Students get graded. Employees get reviewed. US Presidents get ranked, and in their case, it all depends on who is doing the ranking. Liberals will have one list with a president like Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson toward the top, and conservatives will have an entirely different one, likely favoring Ronald Reagan.
Blessedly, more neutral groups also rank US Presidents, and C-Span, the “just-thefacts, ma’am” network covering our federal government, has conducted three presidential Historians Surveys, one in 2000, one in 2009 and one in 2017.
No need to wait by your phone for the next survey, as you and I are not likely to get a call. Those doing the ranking are more than 90 writers and historians at leading colleges and universities throughout the nation, including Douglas Brinkley and Larry Sabato, both of whom comment on presidential issues often in various media.
The academicians rank presidential effectiveness from 1-10 on measures including Public Persuasion, Crisis Leadership, Moral Authority, International Relations, Relations with Congress and Pursued Equal Justice for All. Each category carries equal weight in the rankings. Sitting presidents are not ranked, meaning that George W. Bush did not show up in the 2000 survey, and Barack Obama was in neither the 2000 nor the 2007 survey. Donald Trump is not ranked at all.
So, who are C-Span’s experts’ top presidents?
Abraham Lincoln was No. 1 all three years, which is not surprising since he is the president who saved the Union. George Washington, the father of our country, was No. 2 in 2009 and 2017, although Franklin Roosevelt claimed that spot in 2000, a ranking he earned by leading us out of the Great Depression and shepherding the Allies through World War II.
Roosevelt was a solid No. 3, followed by his cousin Theodore Roosevelt at No. 4. Dwight Eisenhower was No. 5 in 2017, but lower in earlier years. Harry Truman also placed at No. 5 and 6, followed by Thomas Jefferson, a solid No. 7. John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson and Woodrow Wilson rounded out the top 10 in all three surveys.
After that, the presidents are mostly “historical” in the sense that we know them only from books, along with several more recent White House residents. Barack Obama ranks highest among recent presidents, coming in at No. 12 this year. Bill Clinton is ranked 15, 15 and 21. George H.W. Bush receives 20, 18 and 20, while his son George W. Bush received much more modest No. 33 and 36. Our only other father-son presidential team was more closely ranked. John Adams received 19, 17 and 16, while his son, John Quincy Adams, was respectably nearby at 21, 19 and 19.
Bringing up the rear are presidents most of us would not know if they walked in our front doors. These include John Tyler, Warren G. Harding, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson (born in Raleigh in
1808 and a tailor by profession) and James Buchanan.
None of this is surprising.
The presidency of the United States of America may be the most challenging job on earth, but the men who have held it have been chosen for all sorts of reasons having little to do with their own capabilities. And, like any job, some people are better at it than others. Also, being at the right place at the right time plays a role. Franklin Roosevelt established work programs to see Americans through the Great Depression, but many a historian believes that it was his unwavering, sunny optimism that carried people through those dark days. These are among the reasons Lincoln, Washington, and Roosevelt consistently rank in the top five, and whatever-their-names-were are consistently at the bottom.
It is also true that historians revise their thinking over time, and individual presidents rise and fall in the rankings as time puts their achievements, or lack thereof, into perspective. John F. Kennedy was a popular president, in part because of his youth and attractive family, but over time his presidential star has tarnished a bit. Although he is in the top 10 in the C-Span surveys, other scholarly surveys have ranked him in the middle of the pack or below. Two-termers have more time to get a handle on the job than one-termers, and top-rated Franklin Roosevelt served three terms and change before a constitutional amendment limiting presidential service to two terms. Conversely, two-termers have more time to bungle the job, but no finger pointing here. Several presidents died so early in their terms as not to be ranked at all.
Not a historian? Then whether you or I love or loathe a president makes no difference. These historian assessments are performance reviews, not popularity contests.
I can hardly wait for Donald Trump to get his reckoning — er, ranking.