History Reconsiders Our Best Presidents

People’s opinions about past presidents can shift long after they have left office.

Presidents Eisenhower, Roosevelt, Lincoln, Johnson, Carter, and Washington have all seen their reputations improve over the last ten years (Library of Congress)

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In a 2013 USA Today interview, President George W. Bush said, “There’s no need to defend myself. I did what I did and ultimately history will judge.” Presidents who rely on history to judge their administration should know that history can hold some surprising opinions. And it can change its mind.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency is a good example, with his declining health prompting journalists to revisit his legacy. Biographer Kai Bird, writing for the New York Times, asserted “his presidency is remembered, simplistically, as a failure.” But he then lists some of Carter’s accomplishments: the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel, the SALT II arms agreement, normalization of relations with China, immigration reform, and the establishment of human rights as a key element of U.S. foreign policy — a policy that contributed to the failure of the Soviet system.

Back in 2018, Stuart Eisenstadt, a former aid to the president, wrote in the Post that President Carter, like President Truman, was owed a re-assessment. “His administration was consequential, and America became a better and more secure country because of it.”

Like most Presidents, Carter’s reputation will continue to be reappraised as more Americans are added to the presidential role. Only a few presidents seem to have gained a permanent position among the greats.

According to a survey conducted by the Siena College Research Institute, the same five presidents have been ranked as America’s best since 1982: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Other presidents, once widely admired, have fallen in history’s estimation. In 1948, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. reported on 55 historians’ ratings of presidents. The top three were Lincoln, Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt. Each of the next three — Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson — have since lost admirers.

Woodrow Wilson was once revered for his international focus, which laid the groundwork for the United Nations, the World Bank, and NATO. He has since fallen in reputation because of his racist policies, which included segregating all Black employee in federal jobs. Since 1982, his SCRI rating has fallen from 6 to 13.

Thomas Jefferson, long revered as one of the country’s founding fathers, has been criticized for owning slaves and having a covert affair with one of them. His rating has dropped from 2 to 5.

And Andrew Jackson, once a highly revered figure in the Democratic party, is now linked to his policy of exterminating Native Americans. The 1982 SCRI survey that rated him as 13th now puts him at the 23rd spot.

Meanwhile, other presidents’ reputations have risen. In 1952, President Harry Truman registered the lowest rating ever given by a Gallup poll: 22 percent. Today, SCRI rates him our seventh best president, and a 2021 C-SPAN survey ranks him sixth.

Ulysses Grant’s reputation, which long remained near the bottom of the presidential list, has been steadily rising. Since 1982, his overall rating at SCRI has jumped from 36 to 21.

Even Richard Nixon has gained a little more appreciation.

He left the White House with as much ignominy as any president, his reputation tarnished by his association with the Watergate break-in and subsequent coverup. But he has since been acknowledged for his creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and his support of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Marine Mammal Protection Act. And for his support of Title IX legislation that prohibited sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs. And his momentous trip to China, which opened relations between the two nations.

These accomplishments may be the reason that, while he’s the only president who resigned rather than face a trial, his overall SCRI rating is 28th among 46 presidents. The same survey puts Jimmy Carter, who succeeded him, just four places higher.

Siena College conducts these surveys in the first year after new presidents takes office. The surveyors ask historians, political scientists, and presidential scholars to rank all presidents in 20 different categories of attributes and accomplishments.

President Carter has consistently received middle- to better-than-average marks in most categories, particularly intelligence (#11 in 2022) and integrity (#2, just behind Lincoln). So how do we account for the low rating that many have given his administration?

The answer is suggested by one significant measure: Luck. By that measure, he came in 40th.

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  1. It’s increasingly difficult to judge who the best/worst Presidents are, since they (and the government) are out right owned by the military industrial complex to keep the U.S. in “unofficial” endless wars. Northrup Grumman. Lockheed Martin and their stock/share holders. Wall Street a close 2nd.

    The U.S. is involved in countries it has no right to be, under the false guise of ‘democracy’ for the people of these nations, when the real reason is oil or whatever commodity of value is for the taking. JFK saw what was coming if the escalation in Vietnam wasn’t shut down and stopped. He wanted peace, and had to be eliminated. LBJ’s role in it is both clouded and clear depending on the source, with the military industrial complex.

    The lesson is to never go against the ‘complex’, for all future Presidents. Within months we fully engulfed in Vietnam for the next 9 years. Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan for 20 years? The media knows better than to ever show American casualties (flag-draped caskets) on TV. The trillions of our dollars spend and try and hide. Generals are frequent guests on Face the Nation, Rachel Maddow, FOX News, Meet the Press, and so many more sanitizing the all the horror under the catch-all ‘democracy’ word. And let’s not forget Pfizer is usually the main sponsor.

    Now we have endless BILLIONS and BILLIONS going unaccounted for to Ukraine. The current President over there 2 weeks ago hugging ‘Z’ and telling him anything he wants from the U.S. is his for the asking! Janet Yellen this past week with an open check book for billions more; of course! Meanwhile here, we’ve got the worst inflation in U.S. history and very serious, suspicious, catastrophic train derailments all happening now after the balloon diversion wore off. No money for American’s social security. Sorry, we just won’t have it for you suckers.

    Where things go from here won’t be good, and the Presidency a figurehead only anyhow. Klaus Schwab, Bill Gates and several other unelected multi, multi billionaires (along with Silicon Valley) will be taking away our cars and abilities to do much of anything, all in the name of climate control, unless they’re stopped. One thing’s for sure, the current President is making sure the previous one (regardless of anyone’s opinion) will be reinstated again.

  2. Oh good grief. Stop trying to rewrite history. Jimmy Carter was AWFUL. And you want to give HIM credit for the fall of the Soviet Union?!? That’s just delusional. And get your basic facts straight- Carter did NOT succeed Nixon, Gerald Zford did.

  3. Truman has to rate as the worst president….period.
    His removal of MacArthur in Korea, has led to so many numerous problems.
    It showed, not just to the Chinese, but, the soon-to-be North Koreans, that America and by
    extension, the then Allied world it was weak.
    The upshot, was the Viet Nam war,.
    While a complex war, in that there were several issues on-going and not just the publicized Communist threat,
    there were others, but, the bottom line, was a sense of disrespect.
    There might have been “worse” Presidents, before Truman, but, none have given such lasting damage.

  4. Deserving mention: James Monroe, who I think should be listed in the second rank (after GW, AL, and FDR).

  5. And Ronald Regan convincing Iran to hold the hostages until after the election.

  6. So how do we account for the low rating that many have given the Carter administration?

    In a word: Tehran


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