President Joe Biden has issued some major economic sanctions against Russia in the midst of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. These measures have largely been supported by the public, both in America and across the world, as strong displays of condemnation, without taking the next dire step. The question arises everyday then: will such a step be taken? If we consider the trajectory of America’s recent interventionist past, I would say it’s unlikely. (Of course, such postulation may be emboldening Putin so there’s a caveat to consider there.)
Anyways, to take the first view, let’s look back at Syria in 2013. Obama was concerned that if the US didn’t intervene, it would undercut the severity of chemical weapons’ usage there. Rather than go in all-guns blazing like his predecessor had with Iraq though, he instead went to the Capitol to seek approval. It was determined America wouldn’t intervene. Years later, a divide remains over whether they should have with a Guardian piece in 2018 entitled “The Epic Failure Of Our Age: How The West Let Down Syria”. I mention this, not to weigh in on any specific view, but to show that it’s not always clear-cut when, where, and why America should intervene.
Had Syria’s crisis come ten or twenty years before, America may very well have sought a different approach. As it happened, George W. Bush had led the nation into two costly wars in 2002-3 with Afghanistan and Iraq. We know all about how those went but it’s interesting to consider that at the beginning, support for the Afghanistan War was close to unanimous (90% according to Gallup). Iraq wasn’t ever quite as popular but it got a whole lot less so in the following years. But what if it hadn’t gone so wrong? Yes, I understand and completely agree that the invasion of Iraq was wrong from the get-go but in the eyes of the American public, what if there had been less casualties and more success associated with it? Like with the Gulf War a decade before?
George H.W. Bush sent the military in to liberate Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion. It was a quick, bold, and decisive victory that skyrocketed his approval ratings to 90%. The mission was complete but a lot of his supporters felt he should have gone further (into Iraq) and removed the problem of Saddam Hussein there and then. He declined, though years later (under the auspices of the War on Terror), his son determined America could not hold its head high while Saddam continued to violate international laws (and maybe have nuclear weapons???) Perhaps, an invasion in the early 90s would have gone just as poorly, even with the senior Bush proving a formidable foreign policy strategist. Indeed, his interventions in Panama and Somalia (while contested and dubious to many) were well planned out and successful. Well…
With regards Somalia (which began just after Bush had lost election), the people were initially thankful for his swift intervention. His record would then turn out positively when Bill Clinton took over and Somalia descended into chaos (with Black Hawk Down and more). Bush didn’t have to deal with the eventualities such interventions can bring, where Clinton was faced with an uphill battle he hadn’t even sought. The rest of his presidency would be tested on the question of when American intervention should and shouldn’t occur with critics (and himself, later on) citing a late entry to Rwanda and Bosnia as unfortunate, if not shameful, chapters in history.
In 1996, Eric Carson wrote a piece for the Rand Organisation entitled “Public Support For US Military Operations” exploring the factors that restrained presidents, in this sphere. Having come out of the Cold War just a few years ago, America had entered a “more confusing world” where the objective wasn’t always clear as had been with something like World War 2 (where people acknowledged the gravity of the situation). Further to that, political divisions or disagreements were having a knock-on effect on public perception. To bring this back to the present, we can see the potential of this political divide crinkling American support for a “next step” as many Republicans weren’t long ago flaunting a “rather be Russian than Democrat” motto.
Public support is essential when a president has a paper-thin political majority or faces contentions. This is another reason why I feel a strong intervention from the US is less likely today than it was years ago. After 9/11, George W. Bush had the nation’s support, even if he would quickly squander it. Back in World War 2, Franklin D. Roosevelt was a president in his third term. Even though Truman’s reputation would for years be bashed by the Korean War, there was still general support for a policy of Communist Containment.
Vietnam, the follow-up to Korea, truly took on its perception as an abject failure when the public started seeing what was going on through the medium of television. With public marches and demonstrations, bolstered by the counter-cultural movement, a new picture of American interventionism and soldiers themselves (quite harshly) was ingrained in the public’s psyche. What if Vietnam had happened ten years before, however? Well, as already mentioned, Korea was a contentious affair, though the South remained free of Russian influence but it is reasonable to assert it wouldn’t have been as unpopular or ended in quite the fashion it had, heavily influencing an election cycle.
