Updated date:

Portrait of a Failed Presidency

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

Best of the American Presidents?

Who was the best person to hold the office of the President of the United States? Can such a thing truly be measured? Below is the list of the top ten best Presidents, as compiled by Nate Silver (the man who revolutionized statistical analysis for presidential elections). This list is a statistical aggregate; Mr. Silver used hundreds of scholarly rankings of the Presidents to create a blended picture. Do you agree with this list? I don't.

Woodrow Wilson, for example, is a man whom I view as one of the most vile and inhumane individuals to ever hold that hallowed office. But history disagrees with me. Typically, historians look at a few of his achievements and rank him as being among the best people to serve as President. They ignore the fact that this man methodically unraveled all of the racial integration that had taken place up to that time; there is an argument that can be made that he — as President from 1913-1921 — caused the explosion of racial tension in the 1960s. But this article is not about Woodrow Wilson, nor is it about racism.

This article is about how we view the men and women that hold high office, and why you cannot jump to such extremes while the person is still there... perhaps not even for a few decades.

Top 10 US Presidents

In January 2013, New York Times journalist and statistician Nate Silver composed a composite list of previous presidential rankings by scholars. The top 10 of the (then) 43 people to have held the office are listed here.

01. Abraham Lincoln
02. Franklin D. Roosevelt
03. George Washington
04. Theodore Roosevelt
05. Thomas Jefferson
06. Harry S. Truman
07. Woodrow Wilson
08. Dwight D. Eisenhower
09. John F. Kennedy
10. Ronald Reagan

Buchanan Memorial

Buchanan Memorial

Worst of the American Presidents?

Who is the worst person to hold the office of President of the United States? Like best, this is an extreme measure that cannot (in my opinion) be placed on an individual for years, even decades, after they leave office. Below are the bottom ten Presidents, as compiled by Nate Silver. Do you agree with this list? I don't.

Most of these are Presidents who were ineffective. George W. Bush was a lot of things; ineffective was most certainly not one of them. I disagree with a great deal of things President Bush did in office. In fact, by some measure, I might even place him at the bottom of the list for being extremely effective at moving this country in the exact wrong direction.

President George Walker Bush cannot be elected again; he will most likely never hold public office again. Since he left office in 2009 many people have tried to gauge his Presidency — they would like to tell you if his Presidency is a success, or a failure, or something in between. In my opinion, this is a futile practice. After all, it takes time to gauge these things. We will not know if George W. Bush's was a great Presidency, or above average, average, below average, or failed Presidency for a long, long time. I say this with some confidence; it will take time for history to provide us proper perspective.

I know that many do not feel that this is the case. They feel that such a judgment can be made now. Some believed it was possible to make that judgement while he was in office and we were all living in the midst of the events that would eventually shape our views. But I need only to point to President Dwight David Eisenhower to show how this is patently not true. While in office, many felt that Ike did little to nothing (other than play golf). History has shown us, however, that his was an invisible hand approach to administration that was surprisingly effective. This took time. This took perspective.

The Bottom 10 US Presidents

In January 2013, New York Times journalist and statistician Nate Silver composed a composite list of previous presidential rankings by scholars. The bottom 10 of the (then) 43 people to have held the office are listed here.

34. Benjamin Harrison
35. Herbert Hoover
36. John Tyler
37. Millard Fillmore
38. George W. Bush
39. Andrew Johnson
40. William Henry Harrison
41. Warren G. Harding
42. Franklin Pierce
43. James Buchanan

Does Donald J. Trump belong in this portion of the list? Only time will tell.

The White House

The White House

A Hypothetical US President

Let us look at this from a different angle. Allow me to explore what we might expect to see in a hypothetical President's performance. Suppose, for example, we had a President that:

