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.
In the pantheon of presidential historical evaluation, the first 100 days has never been an accurate indicator of what is to come. Often referred to as the “Honeymoon period”, it tends to reflect a more restrained take on the presidency, given its freshness, initial public support, and change of power dynamics. In a sense, everyone’s testing the water and willing (on some part) to give the benefit of the doubt. This is doubly true for the Biden administration, who have come into their own with a long-suppressed sigh of relief following the turmoil of the Trump years.
This is perhaps the most evident thing about the new president; his normality and candour in juxtaposition to the raging clown prince of crime, whose final days saw siege upon the Capitol. Joe Biden has been effective, thus far, in restoring a sense of normalcy and decency in how America tackles its problems. A naturally empathetic man, he’s struck the right tone in addressing mass shootings and the pandemic, in a time when true leadership has been needed.
His words have been supported to by action too; namely, the $1.9 trillion Covid Bill set to alleviate the economic offsets of the pandemic. More liberal commentators, worried that he would prove too moderate, have been surprised by this bold course of action. Thankfully, Biden understands that dramatic times call for dramatic responses and having paid witness to the gridlock of the Obama years, he’s done his base right by practically ignoring the Republicans’ attempts to slim down this bill.
The pandemic has, at this point, reached a turning in the tides with over 200 million Americans vaccinated at this point (a goal set out by the administration). As always, I would be reluctant to give Trump any credit since he only ever served to aggravate the World Health Organization, undermine Dr. Anthony Fauci, and meander wildly on the severity of the virus but it is worth at least noting, that some structure was in place for Biden to capitalise on this reversal of fortunes. As a leader, he’s set a good standard however, asking Americans to continue wearing masks while paying respect to the scientists Trump so callously questioned.
The Covid Bill hasn’t been the only bold proposal put forth too. Biden has also unveiled a $2 trillion infrastructure plan which has long been overdue (Trump had actually been correct in 2016, assessing this as one of America’s gravest issues but failed to deliver in appropriate fashion). To his critics, this may be overreaching. They’d have a point too, since the buck has to stop somewhere. With that said, with the awesome power of the presidency, it is gratifying to see these major issues tackled with some gravitas. Just remember, that any leader’s going to be popular when spending.
Elsewhere, Biden has marked a contrast with the Trump administration by suspending the Keystone pipeline and rejoining the Paris Climate Accord. He’s also gotten the first notable gun control package in three decade (though limited) and boasted the fastest cabinet appointee approvals in four presidencies. On the surface, it seems like this has thus been a highly successful, action-oriented start. Beneath the surface however…
Well, not to quash people hopes but yes, the tough days are ahead. As eluded to earlier, spending makes one popular but bills have to be settled and the economic downturn of the last year’s events has yet to manifest. (We can only hope this massive investment will curb the worst of this.) The immigration problem, too, is rearing its head, as Biden struggles to set out a new policy, differentiating from Trump’s. (Even George W. Bush has called on his party to act in Congress to work on this.) Plus, while justice was exacted in the George Floyd trial, we’re still seeing disgusting instances of police brutality against Black Americans. Now that a Democrat is in power (and the party has a slight majority), some legislative action will be expected. The Republicans, momentarily out of sorts for now, will return with their combative stances and make this presidency increasingly more difficult.
So, while a dark cloud looms on the horizon, we can at least be thankful that Biden has proven more radical than expected in his approach to the immediate major problems facing him. With his conciliatory inaugural address too, he has hopefully set out a renewed air of compassion for the politics of compromise in Washington. In a sense, reversing the hateful rhetoric of 2016-2020 may prove his greatest feat.
Time has a way of changing how we see things. With an ever speculative media and lowering of the bar in our general cultural zeitgeist, it’s only natural that our hearts soften and we yearn for an escape to the past, blissfully ignorant of the fires once ignited in us. We see things differently because we forget, we forgive, we re-evaluate, and re-prioritise our claims to what holds important today. In a broad sense, this has helped out former President George W. Bush a great deal.
Once the ire of liberals and humanitarians around the world, George W. Bush has managed to shift his appeal and image to that of a happy-go-lucky, maybe he wasn’t-so-bad-after-all kooky figure. Perhaps one of the most controversial US leaders of all time has somehow become the least controversial of the former living occupants of the Oval Office.