Is it bleak to conclude that Americans will support American intervention then only if success is assured? It seems to be the case though such luxuries are never realistically afforded them. Popular support, as a result of today’s media, rancour in politics, and recent dubious interventions, has become nigh-on impossible. The best a president can do, in this age, is justify the chances of success should an intervention occur, answer how the nation is a threat to US interest, exert all means of diplomacy, and run the usual course of air strikes. Though as much as history has taught us how any conflict resolves in the public’s imagination, it is also worth remembering how easily people forget history. In a 2019, YouGov poll, the people were vary much split on whether the Gulf War was justified, for example. So as an addendum, one must note that we can’t even assume a clear or factual basis for public perception when such crises arise.
There’s no easy way to do this. Each US President existed in a different context of the young nation’s history and had unique challenges to face; be it economical (with the Panic of 1837 or The Great Depression after 1929), wartime (World War 2), or domestic (slavery). Each had external factors preying on their ability to do the job; from congressional layout to crises (e.g. 9/11) and world-changing dynamics (inflation in the ’70s). Each had different cabinets of support and varying levels of opposition (publicly, politically, and commercially). Really, one could argue it’s not even fair to judge the likes of Washington (from a simpler but creative period for government) against say, Bill Clinton, operating under a much more complex system. However… we’re going to anyways.
How exactly? Well, by accounting for their successes in foreign policy, economics, domestic policy, agenda set, public persuasion, and so on and so forth… Yes, all that, but mainly by addressing the central question: did they live up to the challenges of their time? And don’t worry, we’ll provide justification for these rankings- some may shock you given past rankings on other sites (sorry Andrew Jackson fans) but know this- plenty of thought has been given for each choice- this wasn’t some mere cut and paste job with a few throw-arounds for controversy.
Also, we will be excluding two presidents from this list: Joe Biden and William Henry Harrison. Joe; because, well, he’s not completed a year yet- although if push came to shove, I’d rank him around 15 for a strong response to Covid 19, with partial responsibility for the disastrous end to the Afghanistan war. And William H. Harrison? He served only 30 days in office, dying from pneumonia which he likely contracted after giving a tediously long inauguration speech in the cold. A lot of lists place him around 40, which I consider harsh. So let’s do the honourable thing and just bash his grandson who later became president.
Anyways, without further ado:
43. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
One of three impeached presidents, Andrew Johnson assumed the job in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination and made a perpetual fool of himself by attempting to go back on much of what just been achieved in the Civil War. He opposed the 14th Amendment which granted citizenship to former slaves and acted in a cantankerous manner, causing great friction with Congress, who passed the Tenure of Office Act (restricting Johnson’s ability to fire Cabinet officials). He was only acquitted because no one saw any chance of his re-election (which they were right about).
42. Donald J. Trump (2017-2021)
The former Apprentice host sowed a great deal of division in the country, inspiring renewed racist fervour and idiocy amongst his cohorts and followers. His outlandish statements aside, he will be remembered for making the pandemic far more devastating than it needed to be by spreading misinformation; corruption and nepotism; and refusing to take election results seriously, leading to a national insurrection on the Capitol building in January of this year.
41. James Buchanan (1857-1861)
At a time when decisive leadership was needed, James Buchanan essentially sat out the slavery issue, setting the stage for the secession of the southern states upon Lincoln’s election.
40. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
Theodore Roosevelt wrote of him as a “servile tool of men worse than himself… ever ready to do any work the slavery leaders set him”. Pierce is best remembered for failing to secure sectional conciliation, supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and aiding the downfall of the Democratic Party for decades to come.
39. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
Named after something that literally sucks, Herbert Hoover failed to address one of the great calamities of the 20th Century: The Great Depression. His perceived lack of concern resulted in shanty towns being called “Hoovervilles” while his tariff act (fuelling an international trade war) only served to make things worse.
38. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
There was a time when this (literal) mad-man was once considered a top 15. In recent years, historians have re-addressed his legacy as that of an American Caesar whose Native Removal policy stands as one of the most heinous of policies ever committed to American soil. Sure, he was the father of the Democratic Party but that doesn’t acquit him of these horrendous charges. Sure, he was a “man of the people” and not one of the elites but his assault on the banks contributed to the Panic of 1837. So beyond these basic labels, why is he held to such lofty heights? (Also, Trump admired him.)
