By Seth Studer
In yesterday’s post, I wrote that presidents should not be judged as individuals but as metonyms for a complex of policies, persons, and decisions. The problem with this sensible approach to presidential history is that you can’t really make lists comparing and ranking presidents across decades.
And on President’s Day, that’s no fun.
Given that my ability to talk about the presidency with any credibility is more or less limited to the 20th/21st century, I will confine the scope of my list to the eighteen presidents whose entire tenure took place within those two centuries (i.e., I’m excluding William McKinley, who was assassinated in September 1901, and including George W. Bush). I will also write two lists: one for the greatest presidents since 1902, one list for the worst.
And here’s the real catch/compromise: both lists will include all eighteen presidents.
I will write one list with the disposition of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and one with the disposition of Christopher Hitchens. I will write one list judging the presidents by the mean of their greatest accomplishments and the other by the mean of their failures. The results will be two very different lists. Great presidents will also be terrible. Presidents ranked in the middle of one list will rank high, or low, on the other.
In the interest of brevity, I have attempted (attempted) to summarize their accomplishments and failures in one or two or five sentences (although I’ve allowed myself the option/luxury of separate “foreign” and “domestic” categories). The conversation can continue in the comments, if you like (I’ve written plenty that doesn’t appear here, so fire away!).
I’m posting List #1 today. List #2 is coming soon.
The Greatest Presidents since 1902
1. Lyndon B. Johnson
Domestic: Upon assuming office, Johnson called Martin Luther King Jr. and said, “I’m going to try to be all of your hopes.” In the subsequent two years, Johnson did more for black civil rights than any other U.S. president before or since, including Lincoln. The 1964 Civil Rights Act alone earns him first place.
Foreign: The best we can say about LBJ’s disastrous, oscillating Vietnam policies is that he inherited it from a reckless president and, by 1968, was closing a deal on a genuine ceasefire (a deal that was sabotaged by #4).
2. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Foreign: He led the United States through the most volatile and sensitive years of the Cold War – the most dangerous period of the 20th century – with nary a misstep.
Domestic: Eisenhower consolidated and retained the best elements of the New Deal while encouraging economic growth on an unprecedented scale. If there was any doubt before, Eisenhower made clear that FDR’s reforms were a permanent part of American life. He was arguably our greatest “peacetime” president, if you consider the Cold War “peacetime.”
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt
Domestic: What we call “the New Deal” was a complex of not-always-interrelated policies – some good, some bad – the net impact of which mitigated the worst effects of the Great Depression. Easy to forget: FDR essentially governed as a centrist during a period of social unrest and dangerous extremes, when socialists and fascists alike had loud voices in American streets.
Foreign: He deliberately kept the United States out of World War II until the last possible moment, and then fully committed all the resources of the U.S. to the war.
4. Richard Nixon
Foreign: Who made your cell phone?
Nixon governed at the precise moment the rest of the world recovered from World War II, when America’s economic standing was most vulnerable. Nixon understood this. He envisioned a “post-America” world when Fareed Zakaria was learning to read, and – 1970s oil crises aside – he succeeded. When Bob Dole eulogized his mentor by declaring that “the second half of the 20th century will be known as the age of Nixon,” he was only wrong in saying “will,” rather than “should.” We’re living in Nixon’s world, a 21st century where the United States – no longer the world’s lone superpower (that lasted like five years) – is nevertheless positioned very, very nicely.
Meanwhile, Nixon and Kissinger made pragmatism cool, shaving the ideological edge off anti-Communist rhetoric in the U.S. and paving the way for critical compromises, important treaties, and the much beloved Reagan-Gorby relationship.
Nixon essentially won the Cold War.
Domestic: Most of his economic reforms reflected his foreign policy (i.e., to ensure the U.S. is economically well-positioned for the next fifty years). His administration accomplished many liberal goals that Democrats had struggled to accomplish (e.g., creation of the EPA), but on more moderate terms.
5. Theodore Roosevelt
Domestic: The iconoclast in me wants to take the cult of TR down a peg (and down several notches on this list). He feels like an overrated president to me. But his progressivism and trust-busting were so impressive and critical given the times, and the precedents they set were so far reaching (for good and ill, but mostly for good), that I can’t place him any lower.
Plus: people who gush over National Parks today are irritating, but people who opposed National Parks back then were more irritating.
Foreign: Whenever a U.S. president brokers the end of a war, it’s a good thing. I confess I find TR’s foreign policy a little confusing. He’s often wrongly blamed/given credit for “American imperialism” or U.S. interventionism, but American adventures overseas date back to Thomas Jefferson at the latest. We forced Japan out of isolation when a guy named Millard Fillmore was president. But TR amplified and clarified the foreign policy of his predecessors, to be sure, and is probably best imagined as a conduit between the quiet, sneakier, “we have half the globe to ourselves” foreign policies of the 19th century, a period when much of the world could be ignored, and the fully-engaged, globalized foreign policies of 20th century administrations.
Also, he had a personality.
6. Woodrow Wilson
Domestic: People forget that the income tax was levied to help offset tariff reform, which would have drastically improved the United States’ position in the global economy, had the nations of Europe not decided that a devastating world war, an unprecedented socialist revolution, and the collapse of four empires was a quicker way to improve everyone’s position in the global economy (or at least level the playing field).
Either way, the United States came out on top. And Wilson’s model of governance endured. If Teddy Roosevelt transferred prestige and power back from the legislative to the executive branch, Wilson molded that power into its current form. With the Federal Reserve, et al, Wilson consolidated the Progressive reforms of the previous two administrations into a new, permanent system of government that, like it or not, produced the most prosperous nation and the most prosperous century in the history of civilization. (One major depression < four wildly unprecedented economic booms.)
