Here’s an idea for scholars, historians and just plain instigators who want to issue lists of the best and worst American presidents of all time: How about exempting those presidents who are still in office? And maybe give the rest of us 10 years–or, better, 20–to make up our minds about them?
Siena College in New York State, which really should know better, surveyed 141 presidential scholars, who really should know better, too. The Siena College Research Institute Survey of U.S. Presidents put the usual suspects in the top five spaces.
And you could probably guess the bottom five. Along with the likes of Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Warren Harding and Franklin Pierce, the historians threw this in, maybe for kicks: “History appears to have spoken about those four presidents. Joined now by Donald Trump, who gets higher scores for luck, willingness to take risks and party leadership, [but] it is too early to say how history will ultimately rate Mr. Trump.”
Yes. It is too early. He may actually become president again.
And it’s too early to rank Joe Biden, too, but they do anyway. (No. 19.)
For some of us, it’s too early to rank Barack Obama.
The passage of time may allow for enough perspective to see the George W. Bush presidency clearly enough. But putting him at No. 35 seems odd. Especially when they ranked Richard Nixon at No. 28.
Andrew Jackson, that old Indian killer, was ranked in the middle of the pack (No. 23). And Ronald Reagan not many places above (No. 19). So maybe these historians, whoever they are, are showing something of partisanship themselves. (For the record, and because Arkansans might like to know, Bill Clinton came in at No. 14.)
But any ranking of presidents that puts LBJ in the Top 10 (at No. 8!) and doesn’t have A. Lincoln in the top slot (he’s No. 2) is suspicious. Although Franklin Roosevelt, who was placed atop the list, was Dr. Fix the Economy and Dr. Win the War. And he did both.
But FDR and Abraham Lincoln were both skewered in their own times by partisans on the other side. Remember how Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, held enemy combatants without trial, and worked “outside the Constitution”? And remember how Roosevelt II gave away the world at Yalta, not to mention luring the Japanese to attack us at Pearl Harbor?
Come to think, hasn’t every president, including the first one, been called the worst of all time? Remember how G. Washington was a traitor “to the spirit of ’76,” and approved John Jay’s unpopular treaty with our mortal enemy across the pond?
There’s been enough time, though, since George Washington’s Farewell Address to grade his performance. We’d give him an A-plus.
But for those who’ve come since, say, 2012 or 2016, we might wait a while. For their grades, we’ll have to give an Incomplete until more time passes, and we see how their legacies shake out.