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Ranking the Presidents Since 1961

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President Obama was born in 1961, so I was thinking it might be fun on Presidents Day to rank the U.S. presidents since 1961 from worst to best. I’ll also explain my reasoning.

10. George W. Bush (2001-2009) – No doubt, one of the worst U.S. presidents in our history, a disaster on almost every front (starting with massive tax cuts to the wealthy and failures to heed major warnings about a potential terrorist attack on the U.S. in the months leading up to 9/11). The only saving grace, really, was his reaction to the financial meltdown in the fall of 2008. For once, instead of just doing the right-wing ideological thing, he actually did what was necessary to save the U.S. (and world) economy from total meltdown. Other than that, he was horrible: turning budget surpluses into deficits for no good reason, misleading the country on the reasons for war with Iraq, failing to take action on climate change, allowing freakin’ torture to take place on  his watch, the Katrina debacle/disaster, letting Dick Cheney and others corrupt/buy the government for their cronies, screwing up the North Korea situation big time, on and on and on…near-total #FAIL.

9. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) – The Iran-Contra scandal alone puts Reagan down towards the bottom of the list. Then add to that the Lebanon fiasco, in which 241 American servicemen were killed after the Reagan Administration pretty much did everything wrong — mission creep, no clue what we were doing there, an indefensible position, inadequate security, “cutting and running” as the right-wing would say if it were a Democrat in office, etc, etc. (also note that the Lebanon disaster was a gazillion times worse than the Benghazi tragedy, yet Democrats did NOT pile on Reagan for it). Then add to that Reagan’s disastrous economic, environmental, and many other policies. Plus, he raised tensions with the Soviet Union to dangerous levels; invaded Grenada for no good reason; helped lay the groundwork for the rise of Al Qaeda by heavily funding and supplying the Afghan mujahadeen; putting the horrendous Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court; etc. The saving grace of Reagan, ironically, was that despite the worshipful attitude towards him by many on the right, he committed a series of heresies: raising taxes multiple times, increasing government spending and the size of government, offering to get rid of all nuclear weapons, granting “amnesty” to 3 million undocumented immigrants, etc.

8. Richard Nixon (1969-1974) – Nixon actually did some good things, including detente with the Soviet Union, the opening to China, “shuttle diplomacy” after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, OSHA, desegregation, getting the U.S. off the gold standard, etc. Unfortunately, these were outweighed by the disasters on foreign policy (e.g., Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Chile) and of course the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon’s resignation in disgrace (although he still somehow claimed “I’m not a crook”). Plus, the guy was a paranoid, bigoted nut in many ways.

7. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) – Good intentions overall, but it just didn’t work out for a variety of reasons (some in his control, many outside his control – the fall of the Shah, the Iranian revolution, oil price shock, and hostage crisis; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). His post-presidency has been more consequential than his presidency in many ways, although I certainly have had differences with him. Sometimes I think if only the hostage rescue mission had succeeded, Carter would have been reelected and done some good things (if nothing else, he would have headed off the Reagan debacle). But that’s not what happened, and thus Carter’s relatively low ranking.

6. Gerald Ford (1974-1977) – Will be most remembered for becoming “the first and to date only person to have served as both Vice President and President of the United States without being elected by the Electoral College,” and also for pardoning Richard Nixon. Other than that, Ford presided over the disastrous end of the Vietnam War, the continuation of detente with the Soviet Union and thawing of U.S.-Chinese relations. On domestic policy, there was the laughable “Whip Inflation Now” campaign and the “swine flu” fiasco. And, of course, he lost his bid for election to the presidency in 1976. Overall, a decent man, but not an outstanding president.

5. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) – Another one who’s very hard to rate. What did JFK actually accomplish in his short time as president? The Bay of Pigs was a disaster, and we almost ended up in a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union that could have wiped out our country, but JFK managed to wriggle out of that one courageously and brilliantly in the fall of 1962. JFK also increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam, putting us on an inexorable path towards disaster there. The economy did well under JFK, but on the other hand I’m not a fan of his fiscal and tax policies (e.g., he cut marginal rates for the wealthy). In my view, JFK wasn’t nearly forceful enough on civil rights for a long time, although in June 1963 he DID stand up to Alabama Governor George Wallace and launched a major civil rights initiative. JFK’s personal behavior was outrageous – sleeping with mafia women and anything else in a skirt – and in today’s media environment would have utterly destroyed his presidency. In short, JFK is probably THE most overrated president in U.S. history, based mostly on his charisma and style (“Camelot,” his great inaugural speech, etc.). UPDATE: Per the comments, add the Peace Corps to JFK’s resume. Also, we should throw in the Apollo space program. Combined, that moves JFK up a notch, ahead of the Carter/Ford presidencies.

4. George HW Bush (1989-1993): No doubt, Bush did some good things, such as breaking his irresponsible “read my lips/no new taxes” vow, backing the U.S. off of Reagan’s supply side idiocy, making significant progress on nuclear weapons reductions with the Soviet Union and helping to end the Cold War peacefully.  Bush also led a successful operation to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and made some progress on the Arab-Israeli peace front. On the other hand, he did some truly godawful things: appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court; “oppos{ing} international efforts at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by refusing to sign the biodiversity treaty and lobbying to remove all binding targets from the proposal on limiting global carbon dioxide emissions;” left Saddam Hussein in power, contributing to a decade plus of sanctions and war… Overall, not a disastrous presidency, but certainly not great either. Basically mediocre.

3. Bill Clinton (1993-2001) – A wildly mixed bag, but on balance Clinton presided over an era of peace and prosperity with no disasters on his watch, so he ends up being ranked highly. Unfortunately, the failure of health care reform and the 1994 “Republican Revolution” forced Clinton to “triangulate” and push for a lot of small-bore measures. At least one potentially great accomplishment – peace between Israel and the Palestinians – came soooo close but not quite. Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement into law, so whether or not one thinks that law was a good thing or bad thing will certainly affect one’s ranking of Clinton’s presidency (on balance, I’d say it was a good thing, although it certainly has flaws from a progressive perspective). Clinton also made two superb appointments to the Supreme Court – Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer – both of whom continue to serve today. On foreign policy, the Clinton Administration’s efforts in the Balkans were an important part of his presidency, and were also a mixed bag. Attempts to deal with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were largely unsuccessful/ineffectual (e.g., the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania), and 9 months after Clinton left office came the disastrous 9/11 attacks. With regard to Iraq, we were de facto at war with that country for the entire Clinton presidency, including sanctions, no-fly zones, and “Operation Desert Fox” in December 1998. Having said all that, most people remember the Clinton years as ones of “peace and prosperity” and budget surpluses. The question is, how much credit does President Clinton deserve for those things?

2. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969) – Also a wildly mixed bag with LBJ. No doubt, he had tremendous accomplishments — the Great Society (the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the  Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Higher Education Act of 1965, the War on Poverty), the  National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, a number of important environmental initiatives (e.g., the Land and Water Conservation Act of 1965, the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966), etc, etc. These accomplishments should really put LBJ at the top of the list of U.S. presidents in our history, not just since 1961. Unfortunately, LBJ has to be dropped a couple notches due to the disaster of the Vietnam War, which he was largely responsible for escalating. Vietnam certainly didn’t cancel out LBJ’s tremendous accomplishments as president, but it did make him a tragic figure in so many ways (note: I strongly recommend the great Robert Caro series on LBJ).

1. Barack Obama (2009-present) – Helped save the country from the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression, which he inherited in January 2009. Signed historic health care reform. Invested heavily through the economic “stimulus” in our country’s infrastructure, energy efficiency, and renewable energy (production of which has exploded under Obama). Among his many, many other accomplishments (despite unremitting and irrational/intense hostility by Republicans and Tea Partiers) were ending the disastrous Iraq War, killing Osama bin Laden, turning the U.S. auto industry around, repealing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and advancing LGBT equality in many other ways, reversing George W. Bush’s disgraceful and unAmerican torture policies, using tightened sanctions to help bring Iran to the negotiating table (the potential exists for a major breakthrough on that front, but we’ll see…), continued nuclear weapons reductions with Russia, has been basically scandal free (not counting the phony non-scandals ginned up by Faux “News” et al), and of course made history by being the first African American president – two terms at that! Obama’s major flaw: too willing to keep compromising and reaching out, over and over again, with extremist Republicans who simply wanted him to fail. Obama never has seemed to truly grasp that, and he never got credit from Republicans for bending over backwards in their direction (e.g., “Obamacare” is largely based on Republican and conservative principles developed over decades; “cap and trade” was also based on conservative ideas). I also wish that Obama had been more forceful on climate change, although he’s certainly made some progress. Hopefully we’ll see a breakthrough on Arab-Israeli peace, which would truly be a great accomplishment, but we don’t know how that one will turn out yet. Nor do we know how the increasingly tense Japan-China situation will turn out, and that could have a major impact on Obama’s presidency. Finally, we’ll see how Afghanistan ends up, but that’s another one that Obama inherited, and in my view there were never any particularly good options…

