We are big fans of rankings things around here, though I usually try to keep it to top 10 lists. But C-SPAN just unveiled their most recent poll of historians on the ranking of the US presidents. Go check it out.
Which meant that it was only a matter of time before I tried to match their list. The list is sorted by my rating, but I will put the “official” ranking in parenthesis for a point of comparison. I did consider their ten categories for rankings, but I wasn’t bound by it. Here we go:
1 George Washington (2)
When I was a younger man, I tried to argue against Washington’s greatness. He was a shoddy military commander and sort of an arrogant prick. But here’s the thing: most revolutions end up in dictatorship, and ours didn’t. Why? Because Washington had the remarkable ability to turn down absolute power. The older I get, the more I appreciate that skill. He also was conscious that everything he did was setting precedent for future presidents. He invented the job on the fly.
2 Abraham Lincoln (1)
He won the Civil War, held the union together, and freed the slaves. He did these things over a fractured Republic who didn’t always agree with the war or his prosecution of it, but he always seemed to know exactly how much to push or pull. Strangely enough, he doesn’t get enough credit as a politician now that he is our unofficial martyred saint.
3 FDR (3)
Invented the modern presidency, for good or ill. He also created the New Deal, largely in the remarkable first 100 Days that now every president tries to emulate. We largely live in a political nation of FDR’s creation. And then there’s that whole World War II thing.
4 Teddy Roosevelt (4)
Ushered in the Progressive Era and built a reputation on trust-busting. He believed in business, but he also believed in rules and fair play. His fans tend to gloss over his imperialism, but he was a man of the era in that sense. “Bully!” is also a ton of fun to say.
5 Ronald Reagan (9)
The counter-revolution to FDR. If we live in FDR’s nation, we now engage in Reagan’s politics. He dismantled part of the welfare state, but it’s worth noting the parts he viewed as worth saving are unofficially sacrosanct. He bucked orthodoxy in the Cold War and accelerated our military spending, bankrupting the Soviets who viewed him as genuinely crazy, so they kept pace with his spending out of self-defense. Gets black marks for subverting the Constitution in Iran-Contra, double digit interest rates, Black Monday, and ignoring the AIDS epidemic. But he changed the way we thought about government, and his view largely won. Underrated by liberal professors.
6 Dwight Eisenhower (5)
His reputation keeps going up as we appreciate his fundamental decency and workmanlike competency more and more. He built the national highway system (well, not personally), quietly integrated the armed forces, presided over an era of remarkable affluence, and then stopped to warn us about the military-industrial complex on his way out of town. Huge fan.
7 James Monroe (13)
Monroe followed a two-term president of his own party, served two terms himself, and then handed the job off to his hand-picked successor. He only failed to win unanimous Electoral College victory because one elector threw his vote. Party politics disintegrated and he presided over the Era of Good Feelings. Yet he STILL gets rated as a mediocre president. I don’t get it. He secured our borders from constant British harassment, conducted needed internal improvements, chartered the national bank, and then literally invented our foreign policy which is still in place today. What more do we really want out of the guy?
8 Harry Truman (6)
The Marshall Plan is one of the single greatest foreign policies in the history of the world. I mean that. As the lone superpower (briefly), he committed the US to a leadership role in rebuilding the world currently left in ruin. He prioritized civil rights for the first time, stared down the rise of Communism and the Eastern Bloc, and crushed the steel and coal strikes to keep the economic recovery moving. Prone to overstepping his bounds (it turns out nationalizing the steel workers was unconstitutional… who knew?) and turning everything into a fight, particularly with Congress, his own personal foibles kept him from true greatness.
9 Chester Arthur (35)
You read that right. Chet Arthur should be in storybooks we read to our children. He was an “accidental president”, thrust into the job after Garfield’s assassination. Before then, he had been a corrupt pawn of the Conkling political machine, impeached from the only public office he had ever held. But a funny thing happened, he transformed himself into a man worthy of the presidency. He pushed through civil service reform, rebuilt the US Navy, reduced tariffs, pursued civil rights legislation, vetoed a 20-year ban on Chinese immigration, and even reversed our Native American policy, albeit slowly. He started under near-universal scorn and nearly without any political allies, only to leave office widely admired and praised, even by the usually cantankerous Mark Twain: “it would be hard indeed to better President Arthur's administration.” And he’s ranked down there with the corrupt and incompetent.
