A short preface—these rankings, of course, reflect my ideological sensibilities, as well as the relative weight that I accord to each element of the presidency. Truthfully, ranking the presidents presents an almost impossible task—virtually all post-World War II presidents have achieved much, while also committing some terrible blunders.
I've chosen to group the presidents by tier because more precise rankings would lack fairness or precision. Presidents face diverse circumstances and unique challenges. While, theoretically, they all accept the same responsibilities when they recite the oath of office, the job varies substantially from president to president.
Even just grouping by tiers requires trying to divine whether a good foreign policy president with a bad domestic policy record deserves greater acclaim than a good domestic policy president with a record littered with foreign policy failures or a great policy president with ethical issues.
Finally, while presidents often receive far too much credit or blame for economic and societal developments, it is not coincidental that two of the presidents I rank highly, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, served during the relatively prosperous, peaceful decade of the 1990s. Their leadership contributed to that peace and prosperity; conversely, they benefitted from serving in a relatively stable and auspicious moment.
John Kennedy—simply put saving the world from a potentially catastrophic, nuclear World War III earns Kennedy this distinction. Kennedy's advisers urged bellicose action; he withstood their pressure, instead navigating the Cuban Missile Crisis masterfully. Kennedy deescalated tension when it would have proved easy to provoke war.
He also deserves ample credit for correctly diagnosing and understanding the situation in Southeast Asia. Grasping how difficult victory would be, Kennedy resisted any temptation to send substantial American troops to Laos in 1961. At least some scholars also argue that rather than escalate the war in Vietnam, Kennedy would have withdrawn American troops in a second term.
Domestically, Kennedy achieved very little, but he deserves credit for denouncing Southern segregation in moral terms on the biggest stage, however belatedly. Two new books on the Civil Rights Act also indicate that at the time of his death, Kennedy remained deeply engaged in trying to push the Civil Rights Act to completion.
George H.W. Bush— History ought to remember Bush far more kindly than the voters did when they abruptly and prematurely ended his presidency in 1992.
Bush accomplished several landmark pieces of legislation, including the 1990 budget accord, which paved the way for a balanced budget later in the decade, the Americans with Disability Act, and substantial environment legislation. Bush achieved this legislation in spite of a Democratic Congress—displaying a deft pragmatic streak from which today's GOP could learn.
Internationally, his handling of the crisis in the Persian Gulf laid out a template for fighting a narrow, limited war in the post Cold War world. Bush generated domestic, international, and Congressional support for action, defined limited objectives, and achieved them rapidly.
The only misstep came in failing to support a Shia and Kurdish uprising after Allied troops had repelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Long term, the decision to maintain troops in Saudi Arabia also inflamed Muslim extremists and created problems for the United States.
Nonetheless, Bush firmly cast aside the pall of Vietnam, and demonstrated on multiple occasions that American might could be a force for good around the world.
The main blight on his record might be his inability to connect with average voters. Dignified and honorable though he was, Bush didn't possess particularly good leadership skills. Each ideological side might also add one of his Supreme Court appointments to this list (David Souter for conservatives and Clarence Thomas for liberals).
Bill Clinton—Some might point to Clinton's failure to ever attain a majority of the popular vote or his impeachment to denigrate his presidency. In my view, Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr meandered far beyond the legitimate scope of any proper investigation in asking Clinton about his sex life under oath. As a result, I tend to discount Clinton's personal peccadillos when considering his presidency.
To consider such moral misdeeds in an evaluation also would require dramatically reappraising many of Clinton's predecessors as well.
When one looks at Clinton's policy record, he achieved a great deal, in spite of facing a hostile Congress during his last six years in office. His achievements span the ideological spectrum, from the Family and Medical Leave Act, AmeriCorps, and increased gun control on the left to welfare reform and balancing the budget on the right.
Impressively, while Clinton compromised frequently with the Republican Congress, he stood his ground on several occasions, most notably vetoing welfare reform twice to extract concessions, and allowing the government to shut down in the winter of 1995 to forestall and/or reverse what he considered to be harmful Republican spending cuts and programatic changes.
In this regard, Clinton behaved similarly to Bush (who also freely vetoed legislation), achieving the maximum possible through compromise without sacrificing principle. Given their pragmatic streaks, it's relatively unsurprising that they became friendly after Clinton left office.