That might sound a little extreme but when you consider the current climate of divisiveness in the US, it makes sense. Obama and soon Trump represent polar opposites and are each pinatas for the other side due to their current relevance (and in Obama’s case, race). Bill Clinton… well, we wrote a piece on him earlier this year delving into his legacy but to surmise briefly- Epstein, Clinton Global Initiative, Hillary, women, etc. And then there’s Jimmy Carter. While he’s my favourite president, he’s few others’ and has remained a punching bag for “ineptitude” in conservatives and some liberals’ minds since he left office (unfairly I might add).
The Likability Factor
George, like his father, has mostly stayed out of the limelight since leaving office and for this reason, doesn’t grate people as much. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder, etc.) When he does appear in public, it’s usually for a non-partisan cause like supporting veterans or promoting humanitarian relief. When interviewed, he will explain and reassert his opinion that what he did in Iraq was important but he also seems content that “history will judge” his efforts. In other words, he’ll defend himself without becoming too defensive, like Bill Clinton has. Plus, he’s able to joke about himself (“most people didn’t think I could read, let alone write a book”) and has shown he’s not as partisan as once believed, becoming friends (or at least friendly) with Bill and Michelle Obama. Plus, he’s taken up painting which seems a bit quirky for someone like him.
So, in that sense, he’s re-established his likability factor which was probably his strongest asset against the rather dry Al Gore in 2000. This successful rehabilitation rendered a 61% approval rating in a CNN poll in 2018, compared to 33% upon leaving office. And he’s even been able to appear on Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen. I can only imagine Trump being invited to some wretched right-wing podcast in the coming years.
Likability is just one thing, however. Have his actual acts as commander-in-chief been vindicated? The answer is basically no, although the emphasis has shifted away from what was important in the 2000s. Where the war on terror once occupied the headspace of many Americans there is now a miasma of issues relating to what side you are on. While partisanship has developed bitterly over the last three decades, it’s so much more intrinsic to the nature of politics than even then. Basically, concerns for warfare abroad have been replaced with grisly notions of civil war at home.
That doesn’t mean Iraq is forgiven. In the 2016 Republican primaries, no candidate (except poor Jeb) backed their former leader’s venture into democracy. Four years before that, George wasn’t even present at their convention. So, the Republicans have basically tried to make their supporters forget he was ever a thing. The Democrats meanwhile, have pushed against their own for supporting the war effort back in 2002-3, using it as bait against the likes of Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. All in all, it would be fair to say, Iraq probably wasn’t a great idea.
On the other hand, some of Obama’s critics have argued he withdrew from Iraq too soon and that helped facilitate the rise of ISIS. His defence would counter some sort of pushback was inevitable and he was merely fulfilling the obligation of the American people but ultimately, enough room has been left for some blame there.
Afghanistan was a less controversial affair so that’s not been as much of an issue for George, besides relaying the popular assertion that he was a warmonger. And to many, he is seen as a war criminal who should have been trialed or impeached for what he did, particularly with regards interrogative measures in Guantanamo. He and his team have always asserted that they took any necessary precautions to avoid another attack on America, which they point out, didn’t happen. Critics remember the one time it did, of course, and argue that his administration took advantage of the patriotic frenzy following September 11th to pursue goals that were long in place, particularly with Saddam Hussein.
Ten years before, the Gulf War had been a triumphant effort. George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings had skyrocketed for the way he handled foreign affairs but he had played his cards with more caution, not moving beyond a liberation of Kuwait (to the dismay of many). Sanctions and warnings were placed against the Iraqi dictator and a resolution passed with bi-partisan support later on in the 90s which suggested there was actual cause for war should they put a toe in the wrong place (which Saddam did). Of course, principles and ambitions don’t mean much without proper strategy and when your intelligence amounts to nothing. In this regard, even George W. Bush admits things could’ve gone better. No WMDs were found and in 2007, he decided to send a surge of troops in order to relieve the chaos that developed in the aftermath of the liberation effort.
Establishing democracies is not easily done and the absence of a dictatorship does not immediately resolve all problems. Iraq developed into a mess, whatever the president’s intentions, and for this, it’s highly unlikely he will be forgiven.
