This Week’s Mtg: Who Are The Best and Worst Presidents?

This one was my idea.  I think it will be a good conversation if we stretch ourselves to go beyond the simple criterion of good/bad presidents = the ones that did/did not apply my preferred political ideology.  If we do it well, maybe our discussion can shed some light on what makes a good president, what constraints they face in real life, and what is reasonable for us to expect from them.

CAVEATS:  Ranking the presidents is an old parlor game for historians and political types, but it’s inherently difficult and a bit artificial, especially when we try to compare recent presidents to older ones.  Obviously, as our country has changed dramatically so have the problems we’ve faced and the choices available to presidents.  Public expectations were very different long ago,  the electorate itself has changed a lot, and the job of president has changed dramatically.  Plus, who knows Polk from Hayes? 

Also, as we’ve discussed before, our moral criteria have evolved.  How do we judge the actions of, say, Andrew Jackson, who both expanded democracy and ethnically cleansed native Americans?  How do we judge the imperialists Polk and McKinley, and the white supremacist Wilson, to say nothing of the slaveholders who created our republic?

CRITERIA  —  Here are some of the more commonly cited ones.

  • Public Leadership: Helping the public understand our problems and our choices, and/or to set new terms of debate.  Communication.
  • Elite Leadership:  Dealing with Congress, the opposition, big business, other actors to get things done.
  • Crisis management:  New ones or any big ones he inherited.
  • Anticipating problems: e.g., emerging enemies, economic problems.
  • Protecting the Constitution and our democracy itself:  Expanding rights and liberties, representing all the people, abiding by the Constitution and the rule of law, etc.
  • Keeping us safe from attack, economic calamity, etc.

Okay, I’m rambling and too lazy to look up the ones historians actually use.  But, you get the idea.  I think we can imagine certain, timeless qualities in the person who holds the office, regardless of era.  


  1. What are your criteria for a great president?  Which ones matter the most to you?  What makes a bad president?
  2. What qualities do you think someone from the other side of the political spectrum would list?
  3. So, who are your favorite and least favorite presidents and why?  Who is over- and underrated?
  4. Does the public have realistic expectations for what a president can accomplish?


  • FYI, the presidents, in reverse order, since 1900:  Obama, Bush II, Clinton, Bush I, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, LBJ, JFK, Eisenhower, Truman, FDR, Hoover, Coolidge, Harding, Wilson, Taft, TR, McKinley.
  • All presidents listed, with dates, here.
  • Brief bios of each one here.


  • Surveys of historians and scholars
  • Surveys of the public:
    • See the above Wiki entry.
    • I don’t think these are too useful as objective measures or anything.  The public’s knowledge of even recent history is dim, and they probably get their cues mainly from elites anyway, especially in rating older presidents. 

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