Sunday, February 15, 2009

Presidential Idol: Lincoln the Best, Bush Not the Worst

C-SPAN has released the results of its second annual presidential leadership survey. The survey asks historians to rank U.S. presidents using a pre-determined list of criteria. This year, Lincoln tops the list.

I have always found these types of surveys bizarre, yet innocuous. First, "ranking" a president seems strange because multiple factors will determine how a president's contemporaries view him or her (perhaps, some day). But as time passes, new issues will shape a president's standing among future generations. Also, most of these studies poll historians. Although I respect the expertise that historians have in discussing the historical impact of particular presidents, scholars in other fields, such as political science, economics, and law, could make valuable contributions to this subject as well. Nevertheless, the study provides annual space for harmless trivia and debate.

Yes, Democratic Underground: Andrew Johnson Ranks Much Lower Than Bush
This year's study, as do most others, places Lincoln at the top. Although many liberal historians and politicians have recently argued that Bush is the absolute worst president (a claim I vigorously dispute), Dubya ranked 36 (out of 42). Immediately following Lincoln in the top five are: George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

The bottom five included (from bad to worst): Warren G. Harding, William Henry Harrison, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and James Buchanan. Previously, I described Andrew Johnson as possibly the "worst" president due to his callous efforts to kill Reconstruction and perpetuate the subordination of black people, and based on his awful conflicts with the Republican Party, which almost led to his removal from office. My analysis upset the crowd at Democratic Underground who seemingly believed that any argument that did not consider Bush the worst president emanated from a vile and corrupt mind. Does anyone know how the kids are reacting to the release of this survey?

Lyndon B. Johnson: Number 11
I am happy to see that LBJ ranks number 11. Many liberals despise Johnson due to the Vietnam War and his crass Southern persona. But Johnson actually did more than any other president -- including Kennedy -- to advance racial equality, assistance for the poor, public education, public health care, and general civil rights concerns.

Nevertheless, Johnson typically gets less credit on these liberal issues than he deserves, while Kennedy tends to receive far more acclaim on these matters than his performance warrants. Of course, social movements played a critical and essential role in pushing Johnson towards these accomplishments. The engagement of social movements with presidential leadership allowed for the dramatic political and social changes of the Johnson administration.


Anonymous said...

I like Ike! But I think I'd have to go with FDR or Lincoln. I know that Lincoln is the sympathetic choice, but FDR accomplished greatness too. So we have a Democrat or a Republican. Partisans can agree!

Anonymous said...

Carter belongs in the bottom 10 if not the very bottom.

Kansas City said...

The C-Span survey of "presidential leadership" is a disappointing politically correct attempt to evaluate presidents on criteria that is only indirectly (or not at all) related to accomplishment: Crisis Leadership; Economic Management (on the myth that presidents somehow manage the economy and in an apparent effort to elevate Bill Clinton); Moral Authority; International Relations; Administrative Skills; Relations with Congress; Vision/Setting An Agenda; Pursued Equal Justice For All; and Performance Within Context of Times. It is too esoteric for my taste.

The C-Span survey actually avoids any direct consideration of accomplishment, which I think is the best way to rank presidents. I am more interested in identifying the great presidents. From my perspective, the best way to assess presidential greatness is whether they accomplished something great for the country or successfully handled a challenge of great peril to the country. The honor roll is as follows:

Washington (birth of the country)

Jefferson (great expansion of the country)

Polk (great expansion of the country)

Lincoln (saved the union -- albeit at horrific costs -- and started the process that ended slavery)

FDR (won WWII)

Kennedy (avoided nuclear war in the Cuban missle crisis -- even though he was somewhat at fault for the crisis in the first place)

Reagan (won the cold war)

Bush I (turned back Sadaam Hussein when he was about to take over the middle east)

Near Great:

Truman (guided us to a stable post WWII world)

Eisenhower (similar to Truman, but in easier times)

Johnson (civil rights -- but bogged down by Vietnam and the excesses of the great society)

TR (fought monopolies and advocated conservation)

Jackson (established the power of the presidency)

Bush II and Clinton:

Bush II (potential for great or near great status if Iraq plays out great, but that is unikely - otherwise destined for the middle somewhere)