Clinton's record has its blots. He recently admitted that his landmark Crime Bill, especially some of its mandatory minimum sentencing provisions, had deleterious effects. His mishandling of health care reform in 1993 and 1994 had broad ramifications, both politically and policy wise. It seems likely that he could have achieved something like the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 in 1993 or 1994 with broad bipartisan majorities.
One could also criticize the sequence in which he pursued his policy agenda—had he led with welfare reform, might he a) have achieved a more liberal bill and b) earned political currency to use on liberal priorities like healthcare reform?
He also obfuscated or downright lied about his beliefs on issues such as gay marriage for political reasons—hardly a profile in courage.
Additionally, Clinton's foreign policy earned low marks. His mishandling of crises in Somalia, Rwanda, and Haiti early in his term spurred serious repercussions. In this regard, Clinton displayed as little understanding of the developing world as most of his predecessors. He also disastrously failed to address the magnitude of the brewing terrorism crisis, which, of course, would reveal itself on September 11th, 2001.
Finally, impeachment cast a pall over Clinton's second term. In fact, historian Steven Gillon revealed that Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich might have achieved reforms to the entitlement programs but for impeachment driving both towards their respective bases.
Leadership wise, Clinton's fantastic ability to connect with average voters and to communicate policy in understandable terms counts as a great strength of his presidency.
Ronald Reagan— I toyed with elevating Reagan to the second tier. His ability to change the public philosophy by inveighing against government with a smile had profound repercussions that we still feel today. Whether one champions or abhors this impact, it denotes Reagan's significance in American history.
Reagan also deserves ample credit for giving Mikhail Gorbachev the American partner that he needed to implement glasnot and perestroika, which eventually ended the Cold War.
Reagan's sunny optimism, charisma, and tremendous leadership skills had salubrious effects on the country and its psyche, repairing the damage from the disastrous 1970s.
Nonetheless, two significant black marks reduce Reagan to the third tier. First, his administration suffered from substantial corruption (according to Haynes Johnson 138 Reagan officials were convicted, indicted, or investigated for criminal corruption). The Iran-Contra scandal towers above the other episodes of corruption in the Reagan administration, but it signifies a far broader problem. Reagan's reputation also ought to take a hit for the Savings and Loan crisis that developed on his watch and cost the government billions.
Reagan's management style allowed this corruption to flourish. Those who portray him as clueless, disengaged, or unaware improperly ignore the recollection of many who worked with and for Reagan. But he did tend to leave details to subordinates, so long as they respected his overall goals. This style created an opening for untoward behavior by less scrupulous subordinates.
Perhaps more significantly, Reagan's thirst for tax cuts, combined with his unwillingness (or inability) to force attendant spending cuts propelled the deficit to new heights. This lack of discipline imposed constraints on his successors from both parties. It also represented an unwillingness to level with the public about the tough choices that needed to be made in the area of fiscal and social policy.
Internationally, Reagan (like most of his predecessors and successors) mishandled the Middle East (and the rest of the developing word) leading to problems both during his presidency and down the line.
His sharp ideological agenda, albeit coated with a genial tone, bitterly fragmented the American public. While many remember Reagan fondly today, he left office with a middling fifty-three percent approval rating, ushering in an era of sharp polarization.
He was not the ideologue that many right-wing conservatives lionize—Reagan could and did compromise on many occasions, producing massive achievements including tax reform and shoring up the financial footing for Social Security. But he certainly ushered in a newfound era of ideologically driven leadership that damaged the country.
Barack Obama—If one wants to see a conservative sputter with fury, he or she need only to mention President Obama. Conservatives vehemently contend that the current president scores atrociously on all metrics. Their perspective is misguided, warped by passionate policy disagreements. Nonetheless, their perspective does disqualify Obama from one of the two higher tiers. Why?
Because unlike Reagan, Obama did not set about to change the public philosophy or reinvigorate the belief that government could and should be a force for good in society. Instead, as Suzanne Mettler has explained, he worked within the preexisting ideological frameworks to achieve longstanding liberal goals.
Historian Brian Balogh has argued that this strategy represents the best method for achieving liberal goals. Nonetheless, by conceding an anti-government framework, Obama made it nearly impossible to achieve greater consensus in favor of his initiatives. He never triumphed in the ideas war or converted people to his general philosophy—which limited his ceiling in terms of greatness.
His sometimes aloof style, and communications pratfalls during his first term also reduce his rating.
