Friday, 23 December 2016 14:23

6 Best (And 5 Worst) U.S. Presidents of All Time


As we consider the stakes in this year’s presidential election, as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton battle for the role of commander and chief, a look back on which presidents were considered the best and worst seems rather fitting.

Who made the right calls? Who shaped the oval office and turned the modern presidency into what it is today? Who made the best decisions in a crisis? Who simply was not up to the task and left America worse off?

To be fair, events and the historical times in which they lived can define the presidency. Inheriting a great depression or great recession certainly makes the task of governing much more challenging. Taking the helm of the highest office of the land in the middle of a war makes what is easily the hardest job on planet Earth even more daunting.

With all of that said, below we present the 5 worst and 6 best presidents (originally posted several years back), combined below and authored by contributing editor Robert Merry, one of the most sought after presidential historians, for your reading pleasure.

In the spring of 2006, midway through George W. Bush’s second presidential term, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz published a piece in Rolling Stone that posed a provocative question: Was Bush the worst president ever? He said the best-case scenario for Bush was "colossal historical disgrace’’ and added: "Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history."

The Wilentz assessment was probably a bit premature. It is difficult to judge any president’s historical standing while he still sits in the Oval Office, when political passions of the day are swirling around him with such intensity. And yet the Founding Fathers, in creating our system of government, invited all of us to assess our elected leaders on an ongoing basis, and so interim judgments are fair game, however harsh or favorable.

Which raises a question for today: How will Barack Obama be viewed in history? Will he be among the greats? Or will he fall into the category of faltering failures?

Before we delve into that question, perhaps some discussion would be in order on what in fact constitutes presidential failure and how we arrive at historical assessments of it. First, consider the difference between failure of omission and failure of commission. The first is when a president fails to deal with a crisis thrust upon him by events beyond his control. James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln’s predecessor, comes to mind. He didn’t create the slavery crisis that threatened to engulf the nation. Yet he proved incapable of dealing with it in any effective way. In part this was because he was a man who lacked character and hence couldn’t get beyond his own narrow political interests as the country he was charged with leading slipped ever deeper into crisis. And in part this was simply because he lacked the tools to grapple effectively with such a massive threat to the nation.

But, whatever the underlying contributors to his failure, there is no denying that his was a failed presidency. It was a failure of omission.

A failure of commission is when a president actually generates the crisis through his own wrong-headed actions. That could describe Woodrow Wilson in his second term, from 1917 to 1921. He not only manipulated neutrality policies to get the United States into World War I but he then used the war as an excuse to transform American society in ways that proved highly deleterious. He nationalized the telegraph, telephone and railroad industries, along with the distribution of coal. The government undertook the direct construction of merchant ships and bought and sold farm goods. A military draft was instituted. Individual and corporate income tax rates surged. Dissent was suppressed by the notorious Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who vigorously prosecuted opposition voices under severe new laws.

One result from many of these policies was that the economy flipped out of control. Inflation surged into double-digit territory. Gross Domestic Product plummeted nearly 6.5 percent in two years. Racial and labor riots spread across the land. The American people responded with a harsh electoral judgment, rejecting Wilson’s Democratic Party at the next election and giving Warren G. Harding, hardly a distinguished personage, fully 60.3 percent of the popular vote. In addition, Republicans picked up sixty-three House seats and eleven in the Senate. The country has seen few political repudiations of such magnitude.

That’s failure of commission. Although historians have given Wilson a far higher ranking in academic polls than he would seem to deserve, it’s difficult to argue with the collective electorate when it delivers such a harsh judgment. If we assume that our system works, then the electoral assessment must be credited with at least some degree of seriousness.

Getting back to George W. Bush, his foreign policy would almost have to be considered a failure, and it was a failure of commission. He wasn’t responsible for the 9/11 attack in any meaningful way, of course, but his response—sending the U.S. military into the lands of Islam with the mission of remaking Islamic societies in the image of Western democracy—was delusional and doomed. One need only read today’s headlines, with forces aligned with Al Qaeda taking over significant swaths of territory within Iraq, to see Bush’s failure in stark relief.

In addition, Bush’s wars sapped resources and threw the nation’s budget into deficit. The president made no effort to inject fiscal austerity into governmental operations, eschewing his primary weapon of budgetary discipline, the veto pen. The national debt shot up, and economic growth began a steady decline, culminating in negative growth in the 2008 campaign year. The devastating financial crisis erupted on his watch.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Bush belongs in the category of the country’s five worst presidents, along with such perennial bottom-dwellers, in the academic polls, as Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore. Harding also occupies that territory in these polls, but it’s difficult to credit such an assessment, given that he quickly dealt successfully with all the problems bequeathed to him by Wilson and presided over robust economic growth and relative societal stability.

Thus do we come to one man’s assessment (mine) of the five worst presidents of our heritage (in ascending order): Buchanan, Pierce, Wilson, G. W. Bush and Fillmore.

Is it conceivable that Obama could descend to such a reputational depth? It depends, in large measure, on the outcome of the effort to salvage and bolster the president’s profoundly troubled Affordable Care Act. There’s no doubt that, in domestic policy, the Obama presidency will be defined by that single issue. And, if it destabilizes the nation’s health-care system and the overall economy to the extent that some are predicting, the president’s historical reputation will be severely affected. And this failure, if it emerges, will be viewed as one of commission, not of omission.

On the other hand, if the Obamacare system is righted and the country ultimately manages to transition smoothly into a new health-care era, the president’s historical reputation will be salvaged. As it appears now, absent some powerful new development in American politics (which never can be ruled out), Obama’s historical standing will rise or fall with Obamacare.

