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Historical rankings of presidents of the United States

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Historical rankings of presidents of the United States

In political studies, historical rankings of presidents of the United States are surveys conducted in order to construct rankings of the success of individuals who have served as President of the United States. Ranking systems are usually based on surveys of academic historians and political scientists or popular opinion. The rankings focus on the presidential achievements, leadership qualities, failures, and faults.

Contents

General findings

Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, are the three most popular presidents among historians. The remaining places in the Top 11 are often rounded out by Harry S Truman, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, James K. Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. Recent presidents such as John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton tend to be rated among the greatest in world opinion polls, but do not always rank as highly among presidential scholars and historians. The bottom 11 often includes Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Warren G. Harding, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, William Henry Harrison, George W. Bush, Zachary Taylor, and John Tyler. Because William Henry Harrison (30 days) and James A. Garfield (200 days, incapacitated after 119 days) both died shortly after taking office, they are sometimes omitted from presidential rankings. Zachary Taylor also died after serving as president for only 16 months, but he is usually included. In the case of these three, it is not clear if they received low rankings due to their actions as president, or because each was president for such a limited time that it is not possible to assess them more thoroughly.

Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham noted the "dichotomous or schizoid profiles" of presidents, which can make some hard to classify. Historian Alan Brinkley said, "There are presidents who could be considered both failures and great or near great (for example, Nixon)". James MacGregor Burns observed of Nixon, "How can one evaluate such an idiosyncratic president, so brilliant and so morally lacking?"

David H. Donald, noted biographer of Lincoln, relates that when he met John F. Kennedy in 1961, Kennedy voiced his deep dissatisfaction and resentment with historians who had rated some of his predecessors. Kennedy said, "No one has a right to grade a President—even poor James Buchanan—who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions."

Historian and political scientist Julian E. Zelizer argues that traditional presidential rankings explain little concerning actual presidential history, and that they are "weak mechanisms for evaluating what has taken place in the White House." Libertarian political commentator Ivan Eland wrote a book titled Recarving Rushmore (2008; updated 2014) in which he wrote that historians' criteria are poor in their capacity to reflect presidents' actual services to the country; in the book, Eland chose to rate 40 US presidents on the basis of whether their policies promoted prosperity, liberty, and non-interventionism, as well as modest executive roles for themselves; his final rankings varied significantly from those of most scholars.

Notable scholar surveys

The 1948 poll was conducted by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., of Harvard University. The 1962 survey was also conducted by Schlesinger, who surveyed 75 historians. Schlesinger's son Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., conducted another poll in 1996.

The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents also gives the results of the 1982 survey, a poll of 49 historians conducted by the Chicago Tribune. A notable difference from the 1962 Schlesinger poll was the ranking of Dwight D. Eisenhower, which rose from 22nd in 1962 to 9th in 1982.

The Siena Research Institute of Siena College conducted surveys in 1982, 1990, 1994, 2002, and 2010. The 1994 survey placed only two presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, above 80 points and two presidents, Andrew Johnson and Warren G. Harding, below 50 points. The 2010 Siena survey had George W. Bush plummet from the initial 2002 ranking of 23rd down to 39th.

The 1996 column shows the results from a poll conducted from 1988 to 1996 by William J. Ridings, Jr., and Stuart B. McIver and published in Rating the Presidents: A Ranking of U.S. leaders, from the Great and Honorable to the Dishonest and Incompetent. More than 719 people took part in the poll, primarily academic historians and political scientists, although some politicians and celebrities also took part. Participants from every state were included, and emphasis was placed upon getting input from female historians and "specialists in African-American studies", as well as a few non-American historians. Poll respondents rated the presidents in five categories (leadership qualities, accomplishments & crisis management, political skill, appointments, character & integrity), and the results were tabulated to create the overall ranking.

A 2000 survey by The Wall Street Journal consisted of an "ideologically balanced group of 132 prominent professors of history, law, and political science". This poll sought to include an equal number of liberals and conservatives in the survey, as the editors argued that previous polls were dominated by either one group or the other, but never balanced. According to the editors, this poll included responses from more women, minorities, and young professors than the 1996 Schlesinger poll. The editors noted that the results of their poll were "remarkably similar" to the 1996 Schlesinger poll, with the main difference in the 2000 poll being the lower rankings for the 1960s presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy, and higher ranking of President Ronald Reagan at 8th. Franklin Roosevelt still ranked in the top three.

