This is my ranking of the men who held the Presidency of the United States from the time of Theodore Roosevelt inclusive. I’m not sure how I’m going to present this list by way of arguing for its efficacy. To be sure, I will certainly expand this post as time goes by. I may even decide to re-rank them as time goes by. But I hope that readers will feel free to put in their two cents about my decisions.
I have the following criteria in my personal rankings.
- Did the man propose good fiscal policy
- did his efforts in foreign policy weaken or strengthen America in relation to the world
- was he just and fair in his dealings with other nations
- was he involved in any treasonous activities or complicit in such activities of those in his administration
- did he unduly increase the imperial power of the presidency
I certainly still have a lot of holes in my knowledge of each presidency. But I have begun to draw a fair picture in my head of trends. I will make my rankings based upon what I now know. If there are important points that I am overlooking, please let me know.
As you can see, I don’t have a very high regard for most of the presidents of the last 110 years. Some would say that I’m too harsh, that I can’t rate so many poorly and so few well. To this I reply that the entire drift of America away from the Republic which was founded in 1776 has been aided and abetted, knowingly or unknowingly, by almost all of the gentlemen below. Furthermore, several of these men verge on treasonous. But for the blindness or the ignorance of the American people, or for untimely deaths, impeachment would have been a common theme among them. But, power gives the ability to cover up a lot of things.
Twenty years ago, I would have rated Ford, Nixon and Eisenhower and Kennedy higher. Until recently, I would have rated the Bushes a lot lower. A lot of recent research has changed my opinions. Even though I believe the Bushes to be, along with Bill Clinton, guilty of hideous crimes, this list in not an indictment of their personal affairs. Rather, the effects of the policies are on trial here, more than the personal integrity of the persons. On balance, I would have rated Nixon a lot higher for his history of huge contributions to his country. However, there is evidence that he may have tampered with Johnson’s Vietnam Peace Talks in an effort to win the presidency, which would cause me to want to rank him lower. But, again, we are talking about his record as president. Kennedy is so wrapped in myth that he appears as a great figure. But, in the end, it turns out that he had a lot of ideals of which most failed. On civil rights, he said the right things, but, when it counted, he deserted minorities. Eisenhower was a great general, but nothing more than a figurehead as president. Nixon actually did more as vice president.
I have gone over and over in my mind the strengths and, mostly, the weaknesses of the men who are close together in my rankings. It is sometimes difficult to split hairs. I sometimes think it would be better just to say “tied for worst” and “tied for next worst” than to try to put one over the other. Some of the difficulty also lies in the fact that the congress has also had a say in what legislation was enacted under the various presidents. I have tried to focus on the impact of the president on what could have happened if that particular person did not reshape the thinking of congress. In that sense, someone like Reagan scores higher for having to overcome a hostile congress, while someone like Clinton scores lower because his true agenda was moderated by congress. In this case, someone like Ford scores poorly for being afraid to make waves and be a leader, although I give him more credit for holding his ground and still calming the waters after the Nixon blood bath. Meanwhile, some like Hoover were powerless to stop the speeding train of collapse that was the result of years of built-up malfeasance*. It would be unfair to blame the Crash on him entirely. Therefore, he scores higher than some who were more pro-active in bad policy.
(Update: OK, this is why we need to study history thoroughly. Herbert Hoover was the George W. Bush of his day, only worse. Because of FDR’s radical swing to the New Deal, we have always contrasted his bold progressiveness with Hoover’s “do-nothing” conservatism. The truth is that Hoover wiped out a 25% budget surplus and created a 45% deficit in an attempt to stimulate the economy. In this way, he opened the door for the radical approach of FDR, much like W opened the door for Obama. What we are seeing today is a replay of 80 years ago. People should pay attention, because, since Obama doubled down on FDR’s policies, we are likely to be in depression indefinitely until someone stops the nonsense.)
In the arena of politics, the way to make a name for oneself is to be the sponsor of some bill with a lofty title. It is this spirit of one-up-man-ship that has created the legal glut that exists today. Sometimes it takes more sense and more courage to leave something alone that to tinker with it. Whether or not this says good things about do-nothings like Coolidge and Ford depends upon whether something important needed doing. Both men followed train wrecks in the Office. Perhaps stifling reactionary zeal was the safest thing they could have done under the circumstances.
