Presidents ranked by historians

My sentiments as well. I think Bush was a really bad president and his failures ultimately had a lot to do with the rise of Trumpism. But I’ve always felt that he wanted to be a good president - he just didn’t know how. He entered politics with the assumption that he could just tell his advisors what he wanted to accomplish and they’d just make it happen (like Ronald Reagan).

Truman played a huge role in establishing the post-World War II international order. The Marshall Plan was implemented by his administration, and NATO was established during his presidency.

He also proposed a fairly progressive-for-his-time agenda on civil rights, including voting rights protection and fair employment protections. Most of these were shot down by Southern Democrats in Congress, but where he could act under his own authority he did so. This included desegregating the armed forces and outlawing discrimination in civil service hiring.

Truman and Eisenhower are both consistently underrated presidents, IMO.

Truman had Lincoln-esque balls and integrity. FDR prosecuted WWII, no doubt, but coming into the 9th inning and being the closer is never easy, and he did it. He also integrated the military, which I think arguably paved the way for the civil rights movement that came in the 1950s and 60s. Standing up to MacArthur took some pretty big sack as well, and it was the right call.

Absolutely correct.

Truman is seriously under-appreciated. Like LBJ after Kennedy, he took some of the rhetoric and symbolism of his predecessor and actually put it into action.

Yeah, in addition to his major foreign policy initiatives I mentioned, Truman’s early moves on civil rights were a big deal on the domestic side. You can actually see it on the map in 1948, foreshadowing Lyndon Johnson’s support for civil rights, and LBJ’s remark about having “lost the South for a generation”. For a Democratic POTUS to lose the “Solid South” in the era of Jim Crow was a badge of honor.

As noted in a thread a few months ago, he also probably qualifies as the single most powerful person in human history, being the only world leader to ever have a monopoly on atomic weapons.

Note that Wilson has been dropping as Ike has risen somewhat. I’m not sure why Polk has taken a recent hit. I disagree that Reagan is “Bottom 10” but I think as his memory fades and more objective analysis prevails he will sink into the second quartile just as Wilson is doing.

Manifest destiny was his thing. IMHO it was a bad thing that he earns negative points on.

Those were issues Bush should have cared about but didn’t. So they were ignored by his administration.

I wouldn’t go that far. I think Bush was okay as a person but not somebody to hold up as a role model. I feel that Carter and Obama were probably are two best people to have been president (while not being the best presidents).

To Bush’s credit, I feel he was not prejudiced. He did not condone the kind of racism and misogyny we saw Trump endorsing.

Bush’s biggest flaw was his ideological narrow-mindedness. He built a bubble around him of people who agreed with his views and he avoided hearing unpleasant truths he should have heard.

I think he cared; they just didn’t anticipate or prepare very well - for pretty much every big moment they ever had to face in their 8 years. That is what will forever brand their era in history.

I see Bush as actually having some mental flexibility - once he figured out that his first plan wasn’t working out. His problem was that, for someone who grew up with a former CIA leader, president, and vice president as his dad, he knew shit all about his job. He was incurious and insular. He believed that he could just show up and tell other people what kind of America he wanted, and his policy wonks would deliver it to him on a silver platter. As he learned, it doesn’t work like that. Presidents really should have knowledge of foreign countries, markets, science, economics, engineering, and logistics. Not that he should necessarily have degrees in these fields, but he should know enough to be educable.

Two related thoughts about the structure of the list in general:

  1. Presidents that didn’t live long enough in office to have had much of an effect really should be off the board altogether. There’s really no way to meaningfully rank William Henry Harrison’s 31-day Presidency. I’d say the same about Garfield, who was President for 120 days before being shot. Though he lived another two and a half months before succumbing, from Wikipedia’s description he wasn’t really able to do much during that time due to his wound and infection.

  2. The main failing of the rankings, IMHO, is the absence of any attempt to measure how consequential a Presidency was. While the half-dozen top-ranked Presidents had extremely consequential Presidencies, things break down after that. I would want a ranking system that generally placed consequentially bad Presidents near the bottom, consequentially great Presidents near the top, and inconsequential Presidents in the middle.

So when (for instance) consequentially awful President G.W. Bush is ranked well above a number of largely inconsequential Presidents like Millard Fillmore, it’s doing a terrible job of reflecting just how good or bad the effects of a given President were on the nation and the world.