Nonetheless, Obama rates far closer to the top two tiers of presidents than the bottom. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act stands as a signature accomplishment—presidents dating back a century, and including even the Republican Richard Nixon, battled for universal health care coverage. They failed. Obama achieved this goal, however imperfect the legislation.
He also succeeded in enacting substantial financial reform legislation that included longstanding liberal goals, and he triumphed over the powerful banking industry by reforming a flawed student loan program.
While conservatives flog these pieces of legislation, they ignore the fact that Obama campaigned on these issues, and simply (and refreshingly) delivered on his promises. If anything, their anger ought to be directed to the American people who provided a clear mandate for these bills in 2008.
Under Obama's stewardship, the economy has improved, and in spite of confronting an intransigent and hostile Congress for the latter three quarters of his tenure, he has accomplished scores of other goals.
While some argue that he should have been more open to compromising with the rigidly conservative GOP, most objective observers, such as the scholar Norman Ornstein, realize how fanciful such claims are. Obama could and should have cultivated better relationships with members of Congress. Nonetheless, given the ideological gulf and the current electoral climate, it's unlikely that better relations would have produced many great achievements.
Internationally, Obama has confronted situations without a good solution (such as the current quagmire in Syria). Nonetheless, he realized that the go-it-alone cowboyism of the previous administration poisoned the well with governments and publics all over the globe. He strove to work more collaboratively, and understood the war fatigue in the United States.
He resists the tendency to oversimplify issues or to resort to shameful rhetorical excesses—understanding the global context in which his words will be received.
Unless and until his critics can articulate better solutions for dealing with Iran and Syria, we ought to acknowledge that Obama is simply playing a rotten hand dealt to him because of innumerable mistakes made by his predecessors from both parties.
Tier 4: This tier includes two presidents who scholars have generally regarded as great. I consider both to be overrated for the reasons outlined below.
Harry Truman—Scholars traditionally shower Truman with accolades for being a great president. I respectfully disagree with that reverential label. My reasoning stems from new research that corrects earlier assessments about the outbreak of the Cold War.
Traditional thinking blamed Stalin's insecurity, insanity, and aggressive behavior for the Cold War. Under this thinking, Truman deserves credit for adopting the containment strategy crafted by George Kennan, preventing the outbreak of hot war, and displaying steely firmness in dealing with the ruthless dictator.
New scholarship, however, recognizes that while Stalin deserves some blame, Truman's black and white thinking, his deep insecurity, and several grave miscalculations helped to rupture the grand wartime alliance. They produced a Cold War that distorted and shaped foreign policy decision making for the next half century—often with disastrous consequences.
Truman's simplistic approach set the terms of the conflict, and forestalled the development of more nuanced thinking that might have prevented countless foreign policy blunders in future decades.
While Truman proposed many potentially historic policies in the realms of civil rights and the social safety net, he typically rocketed headlong into an intransigent Congress that scorned and rejected most of these proposals. Perhaps the most significant piece of domestic legislation passed during Truman's tenure, the anti-labor Taft-Hartley bill, vaulted into the statute book over his veto.
He also failed to prevent (and to some degree fed) the hysteria about Communism that precipitated red-baiting and destroyed the lives of countless Americans.
Finally, a personal pet peeve—Truman's policy of appointing cronies to the Supreme Court produced four mediocre to poor appointments.
We ought to applaud substantial achievements like the audacious Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe, and the desegregation of the military.
Yet, unless one considers Truman's handling of the rising Soviet Union to be brilliant or visionary, he simply cannot be receive the moniker of great president.
Dwight Eisenhower— Eisenhower certainly did some good—his warning about the military industrial complex, for example, has proven to be perspicacious, even visionary. He also accepted the great achievements of the New Deal, including Social Security, which provided stability for the country and for which he deserves credit.
I also award Eisenhower high marks for his willingness to dispatch federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas. Not only did he compel the city to integrate its schools and comply with court orders, but Eisenhower also unmistakably conveyed that states could not defy federal courts. His emphasis on a balanced budget, and his resistance to overspending on military systems also stands in positive contrast to his successors.
Finally, four of his five Supreme Court appointments proved to be excellent, even if two, Chief Justice Earl Warren and Associate Justice William Brennan, proved to be far more liberal than Ike desired.
Eisenhower, however, failed in other areas. On two of the greatest moral questions of the day—Civil Rights and the noxious antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy—he achieved, at best, middling grades. While Eisenhower supported Civil Rights legislation, his support epitomized ambivalence and he sympathized far too much with the South to be considered morally right on the issue (in stark contrast to his Attorney General Herbert Brownell).