  • Prior to his election to the highest office in the land, was a mediocre man of business, and by some measures, even a failure. Some would look at his business record and even use it against him in the Presidential campaign.
  • During his first election into office, did not garner even a simple majority of the votes, yet managed to take office anyway. The election would sharply divide the nation, causing loud and fervent outcries that would impact the country and its views for many years to come.
  • During his second election into office, fared much better in the percentages. Still, the divisions continued to run deep. In fact, the entire Presidency seemed to hinge and ground itself on one issue: an extremely unpopular war.
  • He entered into war on false pretenses. In fact, some would even characterize it as an outright lie. As the impact of this misstatement (or lie) continued to grow, over the course of the war, the reasons for starting and continuing a policy of stay the course would morph the initial lie into something that sounded a bit more noble. The fact that this shift in the purpose of the conflict took place would not go unnoticed by the press; but, at least for a while, it would be embraced.
  • He fired his most trusted military leader, and put in another individual of questionable qualifications and/or popularity.
  • He arranged the arrest and subsequent jailing many people without using due process.
  • He sponsored and managed to pass legislation that would drastically reduce the civil liberties of honest, hard-working Americans. Some would see it as making it more difficult to openly criticize the Presidency, while others would see this as a blatant violation of our rights. This legislation was deemed a requirement (by the office of the President) to more effectively fight the war effort and for Homeland Security. Despite his arguments, the Constitutionality of the legislation would come into question on several occasions.
  • He had many opportunities to end the conflict peacefully, or at least get American Troops out of harm's way. The President could also have avoided the conflict altogether — after all, many of his advisers, and members of Congress felt that the reasons for going to war in the first place were suspect. Yet, despite opposition in Congress, in public, and in the press... he decided to engage in, continue with, and press on with an unpopular conflict headstrong. Some would see this as an indication that he had no desire to find a graceful exit to hostilities.
  • Even as the number of dead American soldiers continued to climb, the President continued to preach that this was a war that must be won. Victory, it would seem, was the only outcome acceptable to him. This opinion would be expressed even after many experts deemed the conflict not winnable!
  • This conflict would last longer than the American Involvement in World War II.

It's a pretty grim picture, isn't it? Was this Presidency a success or a failure? Well, history has told us that this was not only a successful Presidency, it has often been considered the greatest Presidency in American History. The hypothetical President above is, in fact, Abraham Lincoln.

  • Abraham Lincoln, the business man, was not all that successful. He made a modest living. But his early political fights were filled with failure. He was not as much a failure as many have presumed since; but you can read more about that on your own.
  • Abraham Lincoln's first election to President came with 39.8% of the popular vote, and 180 of a possible 303 electoral votes. His election divided the nation to the point of literally splitting it in two.
  • Abraham Lincoln's second election was a larger majority vote. However, his policies were still not all that popular. And the war was not getting any better in terms of popularity.
  • Abraham Lincoln claimed that the people at Fort Sumter fired upon a ship that was sent there from the north. This was not true. Furthermore, he knew this was not true. He used this as a way of painting the early parts of the war with an I had no choice tint to it. Although it is true that Lincoln's primary concern was preservation of the union, the latter parts of the war became about emancipation of the slaves in the south. This shift in the war's purpose was not missed by the press or the public; but it was embraced for a while.
  • Abraham Lincoln fired many a General who, for the most part, failed to fight. He put General Ulysses Grant in charge of the Union army — and this was not really seen as a good thing by many involved. General Grant was a belligerent alcoholic, according to some. And he was none too successful at first on the battlefield; in one battle, he managed to lose over 9,000 men in less than an hour!
  • Abraham Lincoln had as many as 13,000 people arrested on what most people claim were dubious charges. In fact, some of his most vocal critics would call these arbitrary arrests. Still, he was not shutting down the presses, or holding the tongues of his political rivals. He even restrained some of his commanders from becoming overzealous. There was even a hint that Lincoln might postpone the 1864 election!
  • Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus; first in some select areas, then nationwide. This was largely seen as unconstitutional. Still, Lincoln argues that this was needed to hold down insurrections. This, in conjunction with the 13,000 arbitrary arrests made the civil liberties of Northern Americans quite suspect.
  • Abraham Lincoln had many opportunities to end the war; he could have avoided it all together. But each opportunity for a peaceful solution was less than a victory for the North, and so it was rejected. This, despite the fact that he had employed compromises in nearly all of his career prior.
  • The civil war lasted longer than American involvement in World War II.
Iowa History Books

Iowa History Books

Who was the Best? The Worst? Why?

I invite you to state who you think the best and worst Presidents have been in the comments. Don't just give a name; tell me why you think this person deserves recognition.

