What makes for a great president? What makes for a bad president? These are just two of the perennial questions answered by the recent 2021 C-SPAN Survey of Presidential Leadership. As one of 142 participants in the survey, I am convinced that these results represent the most accurate possible rendering of the leadership characteristics of the 44 individuals who have held the nation’s highest office.
Let’s start by reviewing the presidents who stand out as the best.
In the top spot remains Abraham Lincoln, who has finished first in the four surveys conducted since 2000. If anything, Lincoln’s greatness only increases with the passage of time, as he advanced to first place in the all-important category of Performance Within Context of Time, giving him 7 number one spots. To use a phrase popular in the sports world, Lincoln is the undisputed GOAT (Greatest of All Time) of American presidents.
Rounding out the top 5, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Theodore Roosevelt finished second, third, and fourth. As our first president Washington set the standard for the presidency itself, while FDR steered the country through the difficulties posed by the Great Depression and World War II. Theodore Roosevelt re-energized the presidency, and he is credited with providing the template for the modern presidency itself. Similarly, as more has become known of the challenges overcome during 5th-ranked Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, his prestige has only climbed.
From there, the top 10 mostly highlight the presidents of the 20th and 21st centuries. Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan all made the list, and for the first time, Barack Obama has entered the pantheon of top 10 presidents. Thomas Jefferson finished a solid seventh.
For every high there is a low, and this is certainly true in the history of American presidents. Once again, James Buchanan takes the bottom spot, where he scored dead last in five categories: Crisis Leadership, International Relations, Vision/Setting an Agenda, Pursued Equal Justice for All, and Performance Within Context of Times. Buchanan’s poor handling of the secession crisis of 1860 to 1861, it seems, will forever leave him in the basement of American history.
Things hardly get better from there for the bottom finishers. Andrew Johnson (second to last) scored the worst in Public Persuasion and Relations with Congress, while Donald Trump (fourth to last) finished last in Administrative Skills and Moral Authority. Finally, Herbert Hoover, the president at the onset of the Great Depression, scored last in Economic Management.
While greatness in presidential leadership is not confined to any single era, the distribution between the top and the bottom of U.S. Presidents is notable. Over the 36-year period between 1933 and 1969, America witnessed 5 of its top 11 presidents. By contrast, over the 32-year-period from 1837 to 1869, the nation suffered 8 of our 11 worst presidents.
What accounts for this asymmetric pattern of greatness and failure? Certainly, the long shadow of Abraham Lincoln cannot be overstated. By immortalizing Lincoln, the presidents who came before and immediately afterwards have held comparatively less luster among historians. The two lowest ranked presidents – James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson – preceded and succeeded Lincoln, respectively.
At the same time, the recent presidents have enjoyed a greater national spotlight and the increased power of the executive, both for better and for worse. That Ronald Reagan, a conservative president, and Barack Obama, a liberal president, are ranked next to one another underscores the dynamic. Regardless of a president’s politics, the character of the individual who holds the nation’s highest office truly matters in their place in history.
Similarly, recent presidents who were unpopular while in office tend to debut poorly and move up or down according to the changing nature of American politics. The fate of George W. Bush is illustrative of the upward trend. Bush started out 36th in 2009, yet he has risen to 29th in 2021 in large part due his improvement in the categories of Moral Authority and Public Persuasion. By contrast, Richard Nixon has fallen five spots over time, driven by the negative shadow cast on his conduct in office as more information comes to light.
Other presidents tend to rise and fall in the rankings as reassessments take place of their performance. Take the case of Ulysses S. Grant. Thanks in part to new scholarship that reveals his unwavering commitment to civil rights for the formerly enslaved people in the South, historians have catapulted Grant from 33rd place in 2000 to number 20 in 2021, the largest increase of any president over time. Similarly, Andrew Jackson, who has been scrutinized for his role in the removal of Native Americans from the Southeast and dedication to the institution of slavery, has plummeted from 13th place to number 22 over that same period.
Of course, these periodic re-evaluations of the presidents matter most to us in the present moment for how the most recent occupant of the office fared. Former president Donald Trump ranked 41st out of 44, the relative worst score among the outgoing presidents since the surveys began in 2000. While the story of Trump’s presidency will continue to unfold, his ranking may well ebb and flow over time.
But we will have to wait another four, or possibly eight years, until the end of President Biden’s time in office to find out.
Thomas J. Balcerski teaches history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is the author of “Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King” (Oxford University Press). Follow him on Twitter: @tbalcerski.
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