Even in the case of Little Rock, he refused to trumpet the moral rectitude of his actions, which might have reimagined the landscape on Civil Rights. While one cannot characterize his views as supporting segregation or retrograde, he certainly lacked passion for the fight for civil rights.
With regard to McCarthy, Eisenhower loathed the senator, but again he refrained from open and full-throated condemnation at an early date. Given his standing as a Republican and a war hero, a moral smackdown of McCarthy might have prevented great damage to the country.
Additionally, Eisenhower invited historians' scorn by allowing his foreign policy team to green light the CIA's role in the overthrow of Iran's democratically elected government. This authorization, which President Truman explicitly refused to give, produced disastrous future consequences. This action soured Iranian opinion on the United States, and necessitated supporting a dictator for the next quarter century, whose actions eventually spawned the current theocratic regime.
Similarly, many forget that it was Eisenhower, not Kennedy or Johnson, who sent the first American personnel to Vietnam beginning the long, disastrous American involvement in that country. Like his predecessor and his successors, the overly simplistic Cold War binary dictated terrible decisions with regard to the developing world that have had long lasting consequences.
Tier 5: This tier includes the two hardest presidents to rank. Both achieved massive accomplishments, but both had giant blots that reduce their standing.
Lyndon Johnson—if one simply graded presidents on domestic policy achievements, Johnson would be in the top five all time. Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act stand among his staggering and voluminous policy achievements.
Johnson's unparalleled understanding of how the legislative process worked, and when to insert himself into deliberations and when to step back, undoubtedly contributed to this flurry of legislative productivity. His smooth handling of the aftermath of Kennedy's assassination also accrues to his credit.
Unfortunately for Johnson, international affairs represents the second piece of a president's legacy. On this count, his mark is nothing short of disastrous. Johnson dramatically escalated an unwinnable war in Vietnam out of a political fear of being castigated for "losing Vietnam" (as Republican critics lambasted Harry Truman for losing China).
This regrettable decision not only had broad foreign policy ramifications, but slowly strangled Johnson's Great Society by depriving domestic programs of funding. Many of Johnson's programs never had a chance to blossom, as Vietnam voraciously consumed ever increasing portions of the federal budget.
The war also fractured the American public, and created the devastating credibility gap that left the American people hesitant to trust the government to serve as a positive force in American society.
Richard Nixon— Nixon the policy president would deserve a place far higher on this list. He achieved much in domestic policy, and possessed a deft touch in foreign affairs that led to rapprochement with China, detente with the Soviet Union, and other achievements.
But, simply put, one cannot consider a president great, or even good, when he a) committed crimes worthy of impeachment (Nixon escaped the ignominy of impeachment by resigning in disgrace), b) employed bitterly divisive tactics and rhetoric that shamelessly encouraged the fracturing of the American polity and c) had utter disregard for the separation of powers and the primacy of law in the American system.
Thus, Nixon finds himself on the cusp of the basement in these rankings, saved solely by his policy achievements.
Gerald Ford— Initially, I intended to elevate Ford one more tier. But the more I thought about what I've written about the other presidents, the more it seemed impossible to rank Ford more highly.
Ford was a man of integrity who inherited the presidency under trying circumstances. Having never been elected as President or Vice President, he possessed virtually no mandate. He also governed during the tumultuous decade of the 1970s when crisis and catastrophe challenged American leaders of all stripes.
Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon represented a true profile in courage. Highly unpopular at the time, the decision spared the nation from having to experience the trauma of trying a former president for his crimes (which would have created a three ring circus). He also deserves credit for staunch advocacy of the Equal Rights Amendment, and for his refusal to muzzle outspoken First Lady Betty Ford.
I also rate Ford's handling of international affairs highly. He continued many of Nixon's successful policies, and resisted the increasingly conservative currents of foreign policy thought in his own party.
But Ford struggled to handle the difficulties of the 1970s every bit as much as his successor, Jimmy Carter, would. He didn't become the butt of jokes on the emerging satirical program Saturday Night Live without reason. His Whip Inflation Now (WIN) campaign, for example, proved largely ineffectual, if not pathetic. Ford failed to tackle the burgeoning problems plaguing the economy, instead handing them off to the equally blunder-prone Carter.