With that said, it wouldn’t be fair to omit some of the accomplishments of George W. Bush. For one, his PEPFAR (AIDS’ relief) program in Africa was one of the greatest relief efforts America ever heralded, making him especially popular there. His Medicare expansion proved a fruitful endeavour. So too did his No Child Left Behind program, which aimed to hold schools with sluggish standards to account (though criticised for making teachers teach for the exam).
Anyways that’s that. So… there was also his slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which brought his approval ratings to an all-time low and led to accusations of racism on his part. Gay marriage also became a red-hot subject for the 2004 elections under his tutelage, but not in a positive sense. And yes, the 2008 financial crash. Now, of course it’s not fair to place the blame solely on his administration. That bubble had been expanding since the 90s. However… only a year into his presidency, after successive years of a surplus, America was in recession. And he provided, as Republicans always dream of, a massive tax cut, going against much of the work Clinton had built on. Some of this comes down to political perspective but surrounding yourself with controversy and chaos rarely bodes well for one’s resume.
Historians, in their presidential rankings, generally place George W. Bush close to the bottom 10, if not among them. As briefly touched on, this was not an easy or steady presidency. In his defence, it never was going to be with the attacks of September 11th. He was dealt, undoubtedly, a tougher card than his predecessor and had to make some tough decisions, that could’ve gone either way. In this respect, I’m more sympathetic than most. If we think of these world leaders as playing on a chess board, partially obscured with fog, then it can be pretty difficult to navigate your next move.
With that said, it hasn’t gotten any worse since 2009 for George. His party may have severed ties with him (on an official capacity) but the majority seem to have taken a shine to this man. Maybe it’s because they forget easily. Maybe they think he was a good guy, waylaid in his efforts. Maybe they suspect Cheney was really in power. Maybe it’s because he seems so amiable compared to the current occupant. Maybe his candour, since leaving office, appreciated by the likes of Obama, has become symptomatic of something lost in US politics today. There’s all sorts of possibilities.
It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing that this legacy is changing so quickly. Commonality and closing the political divide is certainly important; in that respect, when he teams up with Bill Clinton, it’s understandable why people are happy to see him. On the other hand, he who forgets history is likely to repeat it and in some measure, it feels a bit insulting to trivialise this man’s legacy given the death toll and destruction afflicted under his watch. Popularity, in other words, is no replacement for competency.
Maybe, to toe the line, it’s as simple as one of us thinking what we would have done in his shoes since unlike so many other world leaders, he seemed like one of us.
Why pose such a question? Well, it’s Presidents’ Day and while in the past we have taken to ranking the modern presidents on their historical achievements, this year; we thought we’d put a negative spin on things. So if there was a Mount Rushmore to commemorate the lowest of the low, the ones that just plainly didn’t know what they were doing or acted against the interests of the nation, who would they be? There are worthy cases to be made for the likes of Franklin Pierce and Hebert Hoover. Many believe that George W. Bush’s two terms were damaging beyond repair. Some radicals might even posit that Nixon took a misstep or two. Dig down deep enough into the barrel however and you’ll find that there is a loose chip of wood which barely contains the cess pit beneath that is these four individuals. (And guess what “woke” millennials, they’re all white males!)
Donald J. Trump (2017- )
The incumbent recently declared a National Emergency so that he could get his border wall built. The emergency, many retorted, was his presidency. And the wall is (let’s face it) one of the stupidest ideas ever proposed by anyone on the face of the Earth… but there are just too many other reasons why Trump will go down as one of the worst leaders of anything ever to ignore, so here’s a few more:
his lack of respect for democracy and a free press
his indifference to injustices committed against Black Americans
his rhetoric and how it’s inflamed tribalism/division
his narcissism and inability to criticism
his respect for authoritarians
the whole Putin thing / basically betraying the US
But hey! It’s only been two years! There’s still time to get your engorged face off of this mountain. (One could imagine Trump actually demanding his face be bigger than the others, even in such a scenario.)
Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
Lincoln’s successor was one of only two presidents to ever be impeached (pending). He was acquitted on the basis that everyone supposed he would lose election (having not won one before; Lincoln died but a month into his second term). His legacy rests mainly (and quite strangely) on fighting against the kind of advances made by the president he served, opposing the 14th Amendment (which addressed citizenship rights for former slaves) while fighting fellow Republicans (who sought to oppose seceded states from instating old, pro-slavery leaders). Like Trump, he also had a penchant for firing cabinet members which led to the Tenure of Office Act. He even got drunk at Lincoln’s second inauguration!
