Ranking the Recent Presidents

Gallup had an interesting poll out today asking people’s opinions of the last 11 presidents.

In assessing the legacies of the last 11 U.S. presidents, Republicans and Democrats diverge most in how history will judge Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Republicans believe Obama will be judged worst among recent presidents, while Democrats predict Bush will. At the same time, Republicans expect Bush to get a favorable historical review, and Democrats anticipate the same for Obama.

This should surprise no one. Barack Obama is President right now and Bush 43 was President just five years ago. It is very difficult to judge Presidents in the moment and it is often informed by partisanship as much as history. You’ll notice in the poll that the further back in time you go, the less disagreement there is. On Ford, Nixon, Eisenhower and Kennedy, the partisan gap in the approval ratings is less than 20%. You’ll also notice that Clinton now has a net approval rating among Republicans. When he left, I knew many people who told me he was the worst President in history who now think he was pretty decent. Reagan also has a net approval rating among Democrats. At the time, many said he was the worst thing that ever happened to America.

Here’s the partisan breakdown on net approval ratings for the Presidents:

Republicans: Reagan (+81), Kennedy (+65), Eisenhower (+53), Bush 41 (+26), Bush 43 (+25), Clinton (+14), Ford (-6), Johnson (-17), Carter (-34), Nixon (-42), Obama (-72)

Independents: Kennedy (+69), Reagan (+53), Eisenhower (+43), Clinton (+40), Bush 41 (+8), Ford (-3), Johnson (-4), Obama (-12), Carter (-12), Bush 43 (-31), Nixon (-34)

Democrats: Kennedy (+80), Clinton (+68), Obama (+46), Eisenhower (+43), Reagan (+25), Johnson (+17), Carter (+10), Ford (-3), Bush 43 (-17), Nixon (-35), Bush 41 (-51).

I find those numbers fascinating. First of all, we can see that Cult of Kennedy continues unabated. He was a mediocre President — yeah, I said it. But a halo effect surrounds him. And while I think Nixon was a poor President, his low rating is out of proportion to his actual Presidency. To rank him that much lower than Johnson is absurd.

I am gratified that Eisenhower is well-regarded, that even Democrats now approve of Reagan and that Bush 41 is slowly being recognized as the solid President he was (his low rating among Democrats is likely a residue of Bush 43 hatred). Note also that Carter and Johnson are poorly regarded by all but Democrats while Bush 43 is poorly regard by all but Republicans (although I think, in Bush 43’s case, it reflects a personal regard for the man himself, which I somewhat share, rather than a political judgement).

For kicks, my own rankings would be Reagan, Ike, Bush 41, Clinton, Kennedy, Ford, Carter, Nixon, Obama, Johnson, Bush 43. Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton and Ike I would characterize as good Presidents. Kennedy and Ford I rate as OK Presidents. Everyone else is varying degrees of bad. And yes, I rank Obama above Johnson and Bush 43 right now. I’m being a bit conservative in ranking Obama given that he’s President now so my negative feelings about his presidency are not objective. It takes time to rank a Presidency as historically awful or merely bad. Obama also has yet to bungle a major war, so there’s that. My ratings tell you a lot about what I look for in a President: someone who keeps government small but functional; avoids wars but fights them effectively when they are necessary. What I really want out of a President is eight years of peace and quiet. We haven’t gotten that since Eisenhower.

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  1. Argive

    Ah, Lyndon Johnson and that major war he bungled. To be fair, Eisenhower and Kennedy had built up a significant American commitment to Vietnam. One of Kennedy’s last actions, in fact, was to approve a coup in which the President of South Vietnam was killed, which kind of made it our war. But Johnson, despite all of his statements otherwise, chose war. He chose to avoid a national debate by fighting the war on the cheap and not calling up the reserves. And why? So his manhood wouldn’t be questioned:

    And I knew that if we let Communist aggression succeed in taking over South Vietnam, there would follow in this country an endless national debate – a mean and destructive debate – that would shatter my presidency, kill my Administration, and damage our democracy. I knew that Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had lost their effectiveness from the day that the Communists took over in China. I believed that the loss of China had played a large role in the rise of Joe McCarthy. And I knew that all of these problems, taken together, were chickenshit compared with what might happen if we lost Vietnam. For this time there would be Bobby Kennedy out in front leading the fight against me, telling everyone that I had betrayed John Kennedy’s commitment to South Vietnam. That I had let a democracy fall into the hands of the Communists. That I was a coward. An unmanly man. A man without a spine. Oh, I could see it coming all right.

    LBJ, 1970.

    Personal and political credibility. That’s what was on LBJ’s mind, and the minds of the advisors he listened to, when he decided to send troops into Vietnam. Infuriating.

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  2. Mississippi Yankee

    Personal and political credibility. That’s what was on LBJ’s mind, and the minds of the advisers he listened to, when he decided to send troops into Vietnam. Infuriating.

    And precisely what part of what he said was untrue? Especially that part about the slimy, sneaky little cockroach Bobby Kennedy?

    I hold many things against LBJ, including my first marriage but not for his initial reasons for going to to WIN in Viet Nam.

    What I’ll never forgive him for is his Great Society where he flung open the welfare gates. It was his own grand gesture to Socialism, and he did it in a way that no shit-stained Kennedy could say a thing.

    “I’ll have those niggers voting Democratic for the next 200 years.” – Lyndon B. Johnson

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