In anticipation of Presidents’ Day, C-SPAN released its updated list of the greatest presidents. The list was based on a survey completed by historians, professors, and media professionals. It is an interesting list, and like all surveys is subjective based upon the viewpoints of the individual’s ranking bias (conservative/liberal, strong government/weak government, etc.).
The list made me think of my own list that I put together five years ago and the need for it to be updated to reflect the end of the Obama Administration. That list, and the one that will follow, was my own reflection based on my studies of the presidents.
It is fair to list my biases at the start of the listing. I favor the long-term influence of a president over historical popularity. I also look at leadership competencies in the realm of whether the individual was able to motivate the nation to a purpose, was driven, and took control of the issues. Lastly, I want to look at whether the individual was effective in dealing with those issues that faced them.
I also believe it is worth noting that modern presidents are hard to rank. That is because the emotions (both positive and negative) drive a lot of our views on the effectiveness of a particular president. I have argued that it takes a generation to truly get a good perspective on an administration. I am beginning to wonder with the advent of social media that it may take multiple generations to evaluate presidents in this Technology Age.
That being said, here is my list of the greatest presidents … 2017 edition:
1 Abraham Lincoln (1, 2012 ranking) – Lincoln is often listed as the greatest president and for good reason. He led the nation during the Civil War, authored the Emancipation Proclamation, and gave perspective on the war with the Gettysburg Address. While we rank Lincoln at the top, we also must recognize that many of his accomplishments were the result of violating the Constitution.
2 George Washington (2) – Washington’s greatest accomplishment as president may be his last act. That is to leave after serving two terms. Washington could have been president for life, but he created the tradition of giving up power.
3 Theodore Roosevelt (6) – We typically rank his cousin, Franklin, higher, but the modern presidency truly began with Theodore Roosevelt. He made the Executive Branch, and the White House, the center of power in Washington. The Imperial Presidency we see today is an outflow from Theodore Roosevelt’s own actions and leadership.
4 Franklin Roosevelt (3) – Franklin Roosevelt led the nation during World War II and was one of the main global leaders in the battle of securing democracy over fascism. I believe, though, that his administration needs another look. His executive overreach (especially in terms of the Supreme Court) may have been as a result of believing that he was invincible and could do whatever he wanted.
5 Thomas Jefferson (4) – Jefferson led the nation through its first political transition from one party (Federalist) to another (Democratic-Republican). That transition helped to secure the nation’s political future.
6 Ronald Reagan (5) – Reagan’s leadership during the 1980s fostered the end of the Cold War. He also led a political revolution that is still being felt today.
7 Harry S. Truman (9) – Truman is the product of how perspective helps to provide a better appreciation for a president’s administration. When Truman left office, he was unpopular and seen as an accidental president. We have come to see Truman as someone who led the nation through the end of World War II, helped to stabilize post-war Europe, and began the process of social integration by ending segregation in the military.
8 James Monroe (7) – Monroe was the last of the Founding Fathers and articulated a doctrine that established the United States as the supreme military power in the Western Hemisphere. The doctrine, known today as the Monroe Doctrine, was actually written by John Q. Adams, who served in Monroe’s cabinet and was a former diplomat before becoming president himself.
9 Dwight Eisenhower (11) – Eisenhower is a testament to how even a modern president doesn’t have to overreach to be effective. His lasting legacy, the interstate highway system, transformed the American economy and lifestyle. He also helped to end segregation by enforcing the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.
10 Lyndon Johnson (19) – Much of the accomplishments that are typically given to Kennedy (Civil Rights, Voting Rights, etc.) actually came as a result of Johnson’s political maneuvering and skill in getting his agenda passed. His Great Society transformed the relationship between government and the poorest in America. An argument could be made to lower Johnson’s ranking due to Vietnam and the escalations during his time in office.
11 John F. Kennedy (10) – I believe we are going to begin seeing a re-evaluation of Kennedy as a president. Many lists have Kennedy in the top 10, and much of that is based on nostalgia and Kennedy’s rhetorical skill. We have to evaluate Kennedy also based on his actions with the Bay of Pigs, how the nation came close to nuclear destruction during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and how he was slow to respond to the civil rights crisis in the early 1960s. That is balanced, though, with the advancement of space exploration during his administration.
12 George H.W. Bush (20) – Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton in 1992 has often led him to receive a lower ranking. I believe this is unfair and Bush should be viewed in a better light. His diplomatic relationships and leadership from 1989-1991 led to a peaceful end to the Cold War, especially following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This does not event take into account his leadership during the Gulf War. Bush may go down as one of the nation’s best foreign policy presidents.
13 Woodrow Wilson (8) – Wilson has received criticism in recent years due to his statements regarding African-Americans in his time. That is a conversation that is appropriate in evaluating the full nature of the president, but the statements have to be viewed with the context of their time (right or wrong). That being said Wilson led the nation into World War I, but his effort at preventing future wars (League of Nations) failed to gain traction during his lifetime. It was put into place, in a way, through the United Nations following World War II.
14 John Adams (15) – Adams has received a renaissance through the great book and miniseries that has led to a reconsideration of his administration. He is often remembered for the Alien and Sedition Acts, but Adams should be remembered for being willing to seek peace in the midst of a populace that wanted war with France.
15 James Polk (16) – Polk purposely set out to be a one-term president. He accomplished much of what he set to do in one-term and refused to run again. He also led the nation into the Mexican-American War, which expanded the nation’s size to include Texas and California.
16 James Madison (14) – Madison is the only president to take command of the field during a battle. This took place during the War of 1812.
