Wed. Jun 29th, 2022

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Who is the best president of all time? Who is the worst?

It’s official: Donald Trump is not going down in history as America’s best president — or the worst. According to the latest available survey of presidential historians, there are some presidents who delivered worse performances during their tenure in the White House.

How many? Who are they? And where would other recent presidents, such as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, rank on such a list? Here are the results of a sweeping survey of historians, political scientists and presidential scholars maintained by CSPAN. Since 2000, the CSPAN Presidential Historians Survey has ranked presidents across 10 categories, ranging from economic management to moral authority.

Biographical information for each president from WhiteHouse.gov and the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. 

44. James Buchanan (1857-1861)

James Buchanan

Bettmann/Getty


Historians have criticized Buchanan over his poor crisis leadership.

He couldn’t seem to grasp the enormity of America’s divisions over slavery, ignoring the strife and letting the issue fester in the years leading up to the Civil War.

43. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)

President Andrew Johnson

AP/Library of Congress


Historians gave Johnson the lowest ratings overall.

Johnson, who became president when Lincoln was assassinated, clashed with fellow Republicans over Reconstruction in the wake of the Civil War. He often tried to sidestep Congress and became the first president ever to face impeachment, but was acquitted by one vote. 

This 1865-1880 photo, made available by the Library of Congress, shows a damaged glass negative of President Andrew Johnson. 

42. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)

Franklin Pierce

Whitehouse.gov


History has judged Pierce unfavorably for policies that helped put the nation on the path to civil war.

He signed into law the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed residents of new territories to decide on the legality of slavery for themselves.

41. Donald Trump (2017-2021)

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ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images


Donald Trump has the dubious honor of being the only U.S. president to face impeachment twice. 

His highest rankings were in public persuasion (32) and economic management (34). The historians ranked him in last place (44) for moral authority and administrative skills.

40. William Henry Harrison (1841)

William Henry Harrison

Albert Gallatin Hoit/National Portrait Gallery


Harrison’s presidency was marked by organizational chaos. At the time, it was common for job seekers to simply show up at the White House and ask for a meeting with the chief executive — and they did. 

In one letter, Harrison complained, “I am so much harassed by the multitude that calls upon me that I can give no proper attention to any business of my own.”

Overall, historians have little to judge Harrison on, given that he died on his 32nd day in office. 

39. John Tyler (1841-1845)

John Tyler

Whitehouse.gov


Tyler, the first vice president ever elevated to the presidency when his predecessor died, was a strong advocate of states’ rights. 

He later joined the Southern Confederacy.

38. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

Millard Fillmore

Whitehouse.gov


Fillmore ascended to the presidency in July 1850 after the death of President Zachary Taylor. 

Historians fault Fillmore for signing the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that escaped slaves be returned to their enslavers. Harrison was not his party’s nominee for re-election.

37. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)

Aladdin

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Harding’s presidency benefited from an economic boost, fed in part by the growing mass production of “motor cars.”

But scandals plagued Harding’s time in office, particularly the infamous Teapot Dome scandal, in which cronies profited from secret oil deals, keeping him low in the rankings. 

36. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)

Herbert Hoover

AP


Hoover’s economic management rating drags down his ranking. 

Months after his election, the stock market crashed and the U.S. spiraled into the Great Depression.

35. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)

Zachary Taylor

AP


Taylor, a former military hero, served less than a year and a half in office before his death.

When it came to the searing debate over slavery, he tried to skirt the issue by holding that states could manage slavery laws on their own. 

34. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)

Martin Van Buren

AP


Van Buren received low rankings for his economic management. 

When he assumed the presidency, the economy was booming, but less than three months later, businesses and banks were failing, and historians believe his policies only made things worse.

33. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)

Rutherford B. Hayes

AP


Historians have criticized Hayes’ record on equal justice as he oversaw the end of Reconstruction.

Hayes pledged to protect the rights of African Americans in the South but then withdrew federal troops, preferring what he hoped would be “wise, honest, and peaceful local self-government.” 

Instead, Southern states swiftly imposed Jim Crow.

32. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)

Benjamin Harrison

AP


Historians have faulted Harrison for poor communication skills and lackluster leadership ability.

Harrison also tried to fix a high tariff problem, but prices rose and prosperity suffered.

31. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)

Richard Nixon

AFP/Getty Images


Thanks in no small part to the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s lowest ranking comes in the moral authority category (21.7).

As far as accomplishments, he had a few: ending the draft and enacting policies to protect the environment. He negotiated arms control with Russia and made a diplomatic breakthrough with communist China. 

But Nixon’s triumphs were overshadowed by Watergate, which stemmed from a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee during his reelection campaign. On Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign.

30. Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885)

Chester Arthur

Ole Peter Hansen Balling/National Portrait Gallery


Among some historians, Arthur gets low ratings for his failure to ensure equal justice for all. 

His administration enacted the first immigration law, which excluded Chinese people as well as “paupers, criminals, and lunatics.”

29. George W. Bush (2001-2009)

George W. Bush

Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images


Bush got his lowest marks in the field of international relations; his most controversial decision was the 2003 invasion of Iraq based on the mistaken belief that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

In the years since he left office at the height of an economic crisis, historians surveyed by C-SPAN have reevaluated his record and he’s moved up in the rankings, from 36 in 2009 to 29 today.

28. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)

Gerald Ford

AFP/Getty Images


Ford has faced criticism from historians for his relative inability to set an agenda or pursue a vision for his country.

Assuming the presidency after Richard Nixon’s resignation, Ford tried to move the country past the political crisis by granting Nixon a full pardon. Ford won the Republican nomination in 1976, but lost the election. 

27. James A. Garfield (1881)

James Garfield

AP


Garfield, a former Civil War general and congressman from Ohio, got poor marks in the survey for his foreign policy skills but better ones public persuasion. 

He was assassinated just 200 days into his presidency. 

26. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)

Jimmy Carter

AP


Some historians have expressed admiration for Carter’s pursuit of equal justice, but not for his crisis leadership. 

He is credited with creating a national energy policy to deal with oil shortages, and for bringing Israel and Egypt together for the Camp David accords. But his administration struggled with economic stagnation and experienced setbacks such as the Iran hostage crisis. He lost his bid for a second term.

25. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897)

Grover Cleveland

NYPL Picture Collection/AP


Cleveland vetoed a bill that would have given government money to veterans, drought-stricken farmers and people with disabilities, and he sent in federal troops to break a railroad workers’ strike.

He is the only president to leave the White House and later return for a second term. 

24. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)

Calvin Coolidge

AP


Coolidge is rated poorly for crisis leadership, lack of imagination, and failing to work for equal justice for all Americans. 

He refused to use the country’s economic boom to help struggling farmers and workers in other flailing industries. 

23. William Howard Taft (1909-1913)

William Howard Taft

Pach Brothers Studio/National Portrait Gallery


Historians rated Taft highly for integrity.

Taft favored the law over politics and went on to serve as Chief Justice of the United States after his term in the White House.

22. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)

Andrew Jackson

Whitehouse.gov


Historians rate Jackson highly for his willingness to take risks and for public persuasion abilities. 

A polarizing figure, Jackson waged a political battle against the Second Bank of the United States, a private company which operated as virtually a government-sponsored monopoly. He also pushed for the forcible removal of Native Americans, resulting in thousands of deaths. The American electorate handed him a huge electoral victory for his second term.

21. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)

George H. W. Bush

Walt Frerck/AFP/Getty Images


Historians gave high ratings to Bush for his handling of international relations. 

Bush guided the country through the end of the Cold War and led a coalition to liberate Kuwait after Saddam Hussein’s invasion. But he lost his bid for reelection amid and economic downturn.

20. Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877)

Ulysses S. Grant

AP


Grant led the North to victory in the Civil War, and he’s viewed as a strong advocate for civil rights during his day. 

But received low marks for his administrative skills once he assumed the presidency. 

19. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)

Bill Clinton

Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images


Clinton’s highest rating in the survey is for public persuasion and economic management.

The first Baby Boomer president, Clinton was the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second term, and among other achievements, he proposed the first balanced budget in decades and reached a budget surplus. 

In his second term he faced impeachment over his dishonesty about a liaison with a White House intern, but was acquitted by the Senate. 

18. James K. Polk (1845-1849)

James K. Polk

Max Westfield/National Portrait Museum


Polk ranked highest for his vision and agenda-setting abilities. 

Under Polk’s leadership, the U.S. acquired more than 800,000 square miles of western land, extending its boundary to the Pacific Ocean. 

17. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)

John Quincy Adams

AP


Adams ranked highly for his moral authority. 

His served during a time of great division in the country and faced a contentious Congress, but fought hard for civil liberties and the unification of the country. 

16. James Madison (1809-1817)

James Madison

AP


Madison ranked highest for moral authority. 

He declared war against Great Britain in 1812. Americans considered the war a success, leading to a period of soaring nationalism. 

15. John Adams (1797-1801)

John Adams

National Portrait Gallery


Adams, the nation’s second president, ranked highly for his integrity and handling of court appointments.

Despite growing hostilities with France, Adams never called for war and worked through negotiations to bring about a peace deal. 