  • campaignman

    JFK deserves much higher marks than you have awarded him.

    He began with one of the most memorable inaugural speeches in American history.  Later, his speech at the Berlin Wall would also go down in history.  On top of that, add his prediction to the nation about going to the moon by the end of the decade in September of 1962 and, later, his historic speech on race and civil rights in June of 1963.  

    It served as a perfect precursor to the August March on Washington featuring MLK.

    (http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/LH8F_0Mzv0e6Ro1yEm74Ng.aspx)

    His speech and his stand against George Wallace was truly courageous at that point in history.

    Keeping in mind that his presidency came at the height of the Cold War, his decision to cut and run in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs is far bigger than you realize.  He had the previous president and his top military advisers pushing him to fully invade to back up the failed initial effort.  It took strength of character to recognize that mistake and step back.

    Having learned not to trust his top military advisers, JFK was cautious during the Cuban missile crisis.  Still, the Cold War was still ever-present.  Nonetheless, he had the courage to use subtlety and restraint in preventing a nuclear holocaust.  No mean feat.  

    On top of that, instead of becoming more fearful, he went on to successfully negotiate a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty that prevented further atmospheric testing, saving the world radiation fall-out that would have harmed billions of people.

    As for Vietnam, while he did send advisers to Vietnam, he was not committed to a deep engagement.  If anything, many experts believe he would have limited our involvement.  It was LBJ who did that and justified it based upon a lie about our ships being attacked.

    Further, you made no mention of one of his greatest achievements, the Peace Corps.  JFK’s picture was hung in homes and villages throughout the world because of our program to bring farming advancements and other help across the world.  Moreover, many of our nation’s elected officials served in that program, making them better leaders.

    Finally, the image of youthful vigor, charisma, charm and humor, combined with his brilliant first lady, invigorated America in a way that only Barack and Michelle have approached but could not reach because there can be just one JFK just as there could be just one band called the Beatles.

    The bottom line is that JFK was a great president.  He set the stage for LBJ’s civil rights accomplishments in his name.  He inspired a nation.  His assassination was the subject of decades of mourning and speculation because of the love people had for him.

    In my view, LBJ’s domestic successes, as impressive as they were, are, as you noted, are undermined by his Vietnam policies, which means to me that JFK must be put ahead of him, making him the best president since 1961.

    I would not rank Barack yet, as his presidency is not over, but his two terms have real successes – such as getting Bin Laden, advancing the rights of the LGBTQ community, ending the Iraq war, getting Qaddaffi and passing Obamacare, but some failures too – such as not fighting harder for a bigger stimulus and recommending the sequester, but he will be a contender.

  • fendertweed

    I agree on Bush, Reagan, Kennedy, etc., but I cannot see how you possibly put Obama at #1 and ignore his continuation of nearly every unconstitutional Bush II Patriot Act-related policy including massive civil rights and search & seizure violations.

    Serious, disqualifying blind spot in play here.  I would rank Obama mid-pack at best, I voted for him twice and wish I had my votes back, at this point I am mightily unimpressed by his attitude (total detachment from engaging in the business of real politics by actually dealing with Congress even semi-effectively) &c.

    Also would rank Clinton much lower for squandering his possibilities to his inability to keep his dick in his pants and his ridiculous parsing and shucking & jiving.

    It’s been a long run of thoroughly mediocre (or worse) Presidents.

