We are all aware that Trump has already been rated as our 47th best President. This ranking is odd because he replaced a man who is unarguably the worst President in American History. However it is too early to assess Trump, Obama or W Bush because a President really has to be out of office for fifteen years before any analysis can be meaningful.
Rating a President is a somewhat subjective exercise. This post will grade only the Top 9 of the Presidents who were elected twice. The rating system has four criteria: (1) Short term impact: (2) Long term impact: (3) Reaction to events arising during each administration: and, (4) Intangibles. Intangibles will include, as a minimum, integrity, intelligence, as manifested while in office, and commitment to campaign promises made to the electorate. A grade of C may suggest only that the administration was not consequential.
George Washington (1789-1797) Overall A+ Short term A Long term A+ Reaction to events A Intangibles A+
Washington was by far the greatest of our Presidents. Keep on mind that because he was the first to hold the office he was starting with a blank slate. He was without precedential guidelines and everything he did was first impression. His was the first administration to build “team of rivals” as Doris Kearns Goodwin labeled the cabinet put together by Abraham Lincoln. Washington brought into his cabinet the two greatest political rivals of the times: Thomas Jefferson who wanted power and control to remain at the state level and Alexander Hamilton who had actually supported a monarchy and a strong central government. When Washington was presented with an issue he would ask the cabinet to submit written arguments as to how that issue should be addressed. In his eight years he built a solid foundation for future leaders.
,There are two things to help you understand Washington. King George, who was the target of our Revolution, said that if Washington voluntarily left office after his term he would be regarded as the greatest man who ever lived. The King could not understand how anyone could walk away from that much power. You should also read Washington’s farewell address and try to imagine any President since T Roosevelt comprehending, much less heeding, what he said in 1796.
Recommended reading: George Washington by Douglas Freeman
Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) Overall A Short term A- Long term A Reaction to events B Intangibles A
No President entered office under worse circumstances the Lincoln. Thanks to the incompetence of his predecessor he was greeted by the secession of eleven slave states. War was inevitable and the handling of the border states would be critical. His total experience in government was two election successes, one in Illinois and the other the US House of Representatives. He had less political experience than Obama.
Lincoln promised to preserve the union and he accomplished that objective. While he never promised to end slavery the Thirteenth Amendment received congressional approval shortly before he was assassinated. But it must be noted that Lincoln defied the Constitution on several occasions such as the suspension of Habeas Corpus and arresting the Maryland legislators before they could vote on secession. This can be forgiven, of course, because of the exigent circumstances.
Suggested reading: Lincoln by David Donald, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) Overall A- Short term A Long term A Reaction to events B Intangibles ADespite the self-serving statements of Clinton and Obama Reagan entered office with the worst economic situation since the Great Depression. There was double digit inflation and economic stagnation thanks to the incompetence of his predecessor. It was guaranteed to make him shine by comparison. Reagan ran on three things: he hated high taxes, regulation and the Soviet Union. Result: greatest tax cut in history followed by years of economic growth which survived well into the Clinton administration, a dramatic reduction in Federal regulations and, in 1989, the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the USSR. Compare this performance with the failure of FDR to even dent to Depression. The Iran-Contra controversy damaged Reagan late in his term. However he survived the worst media attacks prior to Trump with good humor and optimism.
Reading: Reagan:The Last Act by Craig Shirley, Reagan in his Own Hand by Kiron Skinner, Reagan at Reykjavik by Ken Adelman and Three Days in Moscow by Bret Baier
Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) Overall B Short term A Long term B Reaction to events B Intangibles B-
Jefferson was the first President to serve after a peaceful transition from one political party to the opposition party. This was momentous. His decision to execute the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory was in conflict with his interpretation of the Constitution as was his decision to go to war with the Barbary pirates. Nonetheless he acted decisively. Jefferson was a strong partisan and he was a political street fighter, see e.g. his use of James Callender. His support for the French Revolution is his greatest failing.
Reading: Thomas Jefferson by Dumas Malone
James Madison (1809-1817) Overall B- Short term C Long term B Reaction to events C Intangibles B
Madison is generally regarded as the Father of the Constitution. He was not, however, a good executive. Successfully presided over the War of 1812 but did manage to let the White House burn. His administration was otherwise without note.
Suggested reading: The Federalist Papers
Williams McKinley (1897-1901) Overall C+ Short term C Long term C Reaction to events B- Intangibles B+
The principal event under McKinley was the Spanish American War. The economy was solid, the so-called Robber Barons were engaged in capitalism and life was otherwise uneventful.
Suggested reading: President McKinley by Robert Merry
Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961) Overall C Short term C- Long term D Reaction to Events C Intangibles B
Eisenhower was the right man to preside over the Leave it to Beaver/Father Knows Best 1950s. He was not very bright but he was the grandfatherly persona that we needed after years of war. He was accused by Robert Welch of the John Birch Society of being a Communist but Russell Kirk of National Review said the “Eisenhower was not a Communist, he was a golfer”. There were two major Geo-political failings. He turned his back on the Hungarian people in 1956 when he chose to do nothing as the USSR crushed the rebellion. Even worse was has approval of the coup that replaced the duly elected leader Mosaddegh with the Shah of Iran. Truman had opposed the CIA participation in the proposed coup but Ike gave it the green light. That event poisoned the Iranian people against the West. These actions are partially offset by his strong action to support the integration of schools in the South following the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Sending the national guard to Little Rock was decisive and necessary and made it clear that times had changed in race relations. Then again he did however raise the marginal tax rate to 90% and he did inflict Chief Justice Earl Warren on us.
Suggested reading: Three Days in January by Bret Baier and A Matter of Justice by David Nichols
Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897) Overall C Short term B Long term C Reaction to events C- Intangibles C
Cleveland was the last President who actually tried to follow Constitutional guidelines. He still holds the record for Presidential vetoes many of which were dealt with simply: he could not find anything in the Constitution that allowed whatever Congress was trying to do. His administration was otherwise without note.
James Monroe (1817-1825) Overall C Short term C Long term C+ Reaction to events C Intangibles C
Monroe’s most important accomplishment was the Monroe Doctrine which protected the Western Hemisphere from foreign exploitation for more than 100 years. He endured the first major bank panic in 1819. He signed the Missouri Compromise which was the result of the first major legislative conflict over the expansion of slavery. The Compromise allowed slavery to expand westward below the 36′ 30 parallel. Only lost one electoral vote in the 1820 election.