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September 1st, 2019

Ranking the Presidents

It is unclear when the first ranking of the Presidents of the United States was performed by historians, though it it probably a safe bet than during the term of John Adams, somebody compared him to George Washington and likely ranked Washington in first place. This is not intended to disrespect the first President Adams, but Washington did cast a long shadow in many ways.

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In more recent times, a poll was conducted in 1948 by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. of Harvard University. He also conducted a second survey in 1962 survey, at which time he surveyed 75 historians. Both surveys ranked the top three Presidents in the same order: Abraham Lincoln first, George Washington second and Franklin Delano Roosevelt third. Warren Harding finished in last place in both surveys. President John F. Kennedy was critical of Schlesinger for judging some presidents as failures. Kennedy is quoted as saying to Schlesinger, "no one has the right to grade a president - not even poor James Buchanan - who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions."

In a 1982 survey of 49 historians conducted by the Chicago Tribune, the ranking of Dwight D. Eisenhower rose from 22nd in 1962 to 9th in 1982. Schlesinger's son, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., conducted another poll in 1996. The Siena Research Institute of Siena College conducted surveys in 1982, 1990, 1994, 2002 and 2010. The 1994 survey placed only two presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, above 80 points and two presidents, Andrew Johnson and Warren G. Harding, below 50 points.

In 1996 authors William J. Ridings Jr. and Stuart B. McIver published a book entitled Rating The Presidents: A Ranking of U.S. Leaders, from the Great and Honorable to the Dishonest and Incompetent. More than 719 people took part in the poll, primarily academic historians and political scientists, although some politicians and celebrities also took part. Participants from every state were included and emphasis was placed upon getting input from female historians and "specialists in African-American studies" as well as a few non-American historians. Poll respondents rated the presidents in five categories (leadership qualities, accomplishments and crisis management, political skill, appointments and character and integrity) and the results were tabulated to create the overall ranking. A 2000 survey by The Wall Street Journal consisted of an "ideologically balanced group of 132 prominent professors of history, law, and political science". This poll attempted to include an equal number of liberals and conservatives in the survey. The WSJ editors argued that previous polls were dominated by either one ideological group or the other. According to the editors, this poll included responses from more women, minorities and young professors than the 1996 Schlesinger poll. The results of their poll were similar to the 1996 Schlesinger poll, with the main difference in the 2000 poll being the lower rankings for the 1960s presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy and higher ranking of President Ronald Reagan at 8th.

Another presidential poll was conducted by The Wall Street Journal in 2005. The editors sought to balance the opinions of liberals and conservatives, adjusting the results "to give Democratic- and Republican-leaning scholars equal weight". One notable result was that Democratic-leaning scholars rated George W. Bush the sixth-worst president of all time while Republican scholars rated him the sixth-best, giving him a split-decision rating of "average". At the time Bush was the incumbent President. A 2010 Siena poll of 238 presidential scholars found that former president George W. Bush was ranked 39th out of 43, with his poorest ratings in his handling of the economy. The then-current president Barack Obama was ranked 15th out of 43.

The C-SPAN Survey of Presidential Leadership consists of rankings from a group of presidential historians and biographers. The C-SPAN Survey of Presidential Leadership has taken place three times: in 2000, 2009 and 2017. The most recent survey was of 91 presidential historians, surveyed by C-SPAN's Academic Advisor Team, made up of Douglas G. Brinkley, Edna Greene Medford and Richard Norton Smith. In the survey, each historian rated each president on a scale of one ("not effective") to 10 ("very effective") on presidential leadership in ten categories: Public Persuasion, Crisis Leadership, Economic Management, Moral Authority, International Relations, Administrative Skills, Relations with Congress, Vision/Setting An Agenda, Pursued Equal Justice for All and Performance Within the Context of His Times—each category is equally weighed. The results of all three C-SPAN surveys have been fairly consistent. Abraham Lincoln has taken the highest ranking in each survey and George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt have always ranked in the top five while James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Franklin Pierce have been ranked at the bottom of all three surveys.

In 2012, Newsweek magazine asked a panel of historians to rank the ten best presidents since 1900. The results showed that historians had ranked Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama as the best since that year.

A 2015 poll administered by the American Political Science Association (APSA) among political scientists specializing in the American presidency had Abraham Lincoln in the top spot, with George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson making the top 10.

One notable ranking was performed in 2012 when members of potus_geeks were asked to rate each president on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best). The results had the following Presidents in the top 10 positions:

1. George Washington (8.82)
2. Abraham Lincoln (8.30)
3. Theodore Roosevelt (8.00)
4/5. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (7.88)
4/5. Dwight D. Eisenhower (7.88)
6. Thomas Jefferson (7.45)
7. James Monroe (7.40)
8. Harry S. Truman (6.62)
9. Ulysses S. Grant (6.50)
10. Barack Obama (6.42)

The high rankings for Monroe and Grant were especially notable, given that Monroe is generally under-rated because he lived in the shadow of more prominent founding fathers. Grant typically receives low ratings because of the scandals which plagued his administration, but in recent years his reputation has been rehabilitated as he has received credit for his efforts in the field of civil rights.

The ten worst presidents in the potus_geeks survey comes as no surprise, as they are typically those who rank in the bottom tier:

34. Rutherford Hayes (4.80)
35. Grover Cleveland (4.67)
36. William Henry Harrison (4.50)
37. Jimmy Carter (4.42)
38. Herbert Hoover (4.11)
39. Martin Van Buren (4.00)
40. Millard Fillmore (3.10)
41. Andrew Johnson (2.80)
42. Franklin Pierce (2.30)
43. James Buchanan (2.00)

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For the next 45 days, potus_geeks will conduct another survey in which those who answer will be asked to grade each President on his performance in office on a scale of 1-10. The poll will be conducted in this community's account on Twitter. Each day, a summary of the President's administration will be posted along with a link to where you can go and cast your vote. The poll for each President will be kept open for five days. After the last poll has closed, the results will be tabulated and posted.

Tomorrow we begin at the beginning: with George Washington.

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