10 Lyndon Johnson (10)
He’s the president people think Kennedy was. Vietnam is one hell of a black mark on his record, but he used his considerable legislative abilities to push through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. His Great Society was the last ambitious push of government to care for all of its citizens, even its weakest. And I do admire his support of the arts and the environment. But he threw it all in the trash can over France’s colonial possessions in Southeast Asia.
11 James Polk (14)
I’ll let They Might Be Giants take it from here…
12 Grover Cleveland (23)
The guy who screws up the numbering, he is both the 22nd and 24th President. Conservatives have done yeoman’s work to rehabilitate the reputation of Calvin Cooldige, a guy whose policies lead directly to the Great Depression, but not to the shining star of American conservatism. I don’t get it. He is the president probably most committed to classical economic liberalism, and he was a champion in the fight against political corruption. He was a pro-business leader who opposed public subsidies, waste, and patronage. He also had a fantastic mustache. One of the best ever. He was a bit flummoxed by an economic recession in his second term, but such are the constraints of limited government. Though calling in the army to crush the Pullman Strike? Bad idea, but he did go through the courts first. Proper process, always.
13 James Madison (17)
I am a huge fan of James Madison and along with Alexander Hamilton and Roger Sherman, he is one of my favorite Founding Fathers. He is the Father of our Constitution and a brilliant political strategist. If God is in the details, then James Madison was there to greet Him upon arrival. But he spent a great deal of political capital to defeat a national bank which ended up being a terrible idea, as the young nation was unable to finance a war and pay its army when it was invaded by the British. Winning the bank fight lead nearly directly to the White House getting burned down. I love James Madison and think he was a legitimate genius, but let the phrase “White House getting burned down by an invading army” be your guide here. He should probably be lower, but I can’t do it. Wrote the Constitution, that’s a damn fine Get Out of Jail Free card.
14 Thomas Jefferson (7)
While we’re on the topic. Great Founder, bad President. I’ll give TJ the ‘ol Declaration of Independence bump, but he’s right up there with Madison. His biggest accomplishment was Madison’s diplomacy anyway (the Louisiana Purchase) which pretty much violated every Constitutional principle Jefferson ever espoused. He did it anyway, because a deal is a deal. He dismantled Hamilton’s financial systems, pretty much out of spite, which would have disastrous consequences in the near future. He initially supported Napoleon before France grew so powerful it started dictating trading terms, which the US was too weak to counter, and too alienated from Britain to seek our enemy’s enemy. He failed to support fellow democratic revolts in Haiti and the Caribbean due to the obvious anti-slavery implications. The less said about our embargo policy, the better. All in all, he found theory a lot more interesting than actual pragmatic governing.
15 William Taft (24)
Taft was a return to the more pro-business, conservative politics before Teddy, yet ironically he brought more anti-trust cases in four years than Roosevelt did. Taft just wasn’t one to toot his own horn as much. Taft reformed the foreign service, removing wealthy patrons from Ambassadorships in Europe. He preferred arbitration and negotiation rather than Teddy’s gunboat diplomacy. He tried to step back Teddy’s agenda while not overturning it entirely, which was a bit of a fool’s errand. He ended up, more than anything, being a caretaker president who alienated his former political patron. He has a historical ranking problem: he has no constituency. He played the middle between the progressives and the conservatives, so both sides hold it against him.
