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In political science, historical rankings of Presidents of the United States are surveys conducted in order to construct rankings of the success of individuals who have served as President of the United States. Ranking systems are usually based on surveys of academic historians and political scientists or popular opinion. The rankings focus on the presidential achievements, leadership qualities, failures and faults.
George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt are consistently ranked at the top of the lists. Often ranked just below those Presidents are Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. The remaining places in the top ten are often rounded out by Harry S. Truman, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, James K. Polk, and Andrew Jackson. Presidents such as John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton tend to be rated among the greatest in public opinion polls, but do not always rank as highly among presidential scholars and historians. The bottom ten often includes James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Warren G. Harding, Millard Fillmore, George W. Bush, Herbert Hoover, Martin Van Buren, Zachary Taylor, and John Tyler. Because William Henry Harrison (32 days) and James A. Garfield (200 days, incapacitated after 119 days) both died shortly after taking office, they are sometimes omitted from presidential rankings. Zachary Taylor also died after serving as president for only 16 months, but is usually included. In the case of these three, it is not clear if they received low rankings due to their actions as president, or because each was president for such a limited time that it is not possible to rate them more highly.
Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham noted the "dichotomous or schizoid profiles" of presidents, which can make some hard to classify. Historian Alan Brinkley said, "There are presidents who could be considered both failures and great or near great (for example, Nixon)". James MacGregor Burns observed of Nixon, "How can one evaluate such an idiosyncratic president, so brilliant and so morally lacking?"
David H. Donald, noted biographer of Lincoln, relates that when he met John F. Kennedy in 1961, Kennedy voiced his deep dissatisfaction and resentment with historians who had rated some of his predecessors. Kennedy said, "No one has a right to grade a President—even poor James Buchanan—who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions."
Historian and political scientist Julian E. Zelizer argues that traditional presidential rankings do not explain much concerning actual presidential history, and that they are "weak mechanisms for evaluating what has taken place in the White House."
The 1948 poll was conducted by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., of Harvard University. The 1962 survey was also conducted by Schlesinger, who surveyed 75 historians. Schlesinger's son Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., conducted another poll in 1996.
The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents also gives the results of the 1982 survey, a poll of 49 historians conducted by the Chicago Tribune. A notable difference from the 1962 Schlesinger poll was the ranking of Dwight D. Eisenhower, which rose from #22 in 1962 to #9 in 1982.
The Siena Research Institute of Siena College conducted surveys in 1982, 1990, 1994, 2002, and 2010. The 1994 survey placed only two Presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, above 80 points and two Presidents, Andrew Johnson and Warren G. Harding, below 50 points. The 2010 Siena Survey had George W. Bush plummet from the initial 2002 ranking of 23 down to 39.
The 1996 column shows the results from a poll conducted from 1988 to 1996 by William J. Ridings, Jr., and Stuart B. McIver and published in Rating the Presidents: A Ranking of U.S. leaders, from the Great and Honorable to the Dishonest and Incompetent (2000, ISBN 0806521511). More than 719 people took part in the poll, primarily academic historians and political scientists, although some politicians and celebrities also took part. Participants from every state were included, and emphasis was placed upon getting input from female historians and "specialists in African-American studies", as well as a few non-American historians. Poll respondents rated the Presidents in five categories (leadership qualities, accomplishments & crisis management, political skill, appointments, character & integrity), and the results were tabulated to create the overall ranking.
A 2000 survey by The Wall Street Journal consisted of an "ideologically balanced group of 132 prominent professors of history, law, and political science". This poll sought to include an equal number of liberals and conservatives in the survey, as the editors argued that previous polls were dominated by either one group or the other, but never balanced. According to the editors, this poll included responses from more women, minorities, and young professors than the 1996 Schlesinger poll. The editors noted that the results of their poll were "remarkably similar" to the 1996 Schlesinger poll, with the main difference in the 2000 poll being the lower rankings for the 1960s presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy, and higher ranking of President Ronald Reagan at #8. Franklin Roosevelt still ranked in the top three.
Another presidential poll was conducted by The Wall Street Journal in 2005, with James Lindgren of Northwestern University Law School for the Federalist Society. As in the 2000 survey, the editors sought to balance the opinions of liberals and conservatives, adjusting the results "to give Democratic- and Republican-leaning scholars equal weight." Franklin D. Roosevelt still ranked in the top-three, but editor James Taranto noted that Democratic-leaning scholars rated George W. Bush the sixth-worst president of all time, while Republican scholars rated him the sixth-best, giving him a split-decision rating of "average".