Clinton (desined to fall to the bottom tier, as history views him as a dishonest man who save his job by lying to the country and who was asleep at the switch on terrorism)

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Kansas City - the people who are most likely to judge Clinton most harshly were probably eligible to vote during his impeachment. As time goes by, Monica will probably look like some bizarre blip in US history. Most of the public did not favor removal from office, and a bipartisan Senate stopped the madness. Clinton actually went up in the survey over last year. I believe that the same "softening" will help Bush, but I doubt he'll ever get "greatness" status. The bad economy, poorly fought wars, historical memory, international relations, etc., will weigh down his rankings (fairly). I do not agree that he is the worst, but he is miles from greatness too.

Kansas City said...

Clinton's number from the C-Span study are set forth below, which shows that his relatively high ranking is skewed by "economic management" and "equal justice," and some "softening" of his negatives. 50 to 100 yars from now, my guess is that he will be remembered as a gifted politician who failed as president, remembered for lying to keep his job ("I did not have sex with than woman') and asleep on the terrorist threat. By looking below, you can see that his "rise" was a softening in virtually all categories, which almost has to be temporary. The scores also show how weak the survey is - he gets high scores on relations with Congress and administrative skills? Also, he gets a high mark on "equal justice" which is just a category to boost recent democrats.

Public Persuasion 10 11
Crisis Leadership 15 20
Economic Management 3 5
Moral Authority 37 41
International Relations 16 21
Administrative Skills 20 21
Relations with Congress 19 36
Vision / Setting an Agenda 15 22
Pursued Equal Justice For All 4 5
Performance Within Context of Times 16 21

BB-Idaho said...

Glad to see Ike going up. About time the historians agree with me. :)

Anonymous said...

I have trouble giving LBJ credit for the Civil Rights Act or 1964 since he led the Senate in opposing Civil Rights legislation put forward by Eisenhower. It is largely because of Johnson and the Democrats in the legislature that the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was a watered down version of the one that the administration had proposed.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Kansas City - I think that people from all sides could consider "equal justice" an important national and international issue, because unequal justice has caused so many tremendous problems for the nation. This category only helps "recent Democrats" because they, unlike Republicans, have emphasized civil rights as a political issue.

But this category boosts Republicans as old as Lincoln and as recent as Eisenhower. Eisenhower signed two major civil rights statutes, supported the Brown v Board of Education ruling, dispatched the national guard to protect black children going to school in Arkansas, and appointed liberals Earl Warren, William Brennan, and John Harlan II to the Supreme Court. Richard Nixon appointed Justice Blackman, the author of Roe v Wade. Gerald Ford appointed Justice Stevens, the senior liberal on the Court today.

Neither party has a monopoly on civil rights. And this is not an inherently "biased" criteron for measuring a president's success, given the importance of equality and liberty to American political culture and the horrific effects of deying justice.

Furthermore, the Republican Party has not always been identified with rightwing social conservatism, and it need not retain that identity in the future. For periods in American history, Republicans were either far more progressive than Democrats on rights issues -- or were at least the ideological equivalent.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Anonymous - your criticism is fair on LBJ, but who deserves the credit on the '64 Act? Do you believe the stronger bill would have passed in '57? A lot of things happened after that in terms of political activism that secured passage seven years later (of even more progressive reforms).

I think we can say with certainty that LBJ (and the Democrats) took the bullet later; the passage of the '64 legislation was one of the major factors leading to the Southern political realignment which has brought the GOP tremendous political success on the national stage.

Kansas City said...


I agree "equal justice" is an important national and international issue; I said LBJ was near great because of the Civil Rights Act.

It just does not make sense as a criteria to rank our presidents over the last 220 years. Putting aside the silliness of ranking slaveowners Washington and Jefferson relatively high on the issue, what does "equal justice" even mean in the context of rankding presidents? Is is a socially and politically loaded term that favors post Wilson democrats in the 20th century. I don't think it is a fair way to try to rank presidents. Bush II, who named two blacks to the most prestigious cabinet position is in the lower half? Below slaveholders? Truman is 3, notwithstanding all the bigoted things he said about blacks (I know he desegregated the Armed Services, which was a great thing)? For that matter, what did Clinton do that gets him ranked 4 while Bush II is ranked 26?


