Most presidents are mediocre. There have been a very few truly great presidents. There have been too many failed presidents. The Siena Survey of Historians regularly offers a ranking of U. S. presidents according to the historians who participate (whether by their own initiative or by invitation, I don’t know). I think it’s a bit useless to attempt to rank one particular successful president over another, or one particular failed president over another. Such rankings constantly change, sometimes quite dramatically. So, here I offer an assessment of the various presidents based on Siena’s designations of “successful,” “fair,” “poor,” and “failed.” Rather than ranking them best to worst, I list them chronologically.
Siena’s list of successful presidents include:
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.
Some things stand out. First, according to Siena, it took a while to get things rolling in the office of the presidency. For the first century of our nationhood, there were only three successful presidents: Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Clearly, Siena’s historians regard the 1930s to 1960s as the pinnacle of presidential success. No less than four consecutive successful presidents, by their assessment, graced the stage during these decades: FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and JFK. Does this reveal something of a bias toward the presidents of one’s youth, as many of these men served during the likely earlier and formative years of the historians assessing them? Perhaps this says more about the psychology of the historians than the success of the presidents!
The “big three” — Washington, Lincoln, and FDR — seem to live on a celestial level in the minds of most Americans, and most American historians, as well. Will any future president join them? Perhaps we should hope not, for the likelihood of any future president breaking this glass ceiling will almost certainly depend on his or her pivotal and successful response to a grand national or international crisis similar to the Civil War or World War II. Who wants that?
JFK is, and may always be regarded, the martyr president. Wildly popular in the minds of the people and the press during his brief administration, many more objective historians frankly don’t regard him highly. The “Camelot” imagery was planted shortly after his assassination by Jackie Kennedy herself, with the help of Ted White, and it took root. Kennedy likely would be assessed quite differently today, where presidents live like celebrities in glass houses and scandals, especially those of a sexual nature, are more difficult to hide. Just ask Bill Clinton.
Another consideration is how the historians ranking the presidents years after they left office often contradict the assessment of their administrations during or shortly after the end of their tenure in the White House. Likely no one in the entire nation, excepting close relatives (perhaps), would have placed Harry Truman among a list of successful presidents when he left office in 1953. His job approval rating was 22%, lower than Richard Nixon’s 24% when Nixon resigned! Things started turning around for Truman in the early 1960s, when he became a popular figure in the press and in newsreels for his charming “every man” image, taking long walks daily and spouting wisdom to any who might ask. Alas, for Chester A. Arthur, the turnaround took the opposite direction. When Arthur departed the White House in 1885, the nation generally honored the man for having done a fine job running the ship of state. Even the curmudgeonly Mark Twain praised Arthur for the success of his administration. But, the Siena historians rate him as “poor.” I wonder if it’s only because Arthur is a mostly forgotten president and, well, they had to put him someplace.
The historians seem to prefer Democrats over Republicans. Among the successful or fair presidents since WWII, there are five Democrats and three Republicans. Among the poor or failed presidents, there are also three Republicans, but only one Democrat (Jimmy Carter, duh!) Also, as opposed to the span from 1933 to 1963 (FDR to JFK), the last fifty years has experienced a serious lack of presidential achievement. Only one successful president (Reagan), and two fair presidents (H. W. Bush and Clinton). Interestingly, again, these three served consecutive terms. Around these years, there have been three poor presidents and one failed president, including George W. Bush, the only two-term failed president. In my mind, the picture is even more dismal, for I think Siena’s historians are being generous in assessing Nixon and Carter as merely poor rather than failed. The picture doesn’t get any rosier, either, since I would certainly rank Barack Obama among the failed presidents. I concede that most historians and many Americans would disagree with me on that, but I think that’s more a result of bias than an objective assessment.
However you look at it, our nation is in great need of a good president! I would love a great president. But, I’ll settle for successful at this point.
Here are the remaining presidents according to Siena’s survey. Again, they’re listed chronologically according to Siena’s categories, and not according to Siena’s rankings:
Fair Presidents: John Adams, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Lyndon B. Johnson, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.
Poor Presidents: Martin Van Buren, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, William H. Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and Jimmy Carter.
Failed Presidents: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, George W. Bush.
William H. Harrison and James Garfield are not included because of the brevity of their terms, cut short by death from pneumonia and assassination. Obama was not included because the survey was taken during his term and his administration could not be fairly assessed while in office.
Assigning a grade to each president based on his assessment of being successful or otherwise, we come out with a GPA of 2.36 to 2.43 for the class average (depending on how one grades Obama). A solid C. Most presidents are mediocre.
How will Donald Trump do? Will he be successful, fair, poor, or a failure? I honestly don’t know. I didn’t vote for Trump (or Clinton). He wasn’t my guy. The character flaws loomed too large for me. I hope he does well, of course. I hope he is true to his pro-life pledges. I hope he is true to his promise to work hard to improve the inner cities and the lot of those who live there. I certainly hope he can get some reins on immigration, with a policy that is both realistic and compassionate (and, yes, I think that’s possible). I hope he can restore a robust protection of religious liberty, so maligned in the last few years. I hope he can restore a valued relationship with Israel and work to hold back the aggression of Russia. I hope he can make progress in the war against terrorism and, frankly, destroy ISIS, serving as the vanguard of a multinational effort. I hope the economic sluggishness we’ve suffered for too many years can be turned around, as well as the chronic under-employment that chains so many who long for a decent living. All of this and more I hope for Mr. Trump. And for what I hope, I pray. God bless America … please!
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.