One has to strain to recall policy achievements for Ford. His was more a rearguard action, aimed at preventing large Democratic majorities (especially after the 1974 midterm elections) from enacting policies noxious to business interests and conservatives. He wielded his veto pen frequently, albeit without being unwilling to compromise.
But, overall, this record makes it hard to elevate Ford any higher.
Jimmy Carter—a good, decent, intelligent man who proved to be a disastrous president. Fate dealt Carter the presidential equivalent of a five touchdown deficit (i.e. an atrocious hand). Even the best of presidents would have struggled with the situation facing Carter.
Yet, gifted ample Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, Carter proved inept at working with the legislative branch to address the most significant problems of the tumultuous decade of the 1970s. Trapped between ideological liberals and rising conservative voices, Carter's clumsy attempts to find the middle pleased no one.
Even some of his greatest achievements—In the realm of deregulation for example—have a mixed long term legacy.
Internationally, Carter deserves substantial credit for the Camp David Accords and the Panama Canal Treaties. They foreshadowed Carter's future as maybe America's greatest ex-president for his diplomatic and humanitarian work. Conversely, however, his mishandling of the tumult in Iran proved disastrous and precipitated the crippling hostage crisis that contributed to Carter's 1980 defeat.
On the leadership metric, Carter failed abysmally as well. Unlike Kennedy or Reagan, who urged Americans to dream and achieve, Carter's famous "malaise" speech did nothing but perpetuate and exacerbate the doldrums that plagued the country. While diagnostically accurate, this speech failed to offer the hope necessary to spur a recovery. As Reagan proved, Carter's scolding was the opposite of what Americans craved in that difficult moment.
George W. Bush—one could envision a scenario under which Bush soared to heights that exceeded his father's achievements. After all, he could have used the split decision in the 2000 election to hew to the center, building upon the bipartisan achievements of his father and President Clinton. Such action would have fulfilled his promise to be a uniter, not a divider, and would have acknowledged the deep divisions in the country.
On some level, the impulse for this sort of presidency existed within Bush, as evidenced by his expansion of Medicare to include a prescription drug benefit, and his passion for immigration reform. He also gladly partnered with the liberal lion Ted Kennedy on education reform.
Yet, Bush most frequently chose a bitterly divisive course, reminiscent more of Reagan than his father.
Even before the terrorist attacks of September 11th redirected his focus towards foreign affairs, Bush muscled through the first of two huge tax cuts that took the country from surplus to massive deficits. His ideological predilection for deregulation and lax oversight (administered by highly sympathetic regulators) contributed significantly to the economic crisis in 2008.
Every so often, Bush feinted towards the middle (No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D), as he tried to implement "compassionate conservatism." But he quickly moved back to the ideological right in each case—a prime example being his attempt to utilize whatever political capital he gained from his 2004 reelection to introduce private accounts into Social Security instead of pursuing immigration reform.
Yet, ironically, in spite of his conservatism (and demonstrating the increasingly rigid and extreme demands of the conservative movement), Bush impressively managed to infuriate the ideological right with his fiscal stewardship of the country.
In foreign affairs, Bush's decision to invade Iraq proved to be a blunder of epic proportions of the same caliber as Johnson's decision to escalate the conflict in Vietnam. More broadly, Bush infuriated America's allies with his cavalier attitude and his smugness, engendered hatred from around the world, and created a power vacuum that groups like the Islamic State happily filled.
Bush also must be adjudicated negatively, along with Clinton, for failing to heed warnings about the risk of terrorism. While only the harshest ideologues and partisans blame him for 9/11, both he and Clinton failed to prevent the attacks by crippling Al Qaeda's operational capacity.
Politically, Bush's decision to bless a strategy of exciting the conservative base in advance of his 2004 reelection campaign further fractured the country, shamelessly supporting a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in an attempt to drive conservatives to the polls.
Many on the left scorn Bush's appointment of countless conservative Court of Appeals judges, as well as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Associate Justice Samuel Alito. I disagree. Most of these judges, especially the two Supreme Court Justices, possess ample qualifications.
To me, their appointments represent the consequences of Bush's victories. Bush lavished praise on Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas during his campaigns. He left little mystery as to the type of judges he would appoint. As such, if liberals wished to forestall such appointments, they should have won the 2004 presidential election.
Overall, the presidents since World War II have been a solid, if unspectacular, group. The vast majority achieved average to good status, even if none reached the elite pantheon of visionaries who Americans will forever celebrate.