I don't have much use for LBJ prior to his presidency (heck, I don't even dismiss the possibility that he had something to do with JFK being assassinated), but my recollection is that he did engineer some progress on civil rights legislation in the 50's and, more importantly, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a rare ocassion of a politician making a decision the he knew would cost him votes in order to do what is right for the country. He supposedly said the CRA would cost the democrats the support of the south for a generation.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Kansas City - I'd like to redirect you to the original blog essay. I said that these types of rankings are "bizarre" because they limit the multiple factors that could go into the determination and because even these factors will have different degrees of relevance over time. Nonetheless, I think the surveys make for "innocuous" trivia and debate.

As to your specific disagreement with "equality" as a category for measuring presidential performance, I challenge you to dismiss its relevance under the very standard you have offered as a replacement: "whether they accomplished something great for the country or successfully handled a challenge of great peril to the country." The issue of racial violence and subordination have imperiled the country; so under your own standard, a reasonable person could assign points to presidents who presided over the attainment of social justice. There efforts accomplished "greatness."

Perhaps you do not think this issue should have as much weight in determining presidential success. But this does not mean that an objective observor, who does not care about boosting Bill Clinton or any other Democrat, could place the issue high on the list of criteria.

Although you have concentrated your argument around how this category helps Clinton, perhaps his high ranking results from the fact that his contemporaries have ranked him -- rather than the fact that equal justice concerns went into the rankings. Perhaps Clinton's liberal contemporaries gave him a boost by inflating his performance in this category, but this does not delegitimize the relevance of the category. Instead, it cautions against taking contemporary assessments too seriously. The same reaons that lead historians to have a softer view of Clinton, lead them to a harsher view of Bush. Eight years from now, I imagine their view of Bush will soften as well.

Personally, I would not give Clinton such high marks on this particular issue. And I would put Grant and Eisenhower -- two Republicans -- well ahead of Carter and Clinton. Also, if you look at the actual range of scores, they are tight within clusters, but with discernable gaps. There is a dramatic drop at the bottom. So, it looks like this category only helped establish the top and the bottom -- which is likely the case for all of the categories.

Kansas City said...


I agree the ranking are deficient but interesting for discussion.

I think we are talking past other on the equal justice issue. In my original post, I cited ending slavery and civil rights in ranking Lincoln great and Johnson near great. I also think Truman, Eisenhower and even Grant rate praise for significant achievements in civil rights, and I rated Truman and Eisenhower near great.

By the way, I am generally a fan of Grant, think he has been unfairly criticized for his presidency. I saw that he jumped from 33 to 23 in the 2009 C-span survey, which is pretty inexplicable but fine with me. There have been a couple good and favorable books on Grant and I guess enough of the voters read them.

Anonymous said...

Just curious but shouldn't Andrew Jackson be in the lows with his terrible history with the American Indian like the trail of tears.

Kansas City said...

I never had a good feel for why Jackson was such a huge figure in American History, e.e., Jacksonian Era. But I watched a History Channel biography on him last night. He was a very powerful president and essentially restored the power of the presidency. He also promoted the rights of the "common man."

The treatment of the Indians during his administration was bad, but apparently what the country wanted at that point in history. If you assume he was otherwise a president of great accomplishment, I don't know the weight you assign a specific shortcoming. It is enough to keep him out of the great category. Somewhat analagous to Johnson, although the opposite in that Johnson was good on civil rights and bad on war.

Decidere said...

Clinton asleep on terrorism? Nonsense. Maybe could have done a better job, but was balancing freedoms (having to work within the Constitution makes it a bit more difficult) and a hostile Congress. I don't think I have to go through all his anti-terrorist actions - they're easy enough to Google.

Clinton presided over a huge empowerment of black society in this country - an improvement unlikely to be repeated under Obama. Cutting poverty to 1/3, cutting violence to 1/3 of their 1992 values was simply amazing, and the high percentage of blacks in administration including upper management positions was unprecedented. That Gore felt he had to run against the prosperity of the 90's says much more about the Republicans' successful cauldron of hatred and the media's puerile and juvenile obsessions than it does about Clinton. Don't worry, Clinton will come out golden over time. All the fudging of the facts works for Washington Times stories, but doesn't make it into long-term analysis.