In a time of national mourning for such an inspiring leader as Lincoln, it is quite perplexing that Johnson sough to appease Confederates with the ball in his court. He also just looks like a bit of grump, in general.
James Buchanan (1857-1861)
Lincoln’s presidency (the most highly appraised by historians) is nestled between two of the worst. Buchanan came before and basically did nothing to address the shifting tides of the national consciousness and the growing unrest that led to the secession of the Confederate States in 1861. He managed to alienate Northern Democrats and Republicans in an attempt to administer Kansas as a Slave State and provoked one of the greatest moral failings of any president in supporting the outcome of the Dred Scott case (which determined that Scott, a slave, could not sue for his freedom in a Free State). Although he supported the North in the Civil War, his partiality to the South in the preceding years did more damage than he ever could admit.
It is said that he declared the day before his death that “history [would] vindicate my memory”. He was… well, you get where I’m going with this.
Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
Like Trump, this guy didn’t really know what he was doing. To be fair though, he did at least acknowledge how incompetent he was in saying “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here”. So, there’s that.
Although strongly mourned upon his death just two years into office, a series of scandals emerged which shaped historical revisionism in the immediate years following. These basically amounted to Harding’s cronies looting the treasury with dodgy deals such as the Teapot Dome Scandal. Elsewhere, he was also seen as an ineffective and uninspiring leader, one whose popularity drove him to prominence rather than any intellectual stances posited for helping the nation.
We here at the Washington Walrus feel passionately about US presidents in a way that can only be described as ‘slightly obsessive.’ And while the Oval Office has been hijacked by a demented Sasquatch, we still felt it was worthwhile taking a look back at better times. Unlike C-SPAN however, we will only be ranking the leaders of the post-war years. Besides a list of 45 being exhaustive and frankly tedious to most (have you even heard of Rutherford B. Hayes? oh… you have?), the position as we know it today really began to take shape in the wake of the New Deal and with the Cold War.
How did we decide? Well, we evaluated each president against the others on an extensive range of factors including: economics; foreign policy; domestic policy; leadership qualities; the tone they set for their times; the context in which they led; bi-partisanship; lasting legacy within these factors; chat show appearances; and more. Some of our choices may raise eyebrows but we didn’t choose frivolously, there was a very definite consensus reached. So, without further ado, to celebrate Presidents’ Day- the United States Presidents from worst to best as ranked by Andrew Carolan (AC) and Matthew O’Brien (MOB):
13. Donald J. Trump (2017-hopefully 2017)
It hardly seems right to rank a president of one month but then nothing he’s done has been fair. Even if the current president (shudder) was ranked on the hilarity of memes alone, he would still lose to Obama and Biden. Also, his policies are over-rated. Sad. AC & MOB
12. George W. Bush (2001-2009)
The affable younger Bush never ranks highly in these lists and… well, do we need to justify this one? The invasion of Iraq, notwithstanding, he had already turned a surplus into a defecit by the time of 9/11 and his slow, baffled response to Hurricane Katrina proved he was anything but fit for the job. America lost its stature of respect across the world where most people could not have imagined this man getting re-elected, much less, surviving another four years without impeachment. And yet, he hung on, leaving the US in the ‘mess’ Trump thinks Obama brought about. It’s easy to criticize Bush though, so for the sake of some balance, we should note that his Medicaid package has proved very popular and PEPFAR has made him nothing short of a hero to Africans, even if it was at the cost of the American taxpayer. AC
11. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
The ghosts of John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur welcomed a new member to their exclusive club on August 9, 1974, the equally unexceptional, equally un-elected, Gerald Ford. It’s hard to postulate as to whether Ford would have ever considered running for president but there is no doubt that he inherited a poisoned chalice. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame came at the beginning of his presidency as he granted Richard Nixon a presidential pardon for the trials and tribulations of Watergate. This would set the tone for the next three years. Yet, many historians have credited Ford with strengthening the frayed fibers of the country through projecting a positive outlook for the American future. His foreign policy was marked by the signing of the Helsinki Accords, which aimed to strengthen the relations between Europe and the Soviet Union. Domestically, Ford struggled to work bilaterally with Democratic majorities in Congress, which tested his parliamentarian ability. Ford, unlike so many of his predecessors, was never destined for the White House. MOB
10. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
It pains me to put Jimmy Carter so far down the list. He’s my own personal favorite because I wrote my MA dissertation on him and he has the most moral fibre of any of these fellas (no shots fired during his time). He set a tone of restraint and fiscal conservatism for America, for energy conservation, and for the promotion of human rights internationally. While this may have seemed amicable on the surface; combined with his unfruitful relations with the Democratic base, it only served to corroborate the popular image of him as a weak leader. This, along with the Hostage Crisis, paved the way for a resurgence of the Right in 1980 and his eventual defeat. Carter’s batting average with Congress, on the otherhand, was not bad but many of his measures and examples for the country (including solar panels on the White House) were promptly abandoned in the following administration. Thankfully though, he has gone on to boast perhaps the finest post-presidency. AC
9. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
The iconography will never be dispelled but I’m sorry, the ‘what if he had survived…’ postulation is not enough to have him deemed a great president. Man landed on the moon by the close of that decade and yes, the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved but Kennedy merely made an epic speech in the former’s case and with the latter, helped spark the fuse in the first place with the Bay of Pigs operation. I like him and the image of his presidency remains a great inspiration for many politicians today but I’m sorry, he’s over-rated. There’s no two ways about it. AC
9. Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974)
For Richard Nixon, it was nearly a case of “always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” He had served as Eisenhower’s VP for eight years, and lost out to JFK in the Presidential election of 1960. Yet, he emerged as perhaps one of the most misunderstood presidents in U.S. history. There is no doubt that if you remove Watergate from the equation, Nixon would rank higher. Tricky Dicky assumed control of a country that was deeply bifurcated. Nixon’s domestic record is chequered, yet while he is credited with the progressive initiatives of ‘New Federalism,’ such as Affirmative Action, he is criticized for his economic policy in which inflation drastically increased during his time in office. Unequivocally, his greatest achievement lay in his foreign diplomacy as he opened a previously moribund diplomatic channel with China, and simultaneously eased tensions with the Soviet Union through Détente. Nixon also had to deal with the national dilemma of Vietnam, exercising a policy of Vietnamization. While this was an admirable move, the Christmas bombing campaign in 1972 would set a morose tone for the remainder of his presidency. MOB
7. Harry Truman (1945-1953)
When Truman took over from FDR, he had only been vice-president for three months and had no prior knowledge of the Manhattan Project. He had big shoes to fill and daunting decisions to make; perhaps the toughest of any US president. He’s often ranked highly in these lists for that reason as well as setting the tone for US morale and policy in the Cold War, with the Berlin Airlift, Marshall Plan, and Domino Theory. From an outside perspective, these measures can be interpreted as a signs of an increasing American aggression however. The Atomic Bomb and Korean War too, while necessary to many, are hotly contended by others as sinful acts. In my opinion, the former may never have been needed to defeat Japan (they were on the verge of surrender) but Truman saw no need for further American loss (and a sneaky chance to show Russia what’s what). For that reason, he is a patriot but his values of leadership elsewhere are (let’s say) controversial. AC
6. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
Dwight Eisenhower can be cast in the old American romanticism of a military hero turned Commander in Chief. A denizen of European battlefields, Eisenhower was a progressive Republican that continued the legacies of both the New Deal and the Fair Deal, which placated Congress. His domestic policy advanced the Social Security Program and increased the minimum wage while creating the Interstate Highway System. He brought an end to the Korean War and strengthened the mandate of NATO. Ike fostered a staunch anti-communist policy both at home and overseas with various counter-communist CIA operations. Through the ‘Red Scare’ anti-communist sentiment reached fever pitch, aided by the unchecked actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy who was only silenced when he targeted a sacred U.S. institution, the Army. Eisenhower also loses face for the apathetic national implementation of Brown Vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, which found that segregated schools were unconstitutional. MOB
5. William Jefferson Clinton (1993-2001)