Another presidential poll was conducted by The Wall Street Journal in 2005, with James Lindgren of Northwestern University Law School for the Federalist Society. As in the 2000 survey, the editors sought to balance the opinions of liberals and conservatives, adjusting the results "to give Democratic- and Republican-leaning scholars equal weight." Franklin D. Roosevelt still ranked in the top three, but editor James Taranto noted that Democratic-leaning scholars rated George W. Bush the sixth-worst president of all time, while Republican scholars rated him the sixth-best, giving him a split-decision rating of "average".

A 2006 Siena College poll of 744 professors reported the following results:

  • "George W. Bush has just finished five years as President. If today were the last day of his presidency, how would you rank him? The responses were: Great: 2%; Near Great: 5%; Average: 11%; Below Average: 24%; Failure: 58%."
  • "In your judgment, do you think he has a realistic chance of improving his rating?" Two-thirds (67%) responded no; less than a quarter (23%) responded yes; and 10% chose "no opinion or not applicable".
  • Thomas Kelly, professor emeritus of American studies at Siena College, said: "President Bush would seem to have small hope for high marks from the current generation of practicing historians and political scientists. In this case, current public opinion polls actually seem to cut the President more slack than the experts do." Douglas Lonnstrom, Siena College professor of statistics and director of the Siena Research Institute, stated: "In our 2002 presidential rating, with a group of experts comparable to this current poll, President Bush ranked 23rd of 42 presidents. That was shortly after 9/11. Clearly, the professors do not think things have gone well for him in the past few years. These are the experts that teach college students today and will write the history of this era tomorrow."

    A 2010 Siena poll of 238 presidential scholars found that former President George W. Bush was ranked 39th out of 43, with poor ratings in handling of the economy, communication, ability to compromise, foreign policy accomplishments, and intelligence. Meanwhile, the then-current president, Barack Obama, was ranked 15th out of 43, with high ratings for imagination, communication ability and intelligence and a low rating for background (family, education and experience).

    The C-SPAN Survey of Presidential Leadership consists of rankings from a group of presidential historians and biographers. The C-SPAN Survey of Presidential Leadership has taken place three times: in 2000, 2009, and 2017. The most recent survey was of 91 presidential historians, surveyed by C-SPAN's Academic Advisor Team, made up of Douglas G. Brinkley, Edna Greene Medford, and Richard Norton Smith. In the survey, each historian rates each president on a scale of one ("not effective") to 10 ("very effective") on presidential leadership in ten categories: "Public Persuasion," "Crisis Leadership," "Economic Management," "Moral Authority," "International Relations," "Administrative Skills," "Relations with Congress," "Vision/Setting An Agenda," "Pursued Equal Justice for All," and "Performance Within the Context of His Times"; each category is equally weighed. The results of all three C-SPAN surveys have been fairly consistent. Abraham Lincoln has taken the highest ranking in each survey, and George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Theodore Roosevelt have always ranked in the top five, while James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Franklin Pierce have been ranked at the bottom of all three surveys.

    In 2008, The Times daily newspaper of London asked eight of its own "top international and political commentators" to rank all 42 US presidents "...in order of greatness".

    In 2011, through the agency of its United States Presidency Centre (USPC), the Institute for the Study of the Americas (located in the University of London's School of Advanced Study) released the first ever U.K. academic survey to rate U.S. presidents. This polled the opinion of British specialists in American history and politics to assess presidential performance. They also gave an interim assessment of Obama, but his unfinished presidency was not included in the survey (had he been included, he would have attained eighth place overall).

    In 2012, Newsweek magazine asked a panel of historians to rank the ten best presidents since 1900. The results showed that historians had ranked Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan as the best since that year.

    A 2013 History News Network poll of 203 American historians, when asked to rate Obama's presidency on an A–F scale, gave him a B- grade. Obama, whom historians graded using 15 separate measures plus an overall grade, was rated most highly in the categories of communication ability, integrity, and crisis management, and most poorly for his relationship with Congress, transparency, and accountability.

    A 2015 poll, administered by the American Political Science Association (APSA) among political scientists specializing in the American presidency, had Abraham Lincoln in the top spot, with George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson making the top 10. The results of this poll are reflected in the table below.

    Incumbent President Donald Trump is not included in any survey, as none have been conducted since his January 20, 2017 inauguration.

    Scholar survey results

  • Blue backgrounds indicate first quartile.
  • Green backgrounds indicate second quartile.
  • Orange backgrounds indicate third quartile.
  • Red backgrounds indicate fourth quartile.
  • Note: Click the "sort" icon at the head of each column to view the rankings for each survey in numerical order.