One of the more bizarre ones is trying to pin the mortgage collapse on Clinton when first, he was doing something very effective to increase black and poor home ownership from the crisis he inherited, and second, since we knew very well Fannie Mae need reform and oversight since at least 2000 and someone else was President most of that time. Historians know how to count, even if Hannity doesn't.

aratina said...

Bush (W) is undoubtedly the worst president in our lifetimes. His overall ranking hardly matters at this point.

Decidere said...

I'd like to remind that Clinton came in with crack gangs and machine gun fire in the inner city being a rather significant problem, and when a bit of money for "midnight basketball" caused conservatives hair to catch on fire (recently they managed to put a few million in for golf for minorities, I guess there are more budding Tiger Woods out there we need to assist). There are several trends that helped pull together, but you can't deny Clinton's strong voice on social justice and a strong effort to put his actions where his mouth was. There could easily have been an internet boom that didn't help poor areas much at all. There could have easily been an internet boom with the tax windfall wasted, say on an unnecessary war or tax cuts to the wealthy.

I'll give Reagan good points on 1) being a good cheerleader to restore the national mood, 2) bluffing down the Russians, 3) pragmatically raising taxes when he saw it wasn't working, and 4) still bringing down taxes to a more reasonable level. Minus points for poor budgeting, Iran Contra and attitudes towards the poor and education, and his long-lasting "government is the enemy" legacy.

LBJ? Excellent job except for Vietnam and that little detail of the national debt. Truman had some tough decisions to make, hard to nitpick too hard. Same with FDR. Anyway, I'd place Clinton in the top 6 this past century would have to think harder for an overall ranking.

Decidere said...

And yes, I'd say Bush II was hands down the worst president since 1900, whether on corruption and cronyism, undermining the Constitution and citizen rights, financial mismanagement and sheer neglect of duty, completely mismanaging a war that could have been avoided, and of course being asleep at the wheel for 9/11. There's probably something else there, but at least with Hoover you had the idea he cared enough to try - quite a bit of the New Deal was his idea. What can we borrow from the Bush philosophy? That carpet can't be steam cleaned.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Anonymous - I have seen a similar argument concerning Jackson.

Kansas City - I would say that the "Indian" policy was light years worse than Clinton's Monica-related lie.

Decidere - although I do not share the level of enthusiasm you have for Clinton on civil rights - I thought your post was a great read!

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Aratina -- I guess I'd agree with the "in our lifetime" qualification in your post. But in terms of US history, that's open to a lot of debate. Some would argue that Carter is worse than Bush, but I strongly disagree -- mainly because a lot of the economic stuff was well beyond his ability to regulate (OPEC).

Anonymous said...

I speak as a non-USA citizen. In our time the worst USA President has to be Carter, and I would point a finger at Clinton as well as GW Bush for the next worse president.

It depends upon the criteria that one is evaluating. I have a different perspective and I am not as close to all of the issues. Plus, I have a different POV about Iraq - I was against going into Iraq but changed my mind after the invasion commenced. However, I fault GW Bush on a variety of other issues (but not over the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina - that is something that was the fault of the mayor of New Orleans and the lack of preparedness). In other words I am not a promoter of GW Bush.

I place Ronald Reagan higher than any of those who came after him. I think that he was judged harshly for several years and the harsh judgment was rather unfair. His diplomacy with the Russians the fall of the Berlin Wall were the hallmarks of his Presidency. Yes I was in the USA during his Presidency and was there when he was elected for the 2nd time.

Bill Clinton leaves a sour taste in my mouth because I never thought that he was good enough for the job. However, in his favour was his experience in government, including as an ex-governor, and it is this experience that actually brings him up higher in any ranking.

Social Justice is important, and the great strides for civil rights took place under a few presidents including LBJ, Kennedy and also Clinton. However, some of the legislation put in place was poorly thought out, and this is why I would not place Clinton for example too high up in any rankings, and I place Carter as the worst President of the USA.

Most people who are blaming Bush for debt etc do not understand about lag times when it comes to economic policies (and all policies do have economic consequences). In other words the accumulation of debt was just as much a result of the earlier policies as it was the result of Bush's war policies. Where Bush went wrong was to decrease taxation during a time of war - the taxes should have been either increased or remained the same to finance going into Iraq and Afghanistan.

