You might have noted that 2 two term Presidents were not included in the last post. That is because you can’t really assess the long-term impact until at least 15 years have passed. A preliminary grade for Bush would be a D and for Obama an F. This post will rank those Presidents that were elected once and served at least one full term.
James K. Polk (1845-1849) Overall B+ Short term B Long term A Reaction to events B Intangibles B+
Polk was the most effective of the one term Presidents. He is the only former Speaker of the House to be elected to the office. He announced before taking office that he would not be seeking a second term. He was a protegee of Andrew Jackson and was known as Young Hickory. Manifest Destiny, the extension of the United States to the Pacific Ocean, was the principal objective of Polk. He succeeded by bringing Texas into the union, winning the Mexican War, annexing the Southwest including California and settling the Northwest. He died only three months after leaving office
Suggested reading: A Country of Vast Designs by Robert Merry and Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter Borneman
Harry S. Truman (1945-1952) Overall B Short term A- Long term B Reaction to events C Intangibles B
Truman was the best of the Democrat Presidents. The Depression was not truly over until after the war and Truman had the good sense to stay out of the way. He made one of the toughest decisions in the history of the country when he gave the green light on the atom bomb drops in Japan. It saved countless American lives. He did allow the US to join the Korean conflict but he then prevented MacArthur from winning the war. He showed good judgment in opposing the coup against Mosaddegh in Iran, a decision that was reversed by Eisenhower. North Korea and Iran remain problems to this day.
Suggested reading: Truman by David McCullough and Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman by Alonzo Hamby.
Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) Overall B- Short term B Long term B- Reaction to events C+ Intangibles B-
One has to appreciate the political genius of Coolidge. He decided not to run in 1928 and one year after the election the stock market crashed and the Depression began. He signed a tax cut bill that did much to drive the Roaring 20’s and the last era of unbridled capitalism. Contrary to myth capitalism did not cause the Depression. Rather it was the expansion followed by a contraction of the money supply by the Federal Reserve. His term was otherwise inconsequential and it should be noted that Coolidge took a nap every afternoon in the White House.
Suggested reading: Coolidge by Amity Schlaes.
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) Overall C Short term B Long term C- Reaction to events C Intangibles D
Roosevelt was an intelligent man with an out-sized ego. He was the first Progressive President and he firmly believed that governmental power should percolate to the White House. His ego was such that he ran as a third party candidate in 1916 thereby ensuring the election of Woodrow Wilson who actually made Roosevelt look good by comparison but, in the end, the country suffered at the hands of Wilson. On the plus side he did complete the Panama Canal which gave us the wonderful palindrome “A man a plan a canal Panama”. On the downside he set his trust busters loose on US business.
Suggest reading: The trilogy written by Edmund Morris : The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex and Colonel Roosevelt, and TR: The last Romantic by H.W. Brands.
John Adams (1797-1801) Overall C
Adams was an original member of the group that wanted to break away from Great Britain. He defended The British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre. His administration was responsible for the Alien and Sedition Act following the so-called XYZ affair. It strained relations with France and with Jefferson who was a Francophile. His term was otherwise uneventful.
Suggested reading: John Adams by David McCullough and John Adams: A Life by John Ferling
John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) Overall C
Son of John Adams. One of the smartest men to be elected President and he brought significant international experience to the job. He was over the course of his career Minister to the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia and Great Britain as well as Secretary of State. After leaving office he served in the US Senate. He defended the blacks brought from Africa on the Armistead who commandeered the ship and tried to return to Africa. Adams won the case the so-called mutineers were allowed to return to Africa as free men. Subject of the best story about a President. One day JQA went for a swim in the Potomac and while enjoying his dip his clothes were stolen and the President had to walk back to the White House naked. Other than that adventure his administration was uneventful.
Suggested reading: John Quincy Adams by Paul Nagel. Also recommended: the movie Armistead.
Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) Overall C
Harrison was merely the filling in the Grover Cleveland sandwich. His entire term passed without note.
William Howard Taft ((1909-1913) Overall C
Taft was the foil for Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. He proved to be a disappointment to the progressive Roosevelt so TR ran as a third party candidate thereby guarantying the election his fellow progressive Wilson. After his term he served as Chief Justice of the US for a decade. He was more comfortable serving on the Court than he ever was as President, the only elective office he held at the Federal level.
Suggested reading: The Life and Times of William Howard Taft by Henry Pringle
George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) Overall C- Short term D Long Term C Reaction to events (International B/Domestic D) C- Intangibles C
Bush spent four years frittering away the accomplishments of Reagan. He will always be remembered for breaking his campaign promise: “Read my lips, no new taxes”. His management of the first Gulf War was brilliant and left the Middle East more stable than any of his successors. He signed NAFTA which was not a success and raised taxes despite his promise not to do so. He was an American military hero by proved to be a very weak President.
Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) Overall C-
Hayes was the architect of the end of Reconstruction which resulted in the removal of Federal troops from what was the Confederacy. He turned the Southern black population over to the tender ministrations of the Democrat Party which then practiced black oppression until the middle of the next century. His term was otherwise forgettable.
Franklin Pierce (1853-1857) Overall C-
Pierce was a man of inaction and he did nothing to address the festering issues between the North and the South. He kicked the can until the even weaker James Buchanan was elected in 1856. It could be argued that he was an inconsequential President but his inaction of the issue os slavery was, in the end, of consequence.
Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) Overall D
The one nice thing that can be said about Van Buren is that he is the source of the term “OK”. He was known as Old Kinderhook. He was the driving force behind the creation of the Democrat Party. His administration was marked by a bank panic and a severe depression. He did little to address the economic issues and was soundly defeated in his bid for re-election.
Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) Overall D Short term F Long term D Reaction to events D- Intangibles C
Hoover was one of the most intelligent Presidents and he had been effective in addressing recovery of Europe after World War I as the leader of the relief effort. However he faced one of the most devastating economic events in US history, the Great Depression. His instincts were progressive and his policies reflected his inclination for central government programs to address an economic situation he did not fully understand. He supported the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act which ensured that no short-term recovery would be possible. He refused to support the 1932 march on Washington by military veterans seeking bonus payments for their service. It was brutally shut down by the army including future President Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. Hoover did nothing to reduce the impact of the Depression and left the serious situation to his successor who was equally ineffective.
Suggested reading: Freedom Betrayed by Herbert Hoover/George Nash and
Herbert Hoover by William Leuchtenburg
James Earl Carter (1977-1981) Overall F Short term F Long term F Reaction to events F Intangibles D
Carter was an improbable President. He was fortunate enough to follow the disgraced Nixon and the hapless Gerald Ford and these were the only circumstances that would ever have allowed him to win election. Sadly he was micro-manager and indecisive. When the Russians invaded Afghanistan he pulled the US out of the Moscow Olympics. Hardly a serious response. His response to energy costs was to try to control thermostat settings. He actually believed that the world would exhaust all oil reserves by the turn of the century. His leadership was defined by his decrying our national malaise. On the plus side he did coordinate the Camp David discussions between Sadat and Begin which resulted in a peace treaty. Carter was clearly not up to the office and in 1980 he lost in a landslide to Reagan. He conceded before the polls closed on the West Coast and it has been argued that he cost the Democrats several close elections because of his early concession.
James Buchanan (1857-1861) Overall F
Buchanan was so weak that he fiddled, Nero-like, while the country moved toward the Civil War. Eight Southern states seceded during his term in office. He was unable to make decisions and in the end left it all on the desk for Lincoln to deal with.
Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969) Overall F Short term F Long term F Reaction to events F Intangibles F
LBJ was the most corrupt man ever to occupy the White House. He was petty and vindictive. The best political joke during the Johnson years was: LBJ said in 1964 that if you vote for Goldwater there will be 500,000 soldiers in Vietnam. As my father said” “I did and he was right”. The Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts that he signed into law were the result of initiatives by John Kennedy. Johnson was a life-long racist and had opposed attempts in Congress from 1937-1961 to extend basic civil rights to black Americans. His perceived change of heart reflected his desire to create a legacy. His legacy was turned out to be the disastrous war in Vietnam and his Great Society. The latter resulted in the destruction of the black family and systemic poverty in the inner-cities. He spent his entire life holding government jobs and died a multi-millionaire, His lack of integrity is evidenced by his receiving a Silver Star for riding in a plane during a mission in the Pacific in World War II. He was terrified but when he returned he nagged the military until he was given (he certainly did not earn it) the award. He was a total fraud and a failed President
Suggested reading: The four volume biography by Robert Caro and Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President by Robert Dallek.
The remaining Presidents never served a complete term in office. Five died during their term: William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, James Garfield, Warren Harding and John Kennedy. Four finished the terms of a President who died in office: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson and Chester Arthur. One finished the term of the President who resigned: Gerald Ford. It is fair to say that this is a completely forgettable lot. In only one case was someone from this group other than inconsequential and that was John Kennedy. Kennedy would today be a Trump Republican. He cut taxes with predictable success. He stood up to the USSR and peacefully ended the Cuban missile crisis even though he agreed to leave the ruthless Fidel Castro in power. He demanded that Congress produce civil rights legislation. Sadly his successor erased most of what Kennedy did or planned to do. JFK was consequential.