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Practical Politics

The politics of ranking presidents

David L. Horne, PH.D. | 3/16/2017, midnight

Although it is far too soon to do a definitive assessment of where former President Barack Obama ranks among the 43 presidents that came before him, the assessments have begun nevertheless. Most usually, such rankings need time, like fine wine and aged liquor, to season and mellow.

Based on a C-SPAN survey just completed from 93 American historians and presidential biographers, President Obama, overall, ranked number 12 among the U.S. presidents, three spaces above Bill Clinton, who ranked number 15. The only modern president ranked above Obama’s number 12 was Ronald Reagan at number 9. The top three U.S. presidents in history, according to this survey and most other rankings, are still Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt. George W. Bush, previously ranked in this same type of survey in 2009 at number 36, and the worst modern president, gained ground a bit in this latest survey: he came in at number 33. That was still the low mark among modern presidents and just slightly above the president usually ranked near the bottom in every survey, Herbert Hoover. (Recently, Mr. Bush was quoted as saying he was glad to see the Trump presidency. Now he knows he won’t be ranked last any more in the modern era.)

The C-SPAN Survey was based on measures of a president’s moral authority while in office, relationships with Congress, pursuit of equal justice for all, management of the U.S. economy, foreign policy initiatives and successes, etc. Some of those surveyed were a bit disappointed that President Obama only finished 12th, but veteran presidential historians like Douglas Brinkley were pleasantly surprised that Obama was ranked number 12 his first time out. It is expected by all that President Obama’s number 12 ranking will rise in later surveys.

Some of the comments from those surveyed, included statements like, “In spite of what was intended, Obama’s presidency was restorative, not transformative…”, or “Mr. Obama was most effective as a ‘normal’ president, and he helped put the presidency back on a human scale. He was a devoted and involved father, a loving husband, a man imperfect, as we all are, but one willing to accept that and not think he was infallible and the new king. As the president, Mr. Obama showed that effective governing requires careful deliberation, discipline, and the willingness to make hard and sobering choices, and he let us all watch him do just that. Even when one disagreed with his decisions, one knew that his acts were never impulsive or cavalier. Future historians will give him full marks for that. “All in all, Mr. Obama had what must be considered as a successful presidency.”

The full rankings are below.

  1. Abraham Lincoln

  2. George Washington

  3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

  4. Teddy Roosevelt

  5. Dwight Eisenhower

  6. Harry Truman

  7. Thomas Jefferson

  8. John F. Kennedy

  9. Ronald Reagan

  10. Lyndon Johnson

  11. Woodrow Wilson

  12. Barack Obama

  13. James Monroe

  14. James Polk

  15. Bill Clinton

  16. William McKinley

  17. James Madison

  18. Andrew Jackson

  19. John Adams

  20. George H.W. Bush

  21. John Q. Adams

  22. Ulysses Grant

  23. Grover Cleveland

  24. William Taft

  25. Gerald Ford

  26. Jimmy Carter

  27. Calvin Coolidge

  28. Richard Nixon

  29. James Garfield

  30. Benjamin Harrison

  31. Zachary Taylor

  32. Rutherford Hayes

  33. George W. Bush

  34. Martin Van Buren

  35. Chester Arthur

  36. Herbert Hoover

  37. Millard Fillmore

  38. William Harrison

  39. John Tyler

  40. Warren Harding

  41. Franklin Pierce

  42. Andrew Johnson

  43. James Buchanan

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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