    Liberal and conservative raters

    The Murray-Blessing 1982 survey asked historians whether they were liberal or conservative on domestic, social and economic issues. The table below shows that the two groups had only small differences in ranking the best and worst presidents. Both groups agreed on the composition of nine of the top ten Presidents (and were split over the inclusion of either Lyndon B. Johnson or Dwight D. Eisenhower), and six of the worst seven (split over Jimmy Carter or Calvin Coolidge).

    Statistical analysis

    Scholars have explored whether historians' rankings of a president are correlated with quantifiable measures. David R. Henderson and Zachary Gochenour applied a linear regression model to explain the C-SPAN Survey of Presidential Leadership rankings. They found the following factors to be statistically significantly correlated:

    They conclude that "The results indicate that military deaths as a percentage of population is a major determinant of greatness in the eyes of historians".

    Excluded groups ranking approach

    In 2002, Ronald Walters, former director of the University of Maryland's African American Leadership Institute, stated that presidents ranked by how each president balanced the interests of majority interests and the interests of excluded groups was practical in respect to American debate on racial politics. Presidents have traditionally been ranked on personal qualities and their leadership ability to solve problems that move the nation in a positive direction. Walters stated there was a qualitative difference between white and African American intellectuals in evaluating presidents. In the 1996 New York Times Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. poll, 31 white historians and one black historian ranked presidents on differing categories of greatness. In a survey done by Professor Hanes Walton, Jr., and Professor Robert Smith, in their text book American Politics And The African American Quest For Universal Freedom, 44 African American political scientists and historians ranked presidents in terms of racial attitudes and racial legislation proposed. Individual presidents' attitudes, policies, and perspectives were historically ranked in five categories: White Supremacist; Racist; Racially Neutral; Racially Ambivalent; Antiracist.

    Rasmussen poll

    According to a Rasmussen poll conducted in 2007, six presidents—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy—were rated favorably by at least 80% of Americans.

    Gallup poll

    A Gallup poll about presidential greatness, taken February 2–5, 2011, asked 1015 adults in the US, "Who do you regard as the greatest United States president?"

    1. Ronald Reagan (19%)
    2. Abraham Lincoln (14%)
    3. Bill Clinton (13%)
    4. John F. Kennedy (11%)
    5. George Washington (10%)
    6. Franklin Roosevelt (8%)
    7. Barack Obama (5%)
    8. Theodore Roosevelt (3%)
    9. Harry Truman (3%)
    10. George W. Bush (2%)
    11. Thomas Jefferson (2%)
    12. Jimmy Carter (1%)
    13. Dwight Eisenhower (1%)
    14. George H. W. Bush (1%)
    15. Andrew Jackson (<1%)
    16. Lyndon B. Johnson (<1%)
    17. Richard Nixon (<1%)

    Popular opinion polls on recent presidents

    These polls evaluate recent presidents only.

    2010 Gallup poll

    A Gallup poll, taken on November 19–21, 2010, asked Americans to say, based on what they know or remember about the nine most recent former presidents, whether they approve or disapprove of how each handled his job in office.

    1. John F. Kennedy (85% approval/10% disapproval)
    2. Ronald Reagan (74% approval/24% disapproval)
    3. Bill Clinton (69% approval/30% disapproval)
    4. George H. W. Bush (64% approval/34% disapproval)
    5. Gerald Ford (61% approval/26% disapproval)
    6. Jimmy Carter (52% approval/42% disapproval)
    7. Lyndon B. Johnson (49% approval/36% disapproval)
    8. George W. Bush (47% approval/51% disapproval)
    9. Richard Nixon (29% approval/65% disapproval)

    Public Policy Polling

    A Public Policy Polling poll, taken between September 8–11, 2011, asked 665 American voters, based on what they know or remember about the nine most recent former presidents, whether they hold favorable or unfavorable views of how each handled his job in office.

    1. John F. Kennedy (74% favorability/15% unfavorability)
    2. Ronald Reagan (60% favorability/30% unfavorability)
    3. Bill Clinton (62% favorability/34% unfavorability)
    4. George H. W. Bush (53% favorability/35% unfavorability)
    5. Gerald Ford (45% favorability/26% unfavorability)
    6. Jimmy Carter (45% favorability/43% unfavorability)
    7. Lyndon B. Johnson (36% favorability/39% unfavorability)
    8. George W. Bush (41% favorability/51% unfavorability)
    9. Richard Nixon (19% favorability/62% unfavorability)

    Vision Critical/Angus Reid poll

    A Vision Critical/Angus Reid poll, taken on February 18–19, 2011, asked respondents about 11 former presidents plus the current president and whether they were a good or bad president.