14. William McKinley (1897-1901)

William McKinley

AP


Historians give McKinley high marks for his party leadership and relationship with Congress.

He enacted the highest protective tariff in history, and under his leadership America experienced an industrial boom. He also led the country through the Spanish-American War, in which the U.S. conquered the Spanish fleet in Cuba, seized Manila in the Philippines, and occupied Puerto Rico. 

He was assassinated by an anarchist less than a year into his second term.

13. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)

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AP


Wilson rated highly for his vision and ability to set an agenda. 

He moved many pieces of important legislation through Congress, and in 1917 convinced Congress that America could no longer remain neutral in World War I.  

12. James Monroe (1817–1825)

James Monroe

Chester Harding/National Portrait Museum


Historians have commended Monroe for his international relations skills.

He established the Monroe Doctrine, which warned European nations not to colonize or interfere with the Western Hemisphere. 

11. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)

Lyndon Johnson

AFP/Getty Images


Among some presidential historians, Johnson tops the charts for his efforts in pursuing equal justice for all Americans. 

Taking office after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson secured enactment of the landmark Civil Rights Act. He urged the country “to build a Great Society, a place where the meaning of man’s life matches the marvels of man’s labor,” which became his agenda, resulting in Medicare for the elderly, increased aid for education and anti-poverty programs. 

10. Barack Obama (2009-2017)

Barack Obama

Sean Gallup/Getty Images


Obama’s signature domestic policy accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was unpopular with Republicans but extended health insurance coverage to 20 million Americans. His administration helped guide the country through the Great Recession and rescued the U.S. auto industry.

Historians have given him weaker marks for his dealings with Congress and international relations.

9. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)

Ronald Reagan

J. David Ake/AFP/Getty Images


Reagan scored highly for public persuasion skills and setting the national agenda.

By working with Congress, Reagan was able to pass legislation that sped economic growth and strengthened national defense, advancing his vision of “peace through strength” in the years leading up to the end of the Cold War.

8. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)

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AFP/Getty Images


Historians credit Kennedy most for his skills in public persuasion and his vision. He also rates well for crisis management and handling international relations.

He stood up to the Soviets and successfully defused the Cuban Missile Crisis. He also inspired Americans by vowing to put a man on the moon, and he supported progress on civil rights. 

He was assassinated after barely a thousand days in office.

7. Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809)

Thomas Jefferson

Mather Brown/National Portrait Gallery


Jefferson was ranked highest in the survey for his vision.

He was the the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, writing that “all men are created equal,” even as he continued to own slaves.

During his presidency he acquired the Louisiana Territory, vastly expanding the size of the country, and he slashed the national debt by a third. 

6. Harry Truman (1945-1953)

Harry S. Truman

AFP/Getty Images


Truman wins praise from historians for his foreign policy leadership. Though unpopular when he left office, he has grown more highly regarded by historians over the years.

After V-E Day, when Japan refused to surrender, he ordered that atomic bombs be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, finally ending World War II in the Pacific. Shortly thereafter, Truman watched the signing of the charter of the United Nations, established to preserve peace. 

5. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)

Dwight D. Eisenhower

AFP/Getty Images


Eisenhower, a celebrated commander in WWII, saw his energies as president largely devoted to the onset of the Cold War. 

He obtained a truce after years of war in Korea, continued the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces, and sent federal troops to enforce a court order desegregating public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.

4. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1901-1909)

Theodore Roosevelt

AP


Theodore Roosevelt ranked highly for public persuasion. 

Just 42 when he became the youngest president in the nation’s history, he had the enthusiasm and energy to convince Congress to pass progressive reforms and a strong foreign policy — exemplified by his motto, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” An avid outdoorsman, he oversaw the expansion of America’s national parks.

3. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)

Franklin D. Roosevelt

AFP/Getty Images


Historians laud Franklin D. Roosevelt for his skills at public persuasion, ranking him first among all presidents in that category. 

FDR assumed the presidency during the worst of the Great Depression, but assured the American people: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He also led the U.S. through the perilous years of World War II. He is the only American president ever elected to four terms, though he died before completing the last one.

2. George Washington (1789-1797)

George Washington

Print Collector/Getty Images


The nation’s first president ranked above all others for moral authority and overall performance within the context of his times.

Washington fought hard for the Constitution, feeling that the Articles of Confederation were not functioning well for the country. He was disappointed to see the country becoming more politically divided toward the end of his first term, and set a precedent by choosing to retire after his second. 

1. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

Abraham Lincoln

Library of Congress/Getty Images


Among all the U.S. presidents, Lincoln takes first place for crisis leadership ability and for pursuing equal justice for all. 

He led the country through one of its most trying periods, the Civil War, and in 1863 signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves.



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