(Update: The Mellon Effect. Andrew Mellon was one of the country’s richest men. He knew how to run a successful company, and the United States was, to him, no different. Allowed to have his way through the presidencies of Harding and Coolidge, he cuts taxes and spending and raised revenues unlike any other time in American history. He is proof that good leadership is dependent more on picking the right team than on one’s personal integrity. Too bad Hoover panicked and overruled Mellon later in his presidency. If the Fed hadn’t meddled with the economic train and effectively derailed it, Hoover’s presidency might have ranked closer to the top.)
The Great Presidents
1. Calvin Coolidge (1923 – 29) – Modern conjecture is that he was a do-nothing, didn’t do much right, but didn’t do much wrong. However, under Coolidge, Tax rates dropped from a high of 73% to a high of 25%, and the lowest tax rate dropped to just 1.5%. Coolidge was the original Reagan. Because he was aided by a congress that sought to undo the fascist/progressive government excesses of Wilson, Coolidge was actually much more successful than Reagan in achieving his goal of small government. As a result, the growth of the nation’s wealth and economy has never surpassed the roaring 20’s. Cal might have been silent, but he was effective.
2. Ronald Reagan (1981 – 89) – End of Cold War. Cut taxes and doubled revenues.
The Near-Great Presidents
3. William Howard Taft (1909 – 13) – Big on rule of law. Good on foreign affairs.
The Average Presidents
4. Warren Harding (1921 – 23) — This man was a drinker and womanizer who was spared impeachment for the Teapot Dome Scandal by his rather fortuitous death by heart attack. Politically, he was a fair enough politician to be chosen for nomination as a compromise candidate. As the anti-Wilson, he needed only to ride the wave of anti-progressive sentiment. Andrew Mellon was his saving grace. It pains me to put such a cad in this position, but we are ranking by how much the presidency benefited the nation. Fortunately, Calvin Coolidge, the vice president, was really running things for Harding, the figurehead president.
5. George H.W. Bush ( 1989 – 93) – Won Gulf War. Reneged on “No new taxes”
The Below-average Presidents
6. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953 – 61) – Helped school desegregation. Killed spy investigation. Deposed Iran’s first democratic government in favor of Shah. Ended Korean War. Extended New Deal. First to invoke hideous executive privilege.
7. Gerald R. Ford (1974 – 77) – He vetoed a lot. Kind of wimpy.
8. George W. Bush (2001 – 09) — Put Gulf War II on winning track. Began bailout debacle. “No child left behind” bureaucratic nightmare.
9. Theodore Roosevelt (1901 – 09) – imperialist, progressive, stole things from other countries
10. Richard Nixon (1969 – 74) – negotiated end of Vietnam War. Massive increase of Federal Bureaucracy.
11. John F. Kennedy (1961 – 63) – Tried to take out Fed. Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, Civil Rights Failures
The Poor Presidents
13. Herbert Hoover (1929 – 33) – By imposing wage freezes and stimulus of outmoded production, Hoover effectively tied the hands of private enterprise, making it impossible for industry to regroup and end the recession. He was the primary cause of the 28% unemployment and the unfortunate catalyst for the ascendency of FDR.
14. Jimmy Carter (1977 – 81) – Loved everyone. Stunk at foreign policy, domestic policy
15. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963 – 69) – Tried to lose Vietnam war. Lost War on Poverty. Civil Rights Failures.
16. Harry S. Truman (1945 – 53) – refused to prosecute soviet spies. Lost China to Mao. Lost bomb to USSR.
17. Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 21) – Fascist, created goon squads. Prohibition.
18. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933 – 45) – Japanese Concentration camps. Destroyed economy for ten years. Promoted Soviet agents to State Dpt. And IMF. Lost Poland and East Germany to USSR.
19. Barack Obama (2009 – ) – Got Bin Laden. Increased bureaucracy, taxes, deficit, debt. Has proven to be as bad or worse than Carter in foreign policy. First president to express open hatred for America. First president to attack organized Christianity.
- Amity Shlaes: Coolidge, Hoover, and Roosevelt (nebraskaenergyobserver.wordpress.com)
- Charles C. Johnson on ‘Why Coolidge Matters’ (educationviews.org)
- Wilf: Calvin Coolidge a true conservative (wenatcheeworld.com)
- Modern Washington could learn from tax hero Coolidge, scholars say (watchdog.org)
- George W. Bush’s legacy by the numbers (timesunion.com)
- Richard Nixon, hero of the American Left (salon.com)
- The 10 Most Narcissistic U.S. Presidents (psychologicalscience.org)