At this point in time, after less than one month, I am placing Obama at the same level as Carter. My opinion is based upon his lack of political, international and fiscal experience.

Kansas City said...


Sure, Jackson's Indian policy was worse than Clinton's lies about sex.

My point about Clinton's lies is that history will remember him as the president who lied in a successful effort to keep his job. The video of "I did not have sex with that woman" will never go away.

And can't we agree that presidents really are not able to do much to help the economy. The are the victims or beneficiaries of the normal upward and downward paths of the economy. Clinton's suporters cite the economy, when he inherited a recovering economy and left one limping in recession. To the extent anyone claims that Clinton did something to significantly help the economy in the 93-99 good years, what was it? And then what did he do wrong to let us go into recession as he left office.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

KC - I have blogged on the tendency to overstate the role of presidents in terms of economic policy. See: Bah Humbug: Both Parties Are Guilty With Respect to the Economy, But Neither Offers Concrete Solutions But I would not say that they have no effect at all. I also would not argue - which your statement implies -- that they can only impact the economy negatively (you said they cannot "help" it, but that Clinton "left it" limping into a recession).

Currently, I have heard people argue that Obama's stimulus package will devastate the economy and future generations. Perhaps they are making melodramatic arguments. Many economists said similar things about Bush's tax cuts. If uncontrolled deficit spending harms the economy, then these observations have legitimacy.

I think that presidents have some influence, although their role is often overstated. But presidents typically get more credit than they deserve for "change" that happens during their administration (e.g., Lincoln and slavery).

Kansas City said...


We are basically in agreement.

I said presidents cannot do much to help the economy, not that they could not affect it at all. I think they can do some things, like tax cuts, that obviously help the economy somewhat. I really don't know whether the stimulus package will help or hurt the economy, or even how we will be able to tell.

I did not say anything one way or the other about whether presidents can hurt the economy, but I think the answer is yes. Hoover hurt the economy by raising taxes and tariffs. I'm sure there are others, but mostly, presidents don't much help or hurt the economy.

I think Clinton was mostly a timing issue. I can't think of anything he did to help the economy (NAFTA?) or anything he did to cause the downturn in 1999-2000. Someone smarter than me might be able to point to something he did that hurt the economy long term.

Decidere said...

The bit about Clinton's lie is just complete nonsense. Weinberger "forgot" he kept a daily diary for 20 years with his cabinet notes. How many times did Reagan and Bush I lie about Iran Contra and other pertinent issues? How many times did LBJ and Nixon lie about Vietnam? FDR about his wheelchair? JFK about his Addison's disease (he wasn't required to talk about his Mafia mistresses).

Bush II and Cheney told huge lies all the time, whether it was about what they were going to do in office, the cost of the prescription benefit (climbed 50% a week after passing), reasons for the war, involvement in firing attorneys, ties to and actions of companies they worked for, suppressing info on global warming, etc.

Clinton was put in a spot to testify about something unrelated to his office and unrelated to the civil case against him. We let him get dragged through the courts on cases that had been investigated and discredited several times, and then a civil case that cast a huge net to ask about every private encounter he'd had with a female. There was no perjury because none of this pre-trial evidence was relevant to the case. But we let radical conservatives lay a pretty cute embarrassing trap that hurt the country as a whole.

And then post-Clinton, we can't even manage to investigate 9/11, the Iraq War or the meltdown of Fannie Mae and our financial industry. We just say, "Blame it on Clinton, Bush did his best"?

Decidere said...

Kansas City, you can actually go read about Clinton's legislation during the 90's to get an idea how he helped the economy and specific economic effects, how he stayed out of the way in others, and how he was a good cheerleader, one of the common praises for Reagan.

Decidere said...

And a trip down memory lane.

Bush did his best to talk down the economy coming into office, both to give himself the advantage of low expectations and the freedom to enact draconian economic policies. Bush's tax cuts his first few months cost much more than Obama's "stimulus" based on the panic he'd help inspire, and in the end made what would have been a blip of a recession into a long-term problem. But just blame Clinton, you'll have most of the "liberal" media and blogosphere lining up with you.

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