16 Barack Obama (12)
It’s hard to judge a presidency so soon after it concludes, but I do think the C-SPAN poll is being a bit too kind. I’ll slot him here for now, near the top of the mediocre presidents. To give credit, when he took the job, the economy was in full on collapse. The biggest criticism of our rapid recovery is that it hasn’t trickled down to enough people. He pushed through universal health care, the holy grail of Progressive politics for literally a hundred years. He won victories on LGBT rights, climate change, and furthered the reduction of nuclear proliferation. He ended the Iraq War, reduced troop levels in Afghanistan, and oversaw the elimination of Osama bin Laden. On the demerit side of the ledger, we’ll see how permanent any of his reforms are, particularly his signature on the Paris Treaty that was never ratified by Congress. He promised to close Gitmo and bring the troops home. He failed on item one, and we still have troops in Afghanistan and then expanded into Libya. Even with new Middle East excursions, he shamefully turned the other way to the civil war in Syria, and largely squandered the Arab Spring. His policy of reforming immigration via executive order is having its predictable side effect right now.
17 William McKinley (16)
The birth of the American Empire. He bullied Spain into war over Cuba, which the US won quickly and decisively. We then took over their colonial possessions of Guam, Philippines, Puerto Rico, and later Hawaii. And Cuba remained under army control. He was the first Republican president after the Civil War to not even pay lip service to civil rights, and turned a blind eye to racial violence while lynchings cleared triple digits every year of his presidency. We were generally prosperous under McKinley, but his greatest achievement, building a colonial empire, would not be viewed quite so fondly even two decades later. He was shot and killed early in his second term by an anarchist, allowing for Teddy Roosevelt to take the office.
18 George HW Bush (20)
A lot like Eisenhower in that we appreciate his basic decency more and more each year, though he wasn’t quite as competent as Ike. His decision to raise taxes in the wake of economic necessity I believe is the most politically courageous act of my lifetime, and it cost him his job. The bill for Reagan’s free spending came due under Bush, and he attempted to square the books, a thankless task. He was president when the Iron Curtain fell, though he usually doesn’t get the credit for it. He’s essentially the last of the old school Republicans, replaced by the movement conservatives and neocons. His middle of the road nature should have made it easy for him to work with both sides, but instead he ended up pilloried by each party for his concessions to their opposition.
19 Bill Clinton (15)
To be honest, his major accomplishment was making the conservative counter-revolution of Reagan permanent. Normally, when the opposing party comes in, they try and roll back some of what the other party has done. Clinton instead opted for a strategy of triangulation, pitting the two parties against each other. Great for short term gain, but it also reinforced the status quo. So, in a way, Clinton is the best thing that ever happened to the conservative movement. He did oversee an era of tremendous peace and prosperity, largely due to an internet bubble he had nothing to do with. He pushed through welfare reform, which 20 years later looks more conservative than liberal, and NAFTA, which is more a policy of DC technocrat consensus loathed by the working class. It’s almost bewildering to look back and see how much the conservatives despised this guy, even impeaching him. Really, his biggest accomplishments are things the progressives hate and have worked to dismantle (like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) and driving a stake through the heart of the New Deal coalition (Millennials should ask their parents about Organized Labor actually having political clout). Yet liberals still love the guy despite hating nearly every policy he ever enacted, and conservatives hate him despite delivering them the greatest demographic political victory of the past fifty years.
20 John Adams (19)
He is the father of the American navy, which he used to fight a near pointless, undeclared naval war with France. He managed to alienate his political allies and enrage the political opposition, furthering the rise of political parties. His passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts is still perhaps one of the worst ideas a president has ever followed through on. He was ineffectual one-term president, but he demonstrated that the republic could survive a weak, petty jackass as president. So that’s something, I guess.
21 John Quincy Adams (21)
Adams is one of our greatest secretaries of state, but the presidency was not kind to him. He won election via a “corrupt bargain” in the House when no one won a majority of electors. While wrongdoing was never proven, and was in fact unlikely, the charge hung like a millstone around his neck. Congress stymied every attempt at any semblance of an agenda, and other politicians stacked the deck against him through political patronage. Under different circumstances, he could have been a great president. He was an ardent abolitionist, rare for that era, and a giant of foreign policy. He wanted to reform public education, enact Clay’s American system of internal improvements to bind the nation together via public works and roads, and retire the federal debt. But that was not to be, as his presidency was virtually stillborn.
Thanks to Grover, we’ve done 22 of the first 44 presidents. We’ll do the trainwrecks next week, as those are more fun. Well, to talk about, not to live through.