Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ranking Presidents

DCAT did it so I thought I'd take a stab. Although I have a different take. I generally think that we have been pretty lucky with our presidents. Certainly, most of our presidents have been decent and broad minded. I suppose I penalize presidents for bad decisions more than other scholars. I am sure few people would agree with my Wilson ranking, for instance. On the other hand, Taft has been proven right so many times since his presidency that I had to put him in the top ten.

George Washington
Made representative government possible

Abraham Lincoln
Saved representative government

Franklin D. Roosevelt
World War II

Dwight D. Eisenhower
Just about a perfect peacetime president

William McKinley
Created the modern presidency; really an amazing presidency taken altogether

Lyndon B. Johnson
Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act; nothing else matters (not even Vietnam)

Ronald Reagan
Turned America around

John Adams
Wisdom, judgment, decency

William Howard Taft
Predicted many of the problems that have come with making politics more democratic

Theodore Roosevelt
Hard to rank him this low, since he is my favorite president, but he was a little nuts

James Monroe
Just an all-around good administration

Thomas Jefferson
Louisiana Purchase

Calvin Coolidge
Oh if only we could get Coolidge back for one more term!

Andrew Jackson
I don't like him, but you can't get around his significance.

James K. Polk
Effective, but I wouldn't want to see his likes again.

Harry S. Truman
He has probably dropped more in my estimation than anyone else. The more I've studied him, the more I've wondered how much he had to do with the good things that happened. Also, we seem to forget just how many blunders he committed while in office.

George H. W. Bush
I'd vote for a GHWB type every four years and never regret it.

John Quincy Adams
Ditto what I said about GHWB

James Madison
Just too hard to pin down; I wonder what he really thought; seemed to have good instincts but I can never figure out where he's coming from.

George W. Bush
If he'd managed to control spending, his administration would have been a success.

John F. Kennedy
Wasn't around long enough and made some huge mistakes

Ulysses S. Grant
I'd rank him higher but later presidents weren't able to follow through with his policies; not his fault, of course, but it takes away from his significance

Gerald R. Ford
Who doesn't love Ford? I wish he'd been a little steadier on economic matters though.

Rutherford B. Hayes
Another President I love.

Warren G. Harding
Underrated. Decent guy. A healer. Good handling of the economy.

Grover Cleveland
Conservatives love him way, way too much. He wasn't that great. A lot of his reform and cutting was targeted at his political opponents.

Martin Van Buren
Feel sorry for him. Had to deal with all of the problems created by Jackson. Kind of like GHWB, or GWB (to a lesser extent).

Chester A. Arthur
Better than anyone expected.

James A. Garfield
Underrated also. I could have moved him up. Suffers from the fact that nobody knows much about him. Too bad.

Woodrow Wilson
I can't stand him. Bad decisions. Bad intentions.

Richard M. Nixon
Didn't leave the office better than he found it. Can't decide if it was his fault.

Zachary Taylor

Benjamin Harrison
John Tyler
Both solid second-raters

Bill Clinton
Didn't do much plus impeachment

Herbert Hoover
If he'd done nothing, the crash would have just caused a long recession.

...and then there are these guys:

Millard Fillmore
Jimmy Carter
William Henry Harrison
Franklin D. Pierce
Andrew Johnson
James Buchanan


g_rob said...

I'm watching the HBO miniseries on John Adams right now. It's realllllllly good. I hope they do more of these types of historical series. Deadwood, while it was, I'm sure, less accurate, was still very entertaining. Especially since I live in an area that George Hearst had great influence.

Stephen said...

But what about my wacky list?

Paul said...

I like the list.
I know Cleveland cut the veterans' pension program, but what else specifically did he cut that affected Republicans?

At what point do blunders in one
area drag down accomplishments in other areas?
FDR- WWII won a two-ocean war against rabid foes, but his first two terms never saw the unemployment rate drop below 15%.

LBJ- Civil rights legislation, but mishandling of Vietnam War and spied on U.S. citizens with the CIA. Vietnam cost the government a ton of credibility and damaged the psyche of both the nation and a generation of men who fought.

What, specifically, did you not like about Wilson? (I have no fondness for him either, but was wondering what you didn't like about his presidency.) From my research, he managed the war pretty well, but then botched the Treaty proceedings.

DavidR said...

I agree with Paul, it is a good list. On a much less significant note, I find my opinions are swayed too much by a president's career prior or post to holding office. For example, I really dislike Jackson for his brashness and insubordinate acts as a General. The same goes for Jefferson and his career post-presidency. I'm just being picky though.

Paul said...

Referencing what you said about president's previous careers- I like teaching my students about Taft and JQ Adams. Historians largely regard them as unsuccessful (at best ineffective), one-term presidents. But their careers before and after their WH tenures is worthy of much praise.
JQA- Sec. State, Monroe Doctrine, service as House member fighting against gag rule.
Taft- Gov. of Philippines, SCCJ.

