A pre-President's Day Gallup poll ranks America's Greatest Presidents as chosen by those polled:
This got me to thinking about how I would rate the top 10. I decided to focus solely on what they did as President. Hence, while I totally honor him for it, Washington's service as commander-in-chief and in the Constitutional Convention don't count. They make him a Great American, but they don't affect his greatness as President. Accordingly, I start my list with Lincoln.
- Abraham Lincoln: Preserved the Union. Emancipation Proclamation. Set stage for reconciliation. Homestead Act. National Banking Act.
- George Washington: Defined so many of the President's roles. Avoided foreign entanglements. Put down rebellion. Jay Treaty. Kept balance between Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson, no small task. Bill of Rights on his watch.
- Thomas Jefferson: I've lost most of the hero worship I developed for Jefferson while attending his University and reading Dumas Malone's magisterial biography (Jefferson the Virginian (Jefferson and His Time)). His failures re slavery and his sympathy for the French revolutionaries appall. Conor Cruise O'Brien's superb biography The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800 was a useful corrective. Still, he helped John Adams set the precedent for peaceful transition of power between Presidents of differing parties. Lewis & Clark. The Louisiana Purchase. Barbary pirates dealt with. Foundation of US Navy. Ended external slave trade on time.
- Theodore Roosevelt: Possibly ranked too high. Must admit to admiring his out-sized personality. But I think he actually had a lot of very significant accomplishments: Panama Canal. Great White Fleet. US starts to become Great Power. Trust busting. Food and drug regulation. Conservation. National parks.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Pains me to rank him this highly. The bad: Created modern regulatory state. Court packing scheme. Keynesian economics. Allowed Japanese internment. Corporatism in the early New deal (esp. NIRA). But there is also so much good: Lend-lease kept UK in war. Managed coalition warfare among the Allies. Won the war. Set stage for post-war American dominance. Ended racial discrimination in federal government hiring and thus helped set the stage for successful civil rights movement.
- Ronald Reagan: My favorite President. Tax cuts and reform. Military buildup bankrupted Soviet Union. Won the Cold war. Arms reduction. Morning in America after Carter malaise. Would rank higher if he had actually done more to cut the size of government. Starving the beast didn't work. Only gave lip service to pro-life movement. Put Swinging Sandy O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy on SCOTUS, thereby preventing emergence of a solid conservative majority.
- Dwight D. Eisenhower: Ended Korean War. Balanced budget 3 out of 8 years. Interstate highway system. Civil Rights Act of 1956.
- John Adams: At this point, you start getting into the territory where candidates have some serious warts. E.g., the Alien & Sedition Act. On the plus side, he managed the crisis with France despite a telling lack of support from either major party or his own cabinet. And he helped set the precedent for peaceful transition of power between Presidents of opposing parties.
- James Polk: Reduced tariffs. Managed the Fifty-four forty or fight crisis to a peaceful resolution. Won the Mexican war, annexing Nevada and California. Second only to Jefferson in the amount of territory he added to USA.
- Andrew Jackson: Speaking of warts, the Indian Removal Act remains a blot on the national escutcheon. On the plus side, there was the veto of the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. Squashed South Carolina's secessionist tendencies for a couple of decades. Managed the Nullification crisis and the Texas revolution. Expanded the voting public.
Comparing my list to the Gallup poll, Clinton comes in way too high on the latter. I'd put him somewhere around 15 or so. If only he could have kept his pants zipped.
Kennedy is even more overrated. I get the mystique. All that Camelot crap. But his positive record's pretty thin and there's a ton of negatives.
It's way too soon to draw conclusions about Obama, but my guess is that he'll end up in the bottom third.
W should be somewhere in the bottom quintile. The war of choice in Iraq still seems like a mistake, all things considered. The failure to catch Osama. Massive deficits. Huge growth in entitlements. The corruption of the K Street Gang.
Jimmy Carter goes into the bottom quintile too. Gave away the Panama Canal. Pardoned the draft dodgers. Fumbled Iran. The hostages. The malaise speech. Stagflation. It was the worst presidency of my adult life.
Richard Nixon is a most interesting case. He was a liar and a cheat. Given half a chance, he might have become a usurper as well. His efforts to ape Disraeli's progressive toryism mostly turned into left-liberal programmatic victories. Massive expansion of the regulatory state. Harry Blackmun was an awful SCOTUS choice. Wage and price controls flopped, as one would expect. Adopted Keynesian economic policies. Yet, he also did a lot of really good stuff, especially in foreign policy. Relations with China. Detente. SALT I and II. Saved Israel's bacon in the 1973 war with Operation Nickel Grass. Got us out of Vietnam quagmire, albeit by throwing the South Vietnamese under the bus. Took us off the gold standard. Doesn't get enough credit for efforts in areas of school desegregation and civil rights generally. William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell were great SCOTUS choices. How does one grade such a mixed bag?
What is really shocking abut the whole exercise is the number of nonentities, mediocrities, and flops who have made it to the Oval office. With the exception of Polk and Jackson, the Presidents who served between Monroe and Lincoln were almost all mediocrities, at best. The list between Lincoln and Teffy Roosevelt is equally uninspiring. In the modern era, you've got oddities like Carter, Gerald Ford, Bush 41 and 43, and Obama.
Surely we can do better.