I read a piece a while back about the JFK “legend” which argues because it was a presidency cut short it allows people to project onto him what they want to have happened occur as a “what if”. JFK is an American ideal today. But the author of the piece argued we did later get to live through a full JFK presidency through Bill Clinton. A young charismatic dynamic speaker, very good at saying the right things, carried a feel-good factor and “optimistic patriotism” that others in their party lack, got huge help from a change in culture that would have happened whoever was in charge but they took maximum value of (color TV for JFK and less rigid shackles on young people, the tech boom and pop culture for Clinton), high approval in office despite personal scandals but legislatively not a landmark administration looking back. Clinton has suffered in the last decade as his presidency has been reevaluated as a missed opportunity for bigger bolder reform and whether he personally pushed the envelope on his own goal of universal healthcare as an example. The author wrote in his belief had JFK lived there would not have been the landmark legislation on civil rights and economic welfare so soon because in his understanding he was not strongly invested in it “by the end of this decade” as he famously declared about landing a man on the moon. He speculated LBJ’s force of nature and “to hell with it” attitude to public image was the reason why he got it done so soon.

On account of my thoughts above, I would rank both Nixon and GWB near the bottom.

Bush is pretty obvious: he ignored months of repeated warnings about the oncoming attack by Osama bin Laden, and for reasons that were really really stupid and pigheaded as well as tragic. And then after the attack, he and Rumsfeld and Cheney were pretty much united on wanting to use it as a pretext for invading Iraq, which they’d been planning all along. And when he did, he had no plan at all for what to do after Saddam was deposed. The result was hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, millions in exile, a region destabilized, and Iran - the bigger threat to us, a fact that even the Bushies recognized - as the unchallenged dominant military power in the region. And meanwhile, Afghanistan turned into a disaster as well, basically because after invading, the Bushies didn’t waste any of their precious attention on it.

And yeah, Katrina, Scooter Libby, the firing of U.S. Attorneys who wouldn’t support his bogus voter fraud prosecutions, and a pile of lesser garbage. Obama was awarded a Nobel basically for being President of the U.S. and not being Bush; that’s how bad Bush was.

And Nixon of course sabotaged LBJ’s Vietnam peace agreement, resulting in four more years of war, and a Vietnamese death toll in the low millions. Also, there was this Watergate business.

Their Presidencies were consequentially bad. That is why they deserve to be ranked near the bottom.

I want to make three points about Clinton that will serve to sink his ranking in the future. He ended welfare as we knew, and that was not good. He presided over the carceral revolution. And he signed the repeal of Glass-Steagell, leading directly to 2008 and all that.

It actually makes sense that LBJ did what JFK may not have been able to do. Like Biden, LBJ had a really good ability to work people and read rooms. LBJ was also a force of nature, relentless and dogged in his pursuit of anything he wanted to achieve. I don’t think you can say the same of JFK, though I think that his toughness was frequently underestimated because of his youth and playboy persona. I think RFK was much closer to LBJ in terms of his aggression and willingness to go to the mat for his causes, come hell or high water.

I’m surprised by JFK’s high rating. I’ve been hearing from teachers and professors since high school and college in the early/mid 1970s that Kennedy was overrated in the popular imagination because Camelot and assassination, but hadn’t really accomplished that much as President.

LBJ is IMHO the hardest President to rate. He was consequential, alright, but in both directions.

There once was a wonderful satirical political history of the 1960s called The Begatting of the President. Written in mock-Biblical style, the chapter on LBJ, “LBJenesis,” describes how LBJ created the Great Society in six days, then threw a barbecue on the seventh. “Then LBJ said, ‘shucks, let there be an eighth day.’ And on the eighth day, he escalated.”

So how do you rate LBJ? If you split him in two, with one LBJ responsible for Vietnam alone, and the other getting credit for everything else, the latter LBJ would be up there near the top, duking it out with Ike and Truman for the spots right under Lincoln, Washington, and the Roosevelts. And the Vietnam LBJ would be way down the list.

I agree with point #1, but re #2, I’d need to see numbers showing that he made much of a difference: the U.S. incarceration rate had been increasing rapidly for a dozen years before Clinton became President, and continued to do so during his Presidency. I’m having a hard time Googling numbers that are consistently reported across the period, but what I can see doesn’t look like Clinton made much of a difference.

And re #3, while repealing Glass-Steagall definitely didn’t help, I’ve heard plenty of arguments that it didn’t really make that much of a difference either. IMHO, the real problem for about the past 25 years has been way more money floating around at the top than can be channeled into investments in producing goods and services the rest of us can buy. That’s been distorting our economy, and will continue to do so until there is a significant downward redistribution of wealth and income. Regulation can only do so much about it.

My short answer is that LBJ was a really good domestic president, but that is offset by his disastrous decision to go all-in on Vietnam.

IOW, it would be hard to decide how to balance these two opposing poles. Of course they offset each other, or rather one of them is the more significant, and the other partially offsets it to some degree. So which is which, and to what extent does the other offset it? That’s the question, and that’s why IMHO LBJ is inherently much harder to rate than most Presidents.