War. He also integrated the military, which was a major Civil Rights accomplishment.
10. John F. Kennedy – His ranking is higher than it should be, and not just here but in all rankings. That is because of the love the country has for the Kennedys. However, his presidency was effective. His leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis prevented a nuclear disaster.
11. Dwight D. Eisenhower – His was an interesting presidency, and perhaps it is known more for the status quo that was maintained. The interstates were a nice touch.
12. Andrew Jackson – Jackson was not a good person. I do not think there is much to admire about Jackson (especially with the Trail of Tears). However, you cannot deny his many political accomplishments, especially ending the Bank of the United States. He was the last president to leave office without a national debt.
13. Bill Clinton – He was politically astute and was able to move to the center to preserve his presidency. This led to economic growth, government reforms, and relative peace in the United States. His impeachment is more of a political aside than a true attempt to limit his presidency.
14. James Madison – The War of 1812 led to peace between the United States and England. As others have said, Madison is probably more remembered for his ability to write than to lead.
15. John Adams – It has taken a long time for Adams to receive recognition for his presidency. He is often remembered for his leadership in creating the United States, but often maligned for his work as president (think Alien and Sedition Act). Adams led admirably in a situation that would have been difficult for any person. His biggest mistake might have been keeping Washington’s cabinet in office.
16. James Polk – He came. He saw. He led the country during the Mexican-American War, which gave the country most of its southwest territory. He did it all in one term.
17. William McKinley – The Spanish-American War was a quick victory. He also led during a time of economic recovery.
18. Calvin Coolidge – Most lists have Coolidge much lower, often in the 30s, but Coolidge has a lot to be admired. He was an advocate of limited government and is perhaps one of the last presidents to truly hold this position.
19. Lyndon Johnson – A polarizing individual, he was a president who had both successes and failures. He was able to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, but the Vietnam War destroyed his presidency.
20. George H.W. Bush – If he had run for re-election in 1991, Bush would have won with a landslide. He had foreign policy victories with the end of the Civil War and Operation Desert Storm. However, his decision to raise taxes turned the country against him.
21. Barack Obama – So far, Obama has been able to get much of his legislative priorities enacted (such as universal health care). The question for his future legacy is how will the 2012 election turn out and will the level of partisanship in the country impact how he is viewed.
22. John Q. Adams – Arguably, he had one of the greatest post-presidencies with his election to the House of Representatives and defense of the Amistad. His presidency advocated infrastructure improvements, but he was often at odds with Jackson supporters.
23. Grover Cleveland – He was the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. His first was decent. His second was not.
24. William Howard Taft – He was an average president and advocated trust busting. He probably would have defeated Wilson had it not been for the third party candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt.
25. Chester A. Arthur – A benefactor of the spoils system, his presidency enacted civil service reform.
26. Benjamin Harrison – The man who defeated Cleveland and was defeated by him, the McKinley Tariff led to his being a one-term presidency.
27. Rutherford B. Hayes – His first major act as president was to end Reconstruction.
28. Martin Van Buren – The Panic of 1837 led to economic problems for his administration.
29. George W. Bush – It is too early to analyze Bush’ administration. On one hand, he helped lead the nation after the events of September 11. But, the War in Iraq and Afghanistan were unpopular and his domestic policies expanded the role of government. My guess is that, in time, Bush will be ranked a middle-level or lower ranked president.
30. Herbert Hoover – He was a great humanitarian, which is perhaps little known. His efforts to end the Great Depression were failures.
31. James Garfield – His presidency was short, but it had potential. His administration was caught up in civil service reforms.
32. Gerald Ford – In my opinion, it is hard to find anything positive about his administration. Ford had a poor economy and pardoned Nixon, both of which led to a bad presidency.
33. Richard Nixon – Nixon is a mixed bag. If it wasn’t for Watergate, he would be ranked higher. It is hard to give Nixon a higher ranking because of this scandal. This scandal not only brought down Nixon, but damaged how Americans viewed the office.
34. Zachary Taylor – A short presidency, but he didn’t do much to sooth the tensions between the North and South. In fact, he might have angered the South more than he helped.
35. Ulysses S. Grant – The general who led the Union forces to a victory over the Confederates had a difficult presidency, which is being nice. His presidency was scandal ridden, and it weakened the legacy of this hero of the Civil War.
36. Millard Fillmore – He gave us the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act, which were two laws that led to the Civil War.
37. John Tyler – He became the fist vice president to assume the presidency upon a president’s death. Other than that, he was so maligned that his own party (Whig) rejected him in the middle of his term.
38. Jimmy Carter – He is often listed higher because of the peace accord with Israel and Egypt, which was a major accomplishment. However, his presidency was defined by economic struggles that led to his defeat.
39. Franklin Pierce – The Kansas-Nebraska Act added to the tensions between the North and South and led to the Civil War.
40. Warren G. Harding – The Tea Pot Dome Scandal will forever tarnish this presidency.
41. William Harrison – This is, perhaps, unfair, but it’s hard to judge a presidency after one month. He gave the longest Inaugural Address and caught pneumonia, which would take his life.
42. Andrew Johnson – Perhaps no one person was more ill-suited for the presidency than Johnson. His removal from office was saved off by one vote, which came from a family member.
43. James Buchanan – Many previous presidents ignored the full impact of the slavery issue, however Buchanan’s inaction and indifference led to the Civil War.