Judging Presidencies

Do not get me wrong: I am not suggesting that George W. Bush is the next Abraham Lincoln. I am merely pointing out that, just as it is far too soon to call his Presidency a success, it is just as early in pronouncing it a failure. This has long been the view of the left; the right has the same issue when it comes to Barack H. Obama (and their idolatry of Ronald W. Reagan).

President George W. Bush did his best. He did things I wish had never happened and failed to do many things I wish he had done. President Barack Obama is doing his best. He has done things I wish had never happened and has failed to do many things I wish he would do.

But a full understanding of these Presidencies will require time.

It will require perspective.


Bubby on January 01, 2015:

I'd vertune that this article has saved me more time than any other.

Gabe on May 26, 2014:

The Iraq war unlike the civil war was not isolated. It was the natural evolution of our ongoing mandate to be gatekeepers of the world trade of key resources (not just oil) and maintain economic dominance in the British/American empire.

Bush pushed back a systemic shift in geopolitical power. This was critical in our surviving the global financial crisis.

With no other choice than to back the dollar, china and much of the rest of the world absorbed the shock waves sent out from London and New York.

If Iraq and their economic ideological allies had succeeded in promoting a competing reserve currency for energy and resource trade it would have left the US vulnerable to what happened in many European countries. Those said countries are nowhere near as in debt as the US.

I suspect history will find Bush to be a pivotal president in the history of the United States. Good bad or indifferent he took action at a critical time and strengthened US power globally.

In our distant future or perhaps in the next great empires schools I think Bush and his presidency will be viewed as part of a long series of events that started prior to WWI.

mbuggieh on March 11, 2014:

There is no point comparing the apples and oranges of the Civil War and the Iraq War. Analogies---particularly those that deal with entirely unrelated issues, do not work in history.

If you have an anti-Iraq War message to deliver, then do that with extant documentary evidence (not "information" gleaned from blogs).

If on the other hand you want to make a case against the Civil War, then do that also with extant documentary evidence, rather than with the claims of uninformed conspiracy theorists, Confederate apologists, and others seeking to vilify Lincoln---again gleaned from blogs.

This said, a presidency is not defined as or determined to be failed simply because you or me or someone else does not agree with its policies. Whether or not you agree with Lincoln is irrelevant. Whether or not you agree with Bush or Obama is irrelevant.

Polyonymous on March 11, 2014:

My mistake. I did not realize that your intent was to highlight superficial similarities. I agree that to truthfully claim that a war is unavoidable in order to preserve the union, then to later truthfully claim, to gain a tactical advantage in the war, that slavery would be abolished in the United States as a consequence of the war, is superficially similar to falsely claim that a war is necessary to retaliate for/prevent another 9/11 attack, then to later falsely claim that Iraq's WMD's posed a threat to the United States.

I also agree that to lie about an unnamed ship being fired upon by Confederate forces, who had in fact fired the first shots against the United States and who regularly used torture (or the threat of it) to enslave people, is superficially similar to lying about the entire justification for a war of choice using manufactured intelligence partially obtained through torture.

I also agree that the $60 million cost of the Civil War, which was necessary to preserve the existence of the United States is superficially similar to the $784 BILLION cost of the war against Iraq, which posed no threat, existential or otherwise, to the United States. (Estimated figures are from the Congressional Research Service, both given in 2011 dollars, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RS22926.pdf) An estimated cost of the war was over $1.7 TRILLION in 2013. The Iraq war cost estimates more than doubled in two different studies released about two years apart. I couldn't find Civil War cost in '13 dollars, but it would be easy for you to calculate, and would probably also show an increase.

mbuggieh on March 10, 2014:

And for each of you who are (probably) inadvertently apologists for the Confederacy:

The Confederate Constitution was virtually identical to that of the United States government save 2 things:

1. It preserved slavery.

2. It made explicitly clear that secession was illegal and unconstitutional.

mbuggieh on March 10, 2014:

To Polyonymous:

Please support one statement you make with historically sound information---authentic scholarship based on the facts and documentary evidence, rather than information you've gleaned from blogs.

K David Ladage (author) from Cedar Rapids, IA on March 09, 2014:

We will have to agree to disagree. Lincoln engaged in a war that remains the costliest war in history for this country. If you want the 'deadliest days' in American history, 9/11 barely cracks the top 10 thanks to things like the Battle of Antietam. There are costs involved here that go far beyond the basic economic.

