Just in time to give us all something to debate over the holiday weekend, C‑SPAN has issued its fourth Survey of Presidential Leadership, a ranking of the nation’s former chief executives by 142 historians and experts on the presidency. Since 2000, the survey has been conducted after each presidential transition. This year’s is the first to include Donald Trump, who debuts near the bottom of the list at No. 41. (James Buchanan finished in last place, as he has in every survey.)
Americans have been scoring the performance of ex-presidents for as long as there have been ex-presidents. When George Washington died in December 1799, Congress commissioned Gen. Henry Lee to summarize his life in a eulogy. Its most famous passage was arguably the first presidential ranking:
“First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life: pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding.”
Washington still does pretty well in the rankings. Only Abraham Lincoln edges him out to claim the top spot in C-SPAN’s tally. In fact, the top of the list tends to change very little. As in 2017, Lincoln and Washington this year are followed by the two Roosevelts, Franklin and Theodore, then by Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. Rounding out the Top 10 for the first time is Barack Obama, who took the spot from Lyndon Johnson.
As that list of names suggests, one significant problem with presidential rankings is a bias toward recent history. Is it really plausible that of America’s 11 best presidents, all but four were elected since the 1940s? It’s far likelier that the historians participating in the survey have intense feelings about presidents whose terms they lived through. Historians of a liberal bent may be inclined to give higher marks to FDR or Obama; those tilting rightward are more likely to admire Reagan.
To its credit, C-SPAN makes a point of including both liberals and conservatives among its roster of respondents. And its scoring system is not one-dimensional. The historians were asked to rate each president’s performance on 10 qualities of leadership, such as “economic management,” “moral authority,” “international relations,” and “pursuit of equal justice.” But those terms were not defined, leaving considerable scope for subjective judgment and debate.
Consider: Reagan reduced Americans’ tax burden, broke the back of inflation, and ushered in an economic boom, but the national debt nearly tripled on his watch: What score should he get for “economic management”? Lyndon Johnson secured passage of momentous civil rights bills while enmeshing the nation in a bitterly demoralizing Asian war: How should he be graded on “performance in the context of the times”? Obama ran for the White House as a healer who would put an end to “politics that breed division and conflict and cynicism,” yet he contributed to making political life more bitter, not less: Should he be ranked high or low on “moral authority”?
An exercise like this is obviously more art than science, and views plainly change with the passage of time. Still, it is possible to detect consensus taking shape as presidencies recede into history.
For example, George W. Bush’s standing has climbed steadily since he departed the White House with one of the lowest approval ratings in modern history. In 2009, Bush was ranked seventh from the bottom, but he moved up in 2017 and again in 2021, and is now at No. 29 — ahead of 15 other presidents. His score is particularly strong in the “pursuit of equal justice” category, perhaps reflecting his affection for immigrants, his global campaign to eradicate AIDS, and his outspoken support for American Muslims after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There were those who foresaw Bush’s reputational rehabilitation, and Bush himself always professed to take the long view. “I’m the 43rd guy, he’s the first,” he said after reading several biographies of Washington, “and they’re still analyzing the first.”
Bill Clinton’s star, by contrast, is fading. Since 2009, he has dropped five spots in the overall ranking. Not surprising for a president who was enmeshed in sexual scandals and impeached, he scores lowest in the “moral authority” category. But the Clinton years also included a booming economy, low unemployment, and the last four balanced federal budgets, which together account for his ranking as a top-five president on “economic management.”
Woodrow Wilson is another president with whom historians are less impressed these days. In all 10 leadership categories, his numbers have fallen. Particularly steep have been the downgrades in “moral authority” (from sixth to 19th) and “pursuit of equal justice” (from 20th to 37th). Wilson played a leading role in shaping the post-World War I landscape, but he was also an arrogant authoritarian and thoroughgoing racist who imposed Jim Crow segregation across the federal establishment.
One subtext to the presidential surveys is the power of historians themselves to shape opinions over time.
When Truman left the White House, his approval rating was only 22 percent, the lowest since modern polling began. But C-SPAN’s historians have consistently ranked him in the Top 10. Why so dramatic a change? Doubtless because of two highly influential biographies of the 33rd president — Merle Miller’s “Plain Speaking,” an oral history published in 1974, and David McCullough’s “Truman,” which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for biography.
Something similar happened to Ulysses S. Grant. For much of the 20th century, his presidency was routinely classified as a failure. But Ron Chernow’s bestselling biography, “Grant,” depicted a president who was far more sympathetic and admirable, even noble, than his detractors had acknowledged. Now widely seen as having been misjudged, Grant has soared in C-SPAN’s rankings, from No. 33 in 2000 to No. 20 today.
When all is said and done, is it fair to any president to be assigned a numerical ranking, as if he were a tennis player being seeded for a tournament? It’s not hard to imagine what Trump, always ratings-obsessed, thinks of the dismal slot C-SPAN’s historians place him in. But he wouldn’t be alone in resenting the very idea of presidential ratings.
During an Oval Office meeting in 1962, President Kennedy heatedly told the historian David Herbert Donald: “No one has a right to grade a president — not even poor James Buchanan — who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions.”
But in the real world, no president escapes being graded, first by voters and journalists, then by historians. The best advice for any president is to behave with integrity and care, and not worry about history’s ultimate verdict. It’s good advice for the rest of us, too.