Foreign: He tried his hardest.
8 (tie). Ronald Reagan
Foreign: As more documents are declassified, we see how cautious, sensitive, and covertly pragmatic was Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union…even in his first years as president, when the collapsing Soviet Union’s internal politics were extremely dangerous and volatile. Reagan’s anti-Communism extended only to small, inconsequential nations. When the time came to end the Cold War, he did virtually everything right. Even his intransigence served a purpose, providing Gorbachev leverage against the Soviet equivalents of, well, Ronald Reagan.
Domestic: People made money.
8 (tie). Bill Clinton
Domestic: Like Wilson after TR/Taft or Eisenhower after FDR/Truman, Clinton consolidated and blunted major reforms implemented by the opposite party. By the end of his two terms, any serious opposition to neoliberalism in his own party was long dead. He raised taxes during a period of unprecedented economic growth, eventually generating the surplus that Republicans were always talking about (like Nixon: “what they put forward, I put through”). On almost everything but income taxes, Clinton was more Reagan than Reagan. The so-called “Reagan Revolution” ought to be renamed the “Reagan-Clinton Revolution.”
Foreign: By the time he took office, it was too late to reverse the political collapse of post-Soviet states/satellites. He responded to terrorist attacks as violations of international law, worthy of a military response but not full-on all-in total warfare. Y’know, the good old days.
9. Harry Truman
Domestic: Truman put the civil rights of black Americans on the Democratic agenda, risking his re-nomination over an unpopular plank that would lead to the 1964 Civil Rights bill. People give JFK credit on Civil Rights, when he was essentially the weakest link in a chain between Truman, Eisenhower, and LBJ.
Truman successfully transitioned the U.S. economy from a war to a peacetime economy, leading the nation through the 1946 recession and fears that the United States would share the British postwar experience (where recession persisted well into the 1950s).
Foreign: Truman’s is the hardest foreign policy to assess. He ended the war with Japan and helped rebuild what would become one of the world’s most successful democracies. He fired a psychotically dangerous and dangerously popular general, at great political risk.
The atom bomb was an extension of Roosevelt’s Japanese war policies; Roosevelt didn’t build the bombs not to be used. In my mind, there’s no exchange rate on human life. Death by an atom bomb is no more evil than death by firebombing (and firebombing was far more destructive), so I don’t hold Truman in special contempt merely because he used atomic weapons. (Hindsight helps: he apparently set no precedent for U.S. or Soviet leaders, and we survived the Cold War without a nuclear exchange. If Truman had pulled the trigger on an apocalyptic war, perhaps I’d assess Hiroshima differently.)
Did Truman avert war with the Soviet Union or a Soviet invasion of western Europe? Probably not. The U.S.S.R. was too weak to do anything but heave threateningly at its borders. Were the policies that framed what we’d eventually call “the Cold War” prudent and successful? Today I wish we’d favored engagement over containment; but at the time, containment was viewed as an alternative to direct conflict. Is it a victory when you save Berlin but lose half of Germany? I don’t know. Truman essentially created Israel, a fact that should inspire pride but inspires ambivalence in many. Even his greatest achievements in foreign policy make you wince from time to time.
10. William Howard Taft
Domestic: Scaled back TR’s reforms without abandoning the Progressive project. He made Progressive reforms more palatable to the business community, who by 1909 felt alienated and antagonized, and would have mobilized against further executive interference and reversed TR’s best reforms had Taft not essentially held out an olive branch (a branch that cost him a second term).
11. Warren G. Harding
Domestic: an underrated president. Elected to reform the excesses of the Progressive era, which he began to do…and his reforms would have been more moderate than Coolidge’s excessive inaction. If Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover had gone to President Harding, rather than to President Coolidge, to warn of recklessness on Wall Street, Harding might have listened. Harding’s famous scandals are overplayed and meaningless.
12. Herbert Hoover
Domestic: He did what he could. He intervened in the economy as the Depression worsened. Most of his stimulus policies were adopted by FDR and incorporated into New Deal programs. If FDR had been elected president in 1928, he would have lost in 1932, too.
13. George H.W. Bush
Domestic: Americans with Disabilities Act. Try getting around New York City in a wheelchair in the 1970s.
Foreign: Asserted strong civilian leadership over the military (military historian Thomas E. Ricks calls Dick Cheney the greatest secretary of defense in the modern era for this reason). Demonstrated how to fight a short, quick, effective war after the Cold War.
14. John F. Kennedy
Foreign: he taunted Khrushchev over and over, and when Khrushchev responded by installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, he didn’t overreact. He got scared, he calmed down, and he behaved soberly at a very, very critical moment. I give him credit for that.
15. George W. Bush
Domestic: Made earnest attempts to reform Social Security, education, and a few other things.
Foreign: Excellent work in Africa. Convinced recalcitrant extremists in the Republican party to chill out about AIDS, other social issues.
16. Calvin Coolidge
Domestic: People made money.
17. Gerald Ford
Domestic: Inspired John Updike to write, “What was unthinkable under Eisenhower and racy under Kennedy had become, under Ford, almost compulsory. … [W]as there ever a Ford Administration? Evidence for its existence seems to be scanty.”
18. Jimmy Carter
Foreign: One rarely wants to praise a president for instigating a war, but rumors of the Carter administration’s hand in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – that they exacerbated conditions in Afghanistan and prompted the flailing Soviet government to make a rash and ultimately fatal decision, to “give Russia their Vietnam” – if true, well…it’s the sort of thing that, if Reagan had done it, Republicans would never stop celebrating.
And although Carter deserved some credit for the Camp David Accords, most of the credit and all of the risk belonged to Sadat.
Next time: the Worst Presidents since 1902.