C-SPAN asked 91 presidential historians how they would rank the nation’s 43 presidents. They asked the same question in 2000 and 2009.
For all three surveys, the first three presidents remain unchanged: Lincoln, Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt.
In this 2017 survey, President Barack Obama was included for the first time. And you’ll never guess where the academics ranked him.
Obama came in 12th, just ahead of James Monroe and just behind Woodrow Wilson.
The poll ranks each US president on various issues, including “crisis leadership”, “moral authority”, “international relations” and “pursuing equal justice for all”.
Obama scored particularly high on the “equal justice” scale, coming in third behind only Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) and Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969).
But Obama ranked fifth from the bottom on “relations with Congress”, and got a middling 24th best score on “international relations”, the survey showed
Historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University said that Obama’s presidency, despite its weak points, may age well and notch an even higher ranking as time passes.
“There tends to be kind of an upward mobility, particularly if you are a president who had no major scandals,” he said, noting that presidents are also often judged in comparison to their immediate predecessors and successors.
“If the Trump presidency is problematic, people may judge Obama even higher yet.”
For the third time in a row, Abraham Lincoln ranked as the nation’s best presidential leader, according to the panel. George Washington, the first US President (1789-1797), came in second, and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) rounded out the podium at third.
Others in the top ten are: Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961), Harry Truman (1945-1953), Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), John F. Kennedy (1961-1963), Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and Lyndon Johnson.
George W. Bush’s dismal ranking of 36rd in the 2009 survey has improved slightly with time. He is now ranked as the nation’s 33rd best presidential leader.
Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), whose populist movement has been compared by some historians to Donald Trump’s unconventional political rise, dropped several pegs in the latest survey, falling from the 13th slot in 2000 and 2009 to 18th.
The survey named James Buchanan (1857-1861), as the worst leader whose incompetence to address the onset of the Civil War is noted as one of the greatest leadership failures in American history.
Buchanan joins four other presidents – Andrew Johnson (1865-1869), Franklin Pierce (1853-1857), Warren G. Harding (1921-1923) and John Tyler (1841-1845) – at the bottom of the presidential barrel, below even William Henry Harrison (March 4-April 4, 1841), who died after a month in office.
Here are the criteria used to judge the chief executives with links from C-SPAN to the rankings of the presidents according to each characteristic judged.
“Pursued equal justice for all” should not be on the list. Until Lincoln, presidents were prevented by the Constitution from pursuing equal justice for slaves—and women, for that matter. And the notion of “economic management” being connected to the presidency is a purely modern idea.
Nevertheless, the traits used to judge the presidents are fascinating in that they give some insight into what academic historians consider to be significant characteristics upon which to judge a presidency.
And that explains why Barack Obama is ranked 12th—above James Madison, above John Adams, and above Andrew Jackson, whose presidency was one of the most consequential in history.
In fact, Washington and Jefferson are the only founders ranked ahead of President Obama. I think this tells us volumes about the bias of academic historians. Monroe, Madison, and Adams, along with Washington and Jefferson, guided the nation through the first turbulent years of its existence. To place Obama above most of them is a travesty.
Some of the movement from 2000 to today among the rankings is significant. Eisenhower has risen from 9th to 5th. His quiet confidence and steady hand look better and better in these crisis-torn times. Jimmy Carter has fallen from 22nd to 26th. Still far too high considering he almost blew up the world and presided over the worst economy since the depression—12 percent unemployment, 18 percent inflation, and 18 percent interest rates in March 1980.
And there appears to be a second look at the presidency of Woodrow Wilson going on. Wilson, said to be the first “modern” president, was ranked as high as 6th in 2000. He is now ranked 11th.
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