We can argue over which was worse... but the fact remains that the Bush Presidency and the Lincoln Presidency have a lot of similarities -- on the surface. In the end, I believe Lincoln's Presidency is *rightfully* ranked very high. In the end, I believe Bush's Presidency will be ranked much. much lower. I just happen to believe we have judged it far too quickly. Hell, with things like the recent WHY WE DID IT documentary coming out, we may even be ranking it too high.

But in the end... only time will tell.

Polyonymous on March 09, 2014:

So the equivalence is between choosing to go to war to prevent secession, due to the South's desire to preserve the institution of slavery, correction, to protect "states rights," (which only ever meant to preserve slavery), and Bush's determination to go to war, despite the fact that Iraq posed absolutely no economic or military threat to the union. And despite the fact that Bush authorized torture specifically designed to obtain knowingly false intelligence to justify the war (http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2012/10/5-hours-aft... And despite the fact that the Bush administration knowingly falsely repeatedly claimed that Iraq was one of the actors behind the 9/11 attacks (http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2012/10/5-hours-aft... Sorry,somehow I do not understand the similarity, besides the fact that they were both expensive wars. (Reuters reported a study last year that Bush’s war of choice has “cost $1.7 trillion with an additional $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans, expenses that could grow to more than $6 trillion over the next four decades”)

By the way, what was the ship that Lincoln lied about in order to falsely claim that he had no choice to go to war? I figured out you probably didn't mean Star of the West.

K David Ladage (author) from Cedar Rapids, IA on March 08, 2014:

Lincoln had, until well into the war, no interest in ending slavery (at least from a moral perspective). He did not want slavery in the United States, but it was from a desire to see the black man and woman removed from his homeland. His proposed solution was to ship every black slave and free-man to Africa.

So, I feel anyway, these are equivalent because Abraham Lincoln's sole purpose was preservation of the Union, and this (from the arguments given by Southern leaders) was preposterous; they argued that membership in the union that is The United States is voluntary and should be able to be terminated at any time as a right of the state. This, in the end, is what the was about (at least initially).

Polyonymous on March 08, 2014:

“Abraham Lincoln had many opportunities to end the war; he could have avoided it all together. But each opportunity for a peaceful solution was less than a victory for the North. And so it was rejected. This, despite the fact that he had employed compromises in nearly all of his career prior.” Is there an argument that Lincoln could have avoided the war, preserved the union, and ended slavery? Because rejecting a compromise that did not assure all three does not necessarily seem like a moral failure to me. (It’s well known that the brutal torture of millions of human beings was the sine qua non of slavery.) Implying a parallel between Lincoln’s purported “failure to avoid the war” with Bush’s opportunistic manufactured casus belli for Iraq was just not convincing to me.

FitnezzJim from Fredericksburg, Virginia on March 07, 2014:

I have the biographies of two different Presidents on my bookshelf; one is that of Harry Truman, the other is of Barack Obama (Dreams From My Father). I’d nominate Harry Truman for best President. He stood up the CIA, the Air Force, and the roots of the NSA. He also faced the toughest decision any President will ever face, whether to use Nuclear Weapons. Besides that, Mom spoke well of him. She grew up in DC and never spoke well of any politician.

mbuggieh on March 07, 2014:

As a historian I can say this: We need about 50 years distance between a presidency and any meaningful analysis of that presidency.

As we move, for example, 50 years away from Truman and Eisenhower and Kennedy we are beginning to see scholarship rethinking each; beginning to see that Truman and Eisenhower were among the "great" of presidents while Kennedy is perhaps not among the "great".

The "time will tell" adage works particularly well in terms of presidential history.

K David Ladage (author) from Cedar Rapids, IA on March 06, 2014:

gmwilliams -- I have approved your comment. However, it is obvious from your comment you did not read the article. Please go back and read what I have written, then let me know if you think your judgement of Obama is warranted.

Grace Marguerite Williams from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on March 06, 2014:

Might I add another failure-President Barack Obama. He only made America worse, instituting Obama"care" . He wants to make America into a socialist state. He has done very little to remedy the unemployment situation. The man is an UTTER FAILURE as a president!