  • kindler

    …is that Dubya would be considered almost liberal by today’s Tea Party standards.

    I remember only one thing that I admired Bush doing — when, right after 9/11, he visited the big mosque in Washington to promote tolerance for Muslims.  That was an important move — but would a Republican president today do such a thing, when even supporting a path to citizenship for undocumented workers in the U.S. is considered by most of the GOP to be an unpatriotic act?  

  • Dave Webster

    Carter is clearly the worst of the lot and easily ranks at Number 10.  He also ranks at the bottom of ALL the President perhaps only being exceeded in his ineptitude by James Buchanan who managed to outrage both Northerners and Southerners by asserting the Southern states had no right to secede but the Northern states had no right to prevent them from doing so.  With regard to the failed Iran rescue mission, I lay that directly at Carter’s feet.  The hapless Carter continues to be a saddle sore in American foreign policy by mollycoddling dictators and believing he has some sort of moral superiority which renders his judgment superior to all others.  Jimmy Carter:  A poor figure of a man and an embarrassment to America.  

  • amber waves

    Obama’s coziness with, and failure to regulate or punish, the big banks.

    Vastly expanded counter-productive war on terrorism with surge in afganistan, and bloated military budgets.

    Tuesday assassination meetings, 400 drone strikes, vastly expanded the pervasive surveillance state, setting a fabulous standard that the rest of the world can now emulate.

    Deportation of 2 million undocumented immigrants.

    Obama’s education “reformers” are corporate privatizers.

    Unmatched prosecution of whistleblowers.

    Holds record for least pardons of a modern president.

    “All of the above” Energy policies promoting global warming.

    Wounding the golden egg of the US economy, damaging the global reputations of US internet corporations that lead the world, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, etc.

    most under-rated success: nuclear weapons reductions with Russians, and global initiative to control and monitor low-level radioactive materials.

  • sonofkenny

    I agree he is the worst of the last 10 Presidents and 3rd worst in history. Worst in Order: Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, George W. Bush…

    However, you can add his work combating the African Aids crisis to the very, very small number of things he can be praised for.

  • sonofkenny

    Barack Obama is not the greatest President of the last 10.

    In order lowest to highest…

    10. George W. Bush – For obvious reasons

    9. Ronald Reagan – Many of the problems we are experiencing today can be traced to his legacy…particularly his trashing of the federal government as a force for evil.

    8. Richard Nixon – For obvious reasons

    7. George H.W. Bush – A non-entity who did little to advance anything worthwhile. Not a disaster.

    6. Jimmy Carter – Blamed for an economy he was not entirely at fault for. A Democratic Congress more interested in its own survival than doing the right thing was more to blame for failures during his Presidency. Middle East Peace and focus on human rights gives him the leg up on Bush I

    5. Gerald Ford – Did a good job restoring faith in Government after Watergate (only to see it trashed intentionally by Reagan).

    4. Barack Obama – The ACA and ending discrimination against gays, ending the Iraq war and emasculating Al Qaeda. Worse on the Environment and in refusing until late to play hardball with Republicans hurt him

    3. Bill Clinton – Prosperous economy, reversal of some of the damage done by Reagan.

    2. Lyndon Johnson – War on Poverty, Civil Rights…obviously Vietnam the black mark here.

    1. John F. Kennedy – More about his affect on the psyche of America. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a shining moment. Peace Corps (first proposed by Hubert Humphrey), Civil Rights, Space Program…Lyndon Johnson would be in this spot were it not for Vietnam.

  • campaignman

    JFK was not just a great president, he set the standard that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have followed.  May I remind you, he also saved the world from nuclear annihilation.  

    Barack has been a far better president than Bill Clinton, who is matched toe to toe by Barack on Supreme Court appointments  and also did what Bill couldn’t when it comes to gay rights and health care.  

    Vietnam is LBJ’s greatest enemy in being listed as the best president of this group.  We can all decide just how bad that it for ourselves but it should be remembered that he lied us into that war just the way we now believe W did with regard to Iraq and we lost far more people in Vietnam than Iraq.

    No question, LBJ deserves enormous credit for his domestic accomplishments that saved the heart of our nation and for the war on poverty.