17 Bill Clinton (13) – The economic growth in the 1990s typically secures Clinton a higher ranking. There are questions about whether the growth came because of Clinton’s actions or George H.W. Bush’s tax increases, which also led to his defeat by Clinton. It is probably fair to say Clinton knew how to keep the wheels going of an already growing economy. His personal life, however, contributed to Clinton becoming only the second president to be impeached.
18 Barack Obama (20) – It is still way too early to evaluate Obama. His future rankings will be based on the future of Obamacare and other accomplishments during his term. I believe he will end up as an upper mid-level president.
19 Andrew Jackson (12) – Jackson was the last president to leave Washington without a national debt. His economic policies, though, contributed to the recession during Martin Van Buren’s administration. The Trail of Tears is still one of the worst moments in American history.
20 William McKinley (17) – He was the last Civil War veteran to serve as president. McKinley led the nation during a time of economic recovery and military successes (Spanish-American War). His assassination prevented him from being a truly great president.
21 Chester A. Arthur (25) – Arthur is a truly forgettable president if not for his muttonchops. His great benefit to the nation was the promotion of civil service reform, which came as a surprise given the fact that Arthur was a product of the spoils system.
22 Calvin Coolidge (18) – Coolidge came into office following Warren Harding’s death and is the only president to be sworn into office by his father. He led the nation during a time of economic growth that would bottom out during Herbert Hoover’s administration. Coolidge was probably the last president to truly believe in limited government.
23 Gerald Ford (32) – Ford is the only president never to be elected as president or vice president. He assumed the office after Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Ford was appointed as vice president after Nixon’s first vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned because of his tax issues. Ford was willing to sacrifice his own presidency in order to heal the nation after Watergate. He also led the nation out of Vietnam.
24 Grover Cleveland (23) – Cleveland was the only person to serve as president for two separate terms. His first term was successful, but his second term was a failure. He was an advocate for smaller government.
25 John Q. Adams (22) – Adams struggled, much like his father, in building the relationships needed to accomplish your goals. He often tangled with Jackson supporters who believe he stole the election with the help of Henry Clay.
26 James Garfield (31) – Only in office for a few months, Garfield was working towards ending the spoils system that his vice president, Chester A. Arthur, lived into. His death was not due so much to his gun wound but to the poor care he received afterwards.
27 William Howard Taft (24) – Taft is best remembered for being large, but he attempted to carry on Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts to break monopolies. In some ways he may have gone further than Roosevelt would have, but Roosevelt’s desire for power led to a three-way race in 1912 that cost Taft a second term.
28 Rutherford B. Hayes (27) – His election led to the end of the Reconstruction Period in the south. Hayes won the election after a House panel reviewed the election results with only a few days to spare before the inauguration date.
29 George W. Bush (29) – Like President Obama, it is still too early to offer a fair evaluation of his administration. There are things to admire about Bush’ administration and things to dislike. In time, I believe Bush will be seen as an average to weak president.
30 Benjamin Harrison (26) – He has the distinction of serving between the two Cleveland administrations. His own administration was derailed by the McKinley Tariff.
31 Jimmy Carter (38) – Carter is arguably one of the nation’s best ex-presidents, however his domestic policies led to high inflation rates in the 1970s and his responses to some of the economic and energy crisis made him seem detached from the issues. His major success was the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
32 Martin Van Buren (28) – He was the true founder of the modern political party and the Democratic Party. His presidency was hindered by Andrew Jackson’s economic policies, which contributed to the recession in 1837.
33 Ulysses S. Grant (35) – Grant is better remembered as the victorious general of the Civil War. His own administration, however, was filled with scandals. Grant did provide the model for the post-presidency memoir with his classic autobiography.
34 Richard Nixon (33) – If you remove Watergate from the conversation, Nixon would be considered as one of the most effective foreign policy presidents. His work in opening relations with China led to the nation’s economic boom during the past four decades. Nixon, though, cannot be fully analyzed without Watergate, which led the nation towards its most critical constitutional crisis. Nixon would have been the first president removed from office had he not resigned in 1974. That fact alone overshadows any of his achievements.
35 Herbert Hoover (30) – Hoover is a great case study in whether the individual in office contributes, either positively or negatively, to the nation’s economy. He was a great humanitarian, but was seen as unable to effectively respond to what was taking place following the stock market crash in 1929.
36 John Tyler (37) – Tyler’s lasting contribution to the presidency was the precedent of vice president succession. He said that he was the president and not the acting president, as some in his time argued, following the death of William Henry Harrison. Tyler, though, would be rejected by his party (Whig) in the middle of his term. He later supported the Confederacy and was buried with a Confederate flag over his coffin.
37 William Henry Harrison (41) – The shortest-serving president at one month in office. He gave the longest Inaugural Address in history. It has long been believed that he died of pneumonia, but recent research has suggested that he died of typhoid fever.
38 Zachary Taylor (34) – Taylor never held elected office and had never voted before his own election. He was elected because of his war record in the Mexican-American War. His administration was filled with tensions between the North and South.
39 Franklin Pierce (39) – The Kansas-Nebraska Act was enacted during his administration. This was one of the contributing factors that led to the Civil War.
40 Millard Fillmore (36) – Like Pierce and Taylor, his administration contributed to the Civil War. He signed into law both the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act.
41 Warren G. Harding (40) – His administration is mostly known by what was uncovered after his death. The Tea Pot Dome Scandal has tarnished his legacy, as has his marital affairs that have been recently revealed.
42 Andrew Johnson (42) – He was the first president to ever be impeached by the House of Representatives. Johnson barely survived conviction and removal by the Senate. He was distrusted by both Republicans and Democrats.
43 James Buchanan (43) – No one president did more to lead the nation into Civil War than Buchanan. He was essentially asleep behind the wheel during his administration and did nothing to keep seceding states from leaving the union.
Not Ranked: Donald Trump.