Clinton’s sexual forays remain much of what he is remembered for, unfortunately. The context in which his impeachment arose, however,sheds light on the environment of Washington at the time. Much like Obama, his was a presidency mired by what Hillary referred to as a ‘vast right-wing conspiracy.’ Unlike Obama however, he managed to eventually hammer out a relationship with New Gingrich and the Republican-run Congress, leading to a productive if unintersting string of bills tackling issues like crime. In terms of foreign policy, he is remembered for early blunders in Somalia and failing to act more decisively in Bosnia and Rwanda, but he even found his footing there, leading a substantive effort in the late ’90s in Kosovo. Plus, the country was left with its first surplus since Truman and the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was a time of steady progress which brought America into the Globalized Information Age. AC
4. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
“You know there’s a ten-year delay in the Soviet Union on the delivery of an automobile…,” so went the intro to one of Ronald Reagan’s Soviet jokes. Known as the ‘Great Communicator,’ Reagan’s rhetoric resonated with the average American. Inheriting a rotten economy, Reagan went about his policy of supply-side fiscal reform, appeasing many while neglecting minorities. The detriment of ‘Reagenomics’ later manifest in swollen national debt that was bequeathed to H.W. Bush. Foreign policy under Reagan rapidly evolved to establish America as the only dominant global force. Military spending was increased in tandem with the Reagan Doctrine. The faux-pas of the Iran Contras damaged the reputation of the president and exposed the ugly, insidious actions of political back-channeling. However, through escalated efforts to tackle the de-escalation of tensions, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the ground-breaking INF Treaty, eliminating short and intermediate range missiles. A man who, even by his own admissions, was not the brightest, shone like a beacon for many Americans who believed that he had instilled a sense of pride and reignited the flames of patriotism. Just as with JFK, image was important to the successes of Reagan. His unique eloquence restored a nations confidence in an office that had lost all credibility. MOB
3. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
By 1992, the elder Bush’s image was one of a jaded veteran fazed by the economic troubles of the MTV generation. Perceptions change however. Historians now, have come to recognize the importance of a steady hand like his in a time of great international upheaval. When the Berlin Wall fell, he acted cautiously, mindful of the consequences this left for Gorbachev. When the more militant hearts called for an invasion of Iraq after the liberation of Kuwait, he thoughtfully withdrew, claiming the mission had been accomplished. When a recession encroached, he put the country ahead of his own political credit, abandoning his pledge to not raise taxes while working with Democrats. And while it may be hard to envisage such a policy with a Republican today, he actually passed a Clean Air Act. In a word- underrated. AC
2. Barrack Obama (2009-2017)
A popular sentiment that emerged in the aftermath of Obama’s historic election in November 2008, was that America had transitioned to post-racial era. This, of course, has not been the case. Elected on a wave of optimism and hope, Obama would face vicious partisanship with a Republican controlled Capitol. Obama initially took the pragmatic approach, but later was forced to use executive powers as he tried to implement his agenda. A historic stimulus package was signed within his first two months of his presidency, much to the chagrin of his friends in the emerging Tea Party. There can be no doubting that his Magnum Opus, the Affordable Health Care Act, is now deeply in jeopardy, and with it, a large portion of his presidential legacy. Obama has been criticized as being weak on foreign policy issues; Benghazi, Russia, Syria, and yet he excelled in restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, and reaching agreements with China to substantially reduce carbon emissions. We at the Walrus are admirers of Obama, not quite in the same category as the doughy-eyed former VP, Joe Biden, though. Through his presidency, he exemplified integrity speaking to Americans as if they were adults rather than children – perhaps an error, retrospectively. MOB
1. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)
There was almost immediate consensus in establishing LBJ as the number one on this list– particularly when we decided that FDR wouldn’t feature because it just simply wouldn’t be fair. In recent years, there has been a rekindling of LBJ’s presidency in television series, and films, namely relating to his landmark racial domestic policies. First the Civil Rights Act of 1964, followed by the commensurate Voting Rights Act in 1965. While some historians are critical of Johnson’s motives, I believe that he was a moral man (at least in regards to civil rights), who had seen the perniciousness of segregation first hand as a school teacher in Texas. Johnson was a spectacular bully, who, unlike Ford when he inherited the White House in freak circumstances, could assert his dominance over just about anybody. The legacy of his domestic agenda was the herculean vision of the Great Society. This encompassed many socially progressive streams such as the War on Poverty, and a plethora of Welfare programs. Johnson’s vision was to provide Americans in need with a hand up, not a handout. The Vietnam War dominated Johnson’s foreign policy and rapidly escalated through his presidency. It remains the major black mark on his presidential record, and discouraged him from seeking re-election in 1968. MOB