News & Politics

Polarization Over History: Reagan, Obama Beat Lincoln and Washington in List of ‘Best Presidents’

Polarization Over History: Reagan, Obama Beat Lincoln and Washington in List of ‘Best Presidents’
President Barack Obama walks up to the podium before speaking in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Political polarization may be blotting out Americans’ understanding of their own history, a new poll suggests. More Americans identified former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama as the best president in U.S. history rather than Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

When asked who was the best president in U.S. history, 16 percent of Americans selected Reagan and another 16 percent selected Obama, according to a recent YouGov survey. Lincoln took third place with 15 percent, and Washington followed with 10 percent.

The grand totals miss the larger story, however. Among Republicans, 36 percent chose Reagan, while only two percent of Democrats agreed. Obama enjoyed a similar disparity — 33 percent of Democrats said he was the best president, while only two percent of Republicans agreed.

Lincoln received even support from both parties, at 15 percent. Tragically, only 14 percent of Republicans chose Washington, and only six percent of Democrats did likewise.

While a strong case could be made for Reagan, Lincoln and Washington should beat him and Obama easily on the merits. Ronald Reagan led the final drive to defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and Obama did represent a symbolic victory as the first black president (even though he followed the same destructive Progressivism of some of America’s worst presidents).

Even so, Abraham Lincoln held the Union together, defeating the Confederacy and fighting in order to save the Constitution, which included no secession clause. Lincoln’s stance against slavery mattered less to him than preserving the Union, but he eventually led the effort to pass the 13th Amendment, eradicating the scourge of slavery once and for all.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has gone down in the hearts and minds of Americans for generations, but his second inaugural address is arguably the best speech he ever gave. This speech gave a religious interpretation of the Civil War unmatched in its humility and interpretation of American history.

“Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes,” Lincoln declared.

He rooted the need for the war in Matthew 18:7:

Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!’ If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?

Finally, that great declaration:

Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.

Despite Lincoln’s grand accomplishments and soaring rhetoric, no man deserves the top spot more than the first president. George Washington preserved the fledgling American cause despite military defeat after defeat, and on March 15, 1783, the disgruntled and unpaid army asked him to lead a coup against Congress and become America’s king, which he firmly refused.

Washington implemented the Constitution, proving that it could indeed serve as the right framework of American government after the Articles of Confederation fell apart. Powerfully, he resigned the presidency after eight years, setting the standard for all future presidents and embodying the peaceful transition of power.

After all, President’s Day was scheduled for February in order to honor George Washington, who was born on February 22.

Even so, it appears the myopia of recent events has blinded Americans to the true value of these historic giants. Similarly, polarization has led Americans to select the last two presidents as the worst presidents, by far.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 71 percent of Democrats in the YouGov survey identified current President Donald Trump as the worst president in history (6 percent of Republicans agreed). Similarly, 57 percent of Republicans chose Barack Obama as the worst president (two percent of Democrats agreed). This polarization placed Trump as the worst overall (40 percent) and Obama closest behind him (27 percent).

This myopia proved most astonishing because even the infamous Richard Nixon paled in comparison to Trump and Obama. Ironically, more Republicans (seven percent) chose Nixon as the worst president than Democrats (six percent).

The judgments of history take a long time, as the continuing re-litigation of the 2016 presidential election suggests. It will be hard to issue a true verdict about either Trump or Obama for at least another decade, while many other presidents arguably deserve comparable infamy.

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