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Ranking the Presidents Since 1961


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…


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