37. John Tyler (1841-1845)
John Tyler succeeded the month-long presidency of William H. Harrison, seeking to establish the legitimacy of his leadership. He even believed the President should set policy rather than Congress. To this end, he was referred to as “His Accidency” by the Whigs. Sick burn.
36. George W. Bush (2001-2009)
Iraq. The economic crash. Besides that, seems an affable enough fellow.
35. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
Harding is usually ranked in the bottom three but beyond his innate incompetence (which he at least admitted to), I don’t consider his (albeit corrupt) administration to be particularly damaging to the US. (He, at least, acknowledged that democracy was a “lie” without political equality for black citizens. He didn’t do anything about it but he acknowledged it.)
34. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
Another spineless leader in the vein of Buchanan, Fillmore’s support of the 1850 compromise opened up the territories of the Mexican Cession to slavery and allowed for the return of escaped slaves to those who claimed ownership. Harry Truman called him a “weak, trivial thumb-twaddler who would do nothing to offend anyone”.
33. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
More like Van Burden, am I right? Van Buren continued Andrew Jackson’s policy of Native Removal and denied the application of Texas to the Union. His presidency was also mired by the Panic of 1837. (Interesting bit of trivia for you: Van Buren was a member of the Old Kindergarten Club for which to gain access you had to say “okay”, thus originating the term.)
32. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)
Hayes’ era essentially marked an end to Reconstruction and inconsistent civil service reform. He also championed the Gold Standard and broke the Great Strike of 1877. Nothing particularly striking or memorable or interesting here.
31. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
A mess of contradictions: owned slaves but wanted to ban the expansion of slavery into western territories conquered from Mexico; a military triumph in that war who wasn’t particularly keen on Manifest Destiny (expanding US borders); a decisive commander in battle who avoided tough decisions as President. Given his strong commitment to the union, historians wonder (had he lived) whether the Compromise of 1850 or the Civil War would have occurred.
30. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
The grandson of former President William H., he was committed to voting rights for African Americans but economically uncertain of how to handle the nation’s affairs, resulting in the 1893 crash.
29. William Howard Taft (1909-1913)
Once the promising successor to Teddy Roosevelt, committed to 80 antitrust suits against large industries, he disappointed his predecessor by reneging and falling into place among the more conservative members of the Republican Party. This led to old Teddy mounting a race against him in 1912 under the “Bull-Moose” party. Both would lose, leading to the Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s rise.
28. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897)
Two non-consecutive terms? Oh, you better believe it happened! If people expected Cleveland to have improved in his off-years, they were sorely disappointed though when he was dealt the hand of the 1893 crash which he failed to deal with adequately. This resulted in Democrats losing support everywhere but the Deep South.
27. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
Harding’s successor has attained some historical reassessment on the part of classic Republicans who admired his small-government and laissez-faire economic approach. He helped restore the reputation of the White House following the corruption scandals of Harding’s cohorts but largely detached himself from the job; infamously sleeping during the day and avoiding mingling with guests. Upon his death, Dorothy Parker remarked “how can they tell?’
26. Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885)
Given some of his past associations in business dealings, people expected him to be more corrupt than he was. He fought the spoils patronage system he’d supported in New York and advocated tariff relief for businesses and tackled civil service reform. It doesn’t say much though when your reputation, at best, surmounts to: “well, I guess he wasn’t that bad”.
25. James Garfield (1881)
He only served a few months but contemporaries were impressed by his handling of Roscoe Conkling; a New York senator trying to push his agenda and men in high positions. Historians call him a “what if?”
24. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
Ford’s rise to power was particularly incidental, taking over for Spiro Agnew as VP before taking over the main post when Nixon resigned. A generally decent and uncontroversial politician, Ford, unfortunately wasn’t a great communicator, even if his pardon of Nixon was intended to help move a damaged nation on.
23. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
Besides that whole Watergate thing, Nixon wasn’t a terrible president. Strategically minded, he approached the Cold War in a more pragmatic way than his predecessors or successors ever did, resulting in the first SALT treaty and the opening of relations with China. He even tried his hand at a health care plan and established the Environmental Protection Agency.
22. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
The son of John Adams served as Secretary of State and a senator before becoming president and as a representative after. It’s fair to say he’s best remembered for his later achievements there, focusing on the anti slavery movement. As the nation’s leader, he was generally considered to be too uncompromising to achieve much in an increasingly political age.
21. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
Alas. My favourite president in essence and character but unfortunately not one with the most impressive record, even though he was the only post WW2 leader to not launch a missile. A true Washington “outsider”, Carter’s reign was beset by out-of-control issues like inflation and (more in control issues like) poor congressional relations. In my opinion, he was ahead of his time but legacies rest on effective, perceptible changes and not just rhetoric.
20. John Adams (1797-1801)
Being one of the OGs is a surefire way to knock yourself up the list but Adams paled in comparison to Washington and Jefferson, signing the controversial Alien and Seditions Act which included powers to deport foreigners and make it harder for new immigrants to vote; strange cause for a newly built nation but then it’s hard to find a footing in those early days. He gets marks for not expanding the naval war with France into a greater conflict, however.
19. James Polk (1845-1849)
A lot of land acquisition went on during Polk’s term; Oregon, California, and New Mexico, notably. He also settled the Texas border dispute, established the federal depository system, and lowered tariff rates. Simply put, one of the most accomplished presidents there ever was. Critics charge however that his underestimation of the Mexican War’s effects paved the way for sectional conflict and the troubles that ensued over the next decade.
18. James Madison (1809-1817)
The war of 1812 was seen as unnecessary by some and as something of a 2nd war of independence to others. The new nation, either way, cemented its foundations in this test.
17. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
Reagan’s often ranked in the top ten and I can see why… kind of. A great communicator, Reagan brought hope to a nation deflated by inflation, Vietnam, Watergate, and perceived ineffective leadership. He amped the Cold War back up in its last days, oversaw a more prosperous era (while setting the stage with his trickle-down economics for a latter recession) and delivered some great jokes. Let’s face it though; he stumbled when it came to talking specifics, didn’t handle the AIDS epidemic well, and of course, that whole Iran-Contra thing. Sorry Reagan fans. If it’s any consolation, I still like him! What a character.
16. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
Grant’s administration was wrought by scandals involving bribes and a whiskey ring, tarnishing his image for years to come (even though he didn’t personally benefit from the crimes). If we look beyond that, he was actually a pretty effective president who worked to stabilise the post-war national economy, support reconstruction, and crush the KKK.
15. William McKinley (1897-1901)
McKinley’s presidency marked the emergence of an imperial era for the US as he declared war with Spain over Cuban independence. He was also the first president to actively engage the media by holding press conferences and he went on national tours to speak with voters. A new day had come.
14. James Monroe (1817-1825)
Monroe helped further the nationalistic cause by reaching out to all parts of the then smaller US, separating their course and interests from Europe’s with the Monroe Doctrine. Florida was also acquired during his tenure.
13. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
Despite being one of America’s most well educated leaders, Wilson held regressive viewpoints for race relations (even for his time). He’s ranked lowly in that regard but otherwise highly for guiding America through World War One and establishing the League of Nations, as well as banking reform, supporting labour and collective bargaining, and more.
12. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
I give some props for rhetoric and inspiring people but when it comes to actual legislative achievement, there’s not much to be said for JFK. And while, yes, he resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis with dramatic flair, he played a major role in starting it. And he set the stage for Vietnam. A great deal of his mythos has been born out of his untimely assassination. Again though, that inspiring stuff does count for something and let’s face it- it’s endured.
11. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
The senior Bush’s reputation has improved in recent years, probably as a result of people’s nostalgic yearning for a conservative who could be flexible. His 1990 tax hike might have irked his supporters after the reticence of his “no new taxes” election pledge but it was the right and responsible thing to do. Plus, on the world stage, he was very well respected for his even tempered, strategic diplomacy- too humble for most when the Berlin Wall fell and too cautious for others who wanted the Gulf War victory to lead onto further gains in Iraq (we later learned how that would work out). A very underrated president, in my opinion; he simply couldn’t sell himself well enough.
10. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
Clinton’s impeachment was largely based on petty partisan squabbles so I’m not factoring that in as much as others would like. On the whole, he did the job successfully, steering the economy to a surplus for the first time since Truman’s years. While he was initially slow on Bosnia and Rwanda, he later found his footing on the international stage, earning support from the likes of Mandela and helping to establish NATO.
9. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)
Vietnam escalated to disastrous levels under LBJ so why is he at number 9? Well, under the auspices of Communist Containment, one could argue he was merely maintaining a longstanding foreign policy of the US but really, it’s because his domestic agenda was so progressive and realised. Only a year after pushing the Civil Rights Bill, he got the Voting Rights Act passed. Then, a flurry of the most impressive legislation committed by a liberal president, including Medicare. He was an intimidating, foul-mouthed beast of a man but he knew how to play the political game better than almost any other US president.
8. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
One of the OGs, Jefferson promoted a western expansionist policy with the Louisiana Purchase, effectively doubling the nation’s grounds. He also put an end to the long-standing problem of Tripoli pirates from North Africa, who were disrupting American trade in the Mediterranean. His passing of the Embargo Act of 1807, which suspended all trade with Europe, unfortunately wrecked the US economy and paved the way for the War of 1812 with Britain.
7. Barack Obama (2009-2017)
While many supporters were frustrated with the gridlock of congressional relations in Obama’s years and the supposed let-down in the wake of his meteoric rise, there’s no denying the achievement that was the Affordable Care Act. Not perfect, sure, but something that had eluded America’s leaders for decades. Besides that, Obama helped restore America’s image abroad and took some tough but much needed measures to restore the US economy after the 2008 crash.
6. Harry Truman (1945-1953)
Truman was never given an easy hand to play. He had been virtually kept in the dark by FDR while VP, not even knowing about the development of the Atomic Bomb. To drop that in August of 1945 was perhaps one of the gravest decisions a US President ever had to make. Shortly thereafter, he had to take quick measures to ensure the containment of communism where he could, mostly with success, though a period of uncertainty loomed at the end of his tenure with the Korean War. Initially not popular upon leaving office, his reputation was restored by the time of Vietnam due to the accountability with which he had held himself- a sign upon his office reading “the buck stops here”.
5. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
A military hero who ended the Korean War. A republican who continued the legacies of the New Deal and Fair Deal. Apatriot who opposed communism but would not give the red scare-mongering likes of Joseph McCarthy any time of his day. Yes, Ike was a popular leader who came as a natural choice for many in the post-war era. Perhaps his previous lack of political ambitions paved the way for him being the kind of president who could rule with sense, partisanship aside.
4. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
We’re into the major leagues now. Roosevelt ushered in the Square Deal which aimed to conserve natural resources, control corporations, and protect consumers. And… he was a Republican. Yes,, of the old sort- the kind that believed in containing big government and capitalism where it got dangerous. While something of a bloodthirsty scoundrel, apparently always itching for a fight and building up the US navy, he also brokered the end of the Russo-Japanese War (earning him the Nobel Peace Prize).
3. George Washington (1789-1797)
The first president is often ranked number one or two. While I admire his dedication to the job and setting the tone for the office by stepping down after two terms (where many wanted to make him essentially a king), it must be said that he operated in a time of widespread support and creativity for the new nation. He didn’t have the binds facing other presidents. Still, can’t really fault him on much.
2. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
Elected a record-breaking four times (dying early into his fourth term), FDR brought America through both the Great Depression and World War 2. His legacy is closely tied to the New Deal agenda, which set the course for liberal economic ambitions since, if never fully realised. Plus, he was also inspiring- helping to raise morale with his fireside chats and proclamations such as “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”. Upon his death, the people weren’t quite sure how another leader could occupy such a space.
1. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
No president has ever faced a test quite like the Civil War. Upon election, several southern states seceded resulting in America’s darkest hour. Lincoln was responsible not only for winning this war and reuniting the broken nation but for passing the 13th Amendment which abolished the original sin of America’s foundation: slavery. This would mark the great turning point in the nation’s history. Managing such a hefty task required a man of great intellect and greater moral fibre.