But one thing we know: Neither the judgment of history nor the judgment of the electorate will be rendered with any degree of sentiment or sympathy. As Lincoln said, "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We…will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation."

Who are the greatest American presidents, and what can they tell us about our own time? How do we define greatness in the presidency, anyway, and who gets to pick the executives included in that hallowed circle? Or is it all just a mystery, fodder for those intermittent academic polls on presidential performance and animated discussions of political and historical junkies?

We take up this discussion with a purpose. Seldom has the American republic been more acutely in need of truly effective presidential leadership than it is right now. The country is in drift, beset by seemingly hopeless political clashes that are gumming up the gears of democracy. Its foreign policy lacks definition and coherence, while domestic issues kick up controversies of such intensity that the country can hardly move. This isn’t all Obama’s fault, though his philosophical adversaries would have us blame it all on him. But his job is to effectively address the nation’s ills, and he has proved himself incapable of doing that.

We must not lose sight of the fact that we live under a presidential system, which means that great crises get solved through presidential leadership or not at all. So, with that in mind, let’s play the Great White House Rating Game and identify, say, the six greatest presidents of all time.

Some will be included in that category with hardly a serious murmur of dissent, though certain minority outlooks will always generate naysayers against the consensus judgment. And that’s just fine, because the Great White House Rating Game is open to all and has no rigid rules.

But we can discern history’s consensus judgment on the greats and near-greats because those occasional academic polls have generated, over time, a body of survey information on the matter. And those polls suggest that the greats and near-greats are Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt (usually in that order), followed in various rank order by Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman.

But let’s not just take the historians’ word for it because they may harbor prejudices that could skew the results. So let’s crank in the contemporaneous judgment of the electorate and toss out those presidents who ultimately found themselves seriously crosswise with the American people during their times in office. In the above list, that would eliminate Wilson and Truman (and possibly Polk, but with him it’s difficult to tell because he had vowed, when accepting his party’s nomination, not to run for a second term).

Wilson and Truman did some great things, particularly Truman. But Wilson’s second term was a disaster. The war into which he pushed his country never produced the results he had promised with such dreamy idealism. He leveraged the war to push federal intervention into American life far more than anyone had ever done before—and far more than the country was prepared to accept. His policies produced a horrendous recession, with a 6.5 percent decline in GDP in two years. The American people, at the next election, gave Wilson’s Democratic Party one of its most severe repudiations in American history—60.3 percent victory for a nonentity Republican opponent, a loss of sixty-three seats in the House and eleven in the Senate.

Truman is a tougher call. His inherited term was nothing short of heroic—ending the war with Japan; relatively smooth transition from wartime to peacetime economy; emergence of the “containment” policy against the Soviet Union; Marshall Plan; National Security Act of 1947; Berlin airlift. But his second term was mediocre. Though NATO came into existence during this term, it was more significantly characterized by a war that the president couldn’t win and couldn’t get out of (political poison for any president); a faltering economy; and petty corruption on the part of presidential cronies from Kansas City, who were given jobs for which they weren’t qualified.

Thus, we shall eliminate presidents whose records, however laudatory at certain times, also sputtered at other times. That leaves us with a top six of Lincoln, Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Jefferson, Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt. Here we have a circle of presidents who not only get constant plaudits from the historians but who also were revered by large electoral majorities during their times in power. A good index here: a two-term president succeeded by a president of his own party.

What do they have in common? They all emerged at times when the country needed a new direction, and all set the country upon that new, needed course. Lincoln broke the nation’s political logjam, saved the nation from disintegration and ended slavery. Washington ensured that the delicate flower of American democracy could take root in the New World soil. FDR transformed the nation in the face of its worst economic crisis, then transformed the world in the face of a dark global crisis (placing America at the heart of world power). Jefferson expunged from American politics the aristocratic tendencies of the Federalists and initiated his country’s westward expansion. Jackson fashioned a political ethos—governmental restraint, low taxes, strict construction of the Constitution—that became a significant part of the American debate up to our own time. And TR injected progressivism into the body politic to address some of the contradictions and dislocations of the nineteenth century industrial revolution (and thus created a healthy counterweight to the Jacksonian ethos).

In doing these things, all of these presidents altered the American political landscape, scraped away deadlock issues, and provided national momentum that lasted well beyond their presidential tenures. In each instance, their views and basic governing philosophies dominated the political scene for significant periods of time.

It should be noted, though, that not every president needs to rise to this level of greatness. Indeed, not every era calls for new directions, new political paradigms, bold new thinking to bust up the encrustations stifling the American democracy. The first challenge for any president, therefore, is to understand the times in which he was elected.

But today we are living in such times, desperately in need of effective presidential leadership and fresh new thinking to propel it out of its current doldrums.

It might get Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton, as the polls and pols are suggesting these days. But neither is likely to fill that bill (although another important lesson from our presidential history is that we never really know how any new president will govern). But politicians such as Bush and Clinton seem to be thoroughgoing products of their time, and the country doesn’t need products of our time. It needs figures like the ancient greats, who shed the thinking of their times in leading the country toward entirely new eras.

Author:  Robert W. Merry

Source:  http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/6-best-5-worst-us-presidents-all-time-17659?


World's leading professional association of Internet Research Specialists - We deliver Knowledge, Education, Training, and Certification in the field of Professional Online Research. The AOFIRS is considered a major contributor in improving Web Search Skills and recognizes Online Research work as a full-time occupation for those that use the Internet as their primary source of information.

Get Exclusive Research Tips in Your Inbox

Receive Great tips via email, enter your email to Subscribe.