Steve- Wilson and the segregation of the bureaucracy, I'm assuming?

g_rob said...

Oh yeah, your list! I like it. Truman down and Kennedy way down. Agree.

DavidR said...

Again we are in agreement; I really enjoy teaching my students about our presidents careers pre and post executive office. Lately I've probably been spending too much class time on Monroe and John Q. Adams.

Paul said...

Awww...come on. Kennedy slept with more women that probably all the other presidents combined. That's gotta count for something.

jeff b said...

Steve--I admire your attempt to rank'em all--but have a couple of questions. On the whole, I agree with a good number of your rankings but a few stand out.

Nixon: you can't decide whether it was his fault---wow! I am hardly leading a parade of nixon haters--but to my understanding the guy was a crook. He belongs in any bottom 5-- despite his managerial and policy pluses--Watergate makes his presidency dreadful, absolutely awful.

Hoover: Since the Depression had global roots Hoover's fiscal policies were largely irrelevant in making the depression worse. The way I understand it, deficit spending (consistently done--unlike FDR) was the only route out of the depression (see Germany).

Bush II: I wouldn't rank him. Its too soon. Historians should wait one term before any offering a ranking.

Carter: I have published an article highly critical of Carter--he was bad and incompetent. But the bottom 5 should left for the crooked (Nixon) and absolute nightmares (Buchannon). He belongs somewhere in the low-to-mid-30s.

Stephen said...

I can see your point (and concede) on all but Hoover. The crash wasn't his fault but his reaction was terrible. I don't think he did too little, though. I think he did too much while failing to explain his actions.

Tom said...

I agree that Nixon should be lower. Carter should be marginally higher for his presidency alone (I think he's developed into a very poor ex-president). JQA is too high, regardless of whether we are ranking presidencies or presidents, even though he was great before and after his time in the White House. The same goes for Taft. Clinton is too low: "didn't do much plus impeachment" is awful close to Harding, who you rightly thought deserved to be higher. TR, Polk, Reagan, Monroe, and maybe Grant would be higher on my list than LBJ, who, among other things, treated the office shabbily at a time when the country really needed someone better.

As for the Hoover issue, obviously I'm more inclined to Stephen's side. I'm not an expert on Germany in the 1930s, but my undrstanding is that the recovery of Germany in the 1930s is largely illusory and based in part on cooking numbers (e.g.: redefining healthy daily caloric counts, etc.). I seem to remember reading somewhere in a book comparing the U.S., G.B., and Germany in the 1930s that of the three, the government that handled the depression best (GB) was the one that backed off the most, that was the least planned, and that did not seem to threaten business so much. Did I misread or misunderstand The Man?

Stephen said...

All great points, as usual. I probably ranked Carter too low because he had to be dragged kicking and screaming into eventually getting some things right. JQA is probably too high, but character counts, as they say. I don't think Taft gets enough credit for being close to a perfect conservative President. Seriously, compare his record to Coolidge. Also consider how his policies directly challenged the populist/progressive madness of his era. I'll also defend Harding. He helped the country recover from the madness of Wilson and put the country back on track. If the wrong president had followed Wilson we could have gone down some seriously deranged paths. I also can't help but rank LBJ pretty high. The struggle to get the American people and the Congress on the same page as the President and Supreme Court (with regards to civil rights) can't be overestimated. It was the greatest rethinking of the meaning of the American Revolution since the Civil War. And he did it on purpose. TR, Polk, Reagan, Monroe, Madison... I go back and forth on them. It depends on how one weighs whether what they did was significant or correct. If I did the list 100 times I would only get the top three right every time.

dcat said...

I don't get the anti-Wilson strain here, and I do not buy the argument that had Hoover done nothing we'd have merely had a long recession. That's become the new GOP counterfactual that of course cannot be proven. Conservatives love their Amity Shlaes, but Bill Leuchtenburg has forgotten more about that era than Shlaes knows. I'll take his interpretations, thanks.

I think there is nearly universal consensus about the top 3, though in differing order much of the time. I disagree about treuman, who was fundamentally right on the two biggest issues in post-1945 American history, civil rights and the Cold War.

Reagan: opposed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, opposed the renewal of the Voting Rights Act. Neshoba. Opposed MLK holiday. Not a racist, but an enabler of racism, and I'm not sure what the difference is in concrete results. Top ten in importance, no doubt, but conservatives are blinded to his faults.

Obviously most of this, especially when expressed in shorthand notation, is driven by ideology. You're a conservative, I'm a liberal. That difference would come out most strongly in our views on Reagan and on the 1920s presidents.


Stephen said...

I think Shales has her limitations. I am a Taft/Harding/Coolidge man, not a Hoover/Wilkie man.

Paul said...

If Truman was right about the two major issues of his day (civil rights and cold war) then can I make the claim that GWB was right about the two major issues of his day (economy and terror)?
This is not meant to be a broadside, just a thought provoker.