    1. John F. Kennedy (80% approval/6% disapproval)
    2. Ronald Reagan (72% approval/16% disapproval)
    3. Bill Clinton (65% approval/24% disapproval)
    4. Dwight D. Eisenhower (61% approval/6% disapproval)
    5. Harry S. Truman (57% approval/7% disapproval)
    6. Jimmy Carter (47% approval/28% disapproval)
    7. George H. W. Bush (44% approval/38% disapproval)
    8. Barack Obama (41% approval/33% disapproval)
    9. Gerald Ford (37% approval/25% disapproval)
    10. Lyndon B. Johnson (15% approval/27% disapproval)
    11. George W. Bush (30% approval/55% disapproval)
    12. Richard Nixon (24% approval/54% disapproval)

    2013 Gallup poll

    A Gallup Poll, taken November 7–10, 2013, asked 1039 adults in the US, "How do you think each of the following presidents will go down in history—as an outstanding president, above average, average, below average, or poor?"

    2014 Quinnipiac poll

    A Quinnipiac University poll, taken June 24–30, 2014, asked 1446 registered voters in the US who they thought were the best and worst presidents since World War II.

    Best president since World War II

    1. Ronald Reagan (35%)
    2. Bill Clinton (18%)
    3. John F. Kennedy (15%)
    4. Barack Obama (8%)
    5. Dwight Eisenhower (5%)
    6. Harry S. Truman (4%)
    7. Lyndon B. Johnson (tie) (3%)
    8. George H. W. Bush (tie) (3%)
    9. Jimmy Carter (2%)
    10. Richard Nixon (tie) (1%)
    11. Gerald Ford (tie) (1%)
    12. George W. Bush (tie) (1%)

    Worst president since World War II

    1. Barack Obama (33%)
    2. George W. Bush (28%)
    3. Richard Nixon (13%)
    4. Jimmy Carter (8%)
    5. Lyndon B. Johnson (tie) (3%)
    6. Ronald Reagan (tie) (3%)
    7. Bill Clinton (tie) (3%)
    8. Gerald Ford (tie) (2%)
    9. George H. W. Bush (tie) (2%)
    10. Dwight Eisenhower (1%)
    11. Harry S. Truman (tie) (<1%)
    12. John F. Kennedy (tie) (<1%)

    2017 Quinnipiac poll

    A Quinnipiac University poll, taken January 20–25, 2017, asked 1190 voters in the US who they thought were the best and worst presidents since World War II.

    Best president since World War II

    1. Ronald Reagan (30%)
    2. Barack Obama (29%)
    3. John F. Kennedy (12%)
    4. Bill Clinton (9%)
    5. Dwight Eisenhower (tie) (3%)
    6. George W. Bush (tie) (3%)
    7. Harry Truman (tie) (2%)
    8. Lyndon B. Johnson (tie) (2%)
    9. Jimmy Carter (tie) (2%)
    10. George H.W. Bush (tie) (2%)
    11. Richard Nixon (<1%)
    12. Gerald R. Ford (<1%)

    Worst president since World War II

    1. Richard Nixon (24%)
    2. Barack Obama (23%)
    3. George W. Bush (22%)
    4. Jimmy Carter (10%)
    5. Ronald Reagan (5%)
    6. Bill Clinton (4%)
    7. Lyndon B. Johnson (3%)
    8. George H.W. Bush (2%)
    9. Gerald R. Ford (1%)
    10. Harry S. Truman (tie) (<1%)
    11. Dwight Eisenhower (tie) (<1%)
    12. John F. Kennedy (tie) (<1%)

    Siena College Research Institute, Presidential Expert Poll of 2010

    Source:

    Abbreviations

    FiveThirtyEight analysis

    In January 2013, New York Times journalist and statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight composed a composite list of previous presidential rankings by scholars for the purpose of predicting President Barack Obama's ranking among presidents.

    Memorability of the presidents

    In November 2014, Henry L. Roediger III and K. Andrew DeSoto published a study in the journal Science asking research subjects to name as many presidents as possible. They reported data from three generations, as well as from an online survey conducted in 2014. The percentage of participants in the online survey sample who could name each president was:

    References

    Historical rankings of presidents of the United States Wikipedia


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