Thomas Kelly, professor emeritus of American studies at Siena College, said: "President Bush would seem to have small hope for high marks from the current generation of practicing historians and political scientists. In this case, current public opinion polls actually seem to cut the President more slack than the experts do." Dr. Douglas Lonnstrom, Siena College professor of statistics and director of the Siena Research Institute, stated: "In our 2002 presidential rating, with a group of experts comparable to this current poll, President Bush ranked 23rd of 42 presidents. That was shortly after 9/11. Clearly, the professors do not think things have gone well for him in the past few years. These are the experts that teach college students today and will write the history of this era tomorrow."
A 2010 Siena poll of 238 Presidential scholars found that former president George W. Bush was ranked 39th out of 43, with poor ratings in handling of the economy, communication, ability to compromise, foreign policy accomplishments, and intelligence. Meanwhile, the current president, Barack Obama was ranked 15th out of 43, with high ratings for imagination, communication ability and intelligence and a low rating for background (family, education and experience).
The C-SPAN Survey of Presidential Leadership consists of rankings from a group of presidential historians and "professional observers of the presidency" who ranked presidents in a number of categories initially in 2000 and more recently in 2009. With some minor variation, both surveys found that historians consider Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt the three best presidents by a wide margin and William Henry Harrison (to a lesser extent), Warren G. Harding, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, George W. Bush and James Buchanan the worst.
In 2011, through the agency of its United States Presidency Centre (USPC), the Institute for the Study of the Americas (located in the University of London’s School of Advanced Study) released the first ever U.K. academic survey to rate U.S. presidents. This polled the opinion of British specialists in American history and politics to assess presidential performance. They also gave an interim assessment of Barack Obama, but his unfinished presidency was not included in the survey (had he been included, he would have attained eighth place overall).
In 2012, Newsweek magazine asked a panel of historians to rank the ten best presidents since 1900. The results showed that historians had ranked Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama as the best since that year.
A 2013 History News Network poll of 203 American historians, when asked to rate Barack Obama's presidency on an A–F scale, gave him a B- grade. Obama, whom historians graded using 15 separate measures plus an overall grade, was rated most highly in the categories of communication ability, integrity, and crisis management, and most poorly for his relationship with Congress and transparency and accountability.
Note: Click the "sort" icon at the head of each column to view the rankings for each survey in numerical order.
|No||President||Political party||Schl. 1948||Schl. 1962||M-B 1982||CT 1982||Siena 1982||Siena 1990||Siena 1994||R-McI 1996||Schl. 1996||C-SPAN 1999||WSJ 2000||Siena 2002||WSJ 2005||Times 2008**||C-SPAN 2009||Siena 2010||USPC 2011||Aggr.|
|02||John Adams||Federalist||09||10||09||14 (tie)||10||14||12||14||11||16||13||12||13||13||17||17||12||12|
|05||James Monroe||Dem-Repub||12||18||15||16||15||11||15||13||15||14||16||08||16||21||14||07||13||14 (tie)|
|06||John Quincy Adams||Dem-Repub||11||13||16||19||17||16||17||18||18||19||20||17||25||16||19||19||20||18|
|07||Andrew Jackson||Democratic||06||06||07||06||13||09||11||08||05||13||06||13||10||14||13||14||09||08 (tie)|
|08||Martin Van Buren||Democratic||15||17||20||18||21||21||22||21||21||30||23||24||27||40||31||23||27||24|
|09||William Henry Harrison||Whig||99 –||99 –||99 –||38||26||35||28||35||99 –||37||99 –||36||99 –||39||39||35||99 –||38 (tie)|
|11||James K. Polk||Democratic||10||08||12||11||12||13||14||11||09||12||10||11||09||09||12||12||16||10|
|13||Millard Fillmore||Whig||24||26||29||31||32||32||35||36||31||35||35||38||36||33||37||38||35||38 (tie)|
|18||Ulysses S. Grant||Republican||28||30||35||30||36||37||38||38||34||33||32||35||29||18||23||26||29||37|
|19||Rutherford B. Hayes||Republican||13||14||22||22||22||23||24||25||23||26||22||27||24||27||33||31||30||25|
|20||James A. Garfield||Republican||99 –||99 –||99 –||33||25||30||26||30||99 –||29||99 –||33||99 –||34||28||27||99 –||29 (tie)|
|21||Chester A. Arthur||Republican||17||21||26||24||24||26||27||28||26||32||26||30||26||22||32||25||32||28|
|25||William McKinley||Republican||18||15||18||10||19||19||18||17||16||15||14||19||14||17||16||21||17||20 (tie)|
|27||William Howard Taft||Republican||16||16||19||20||20||20||21||20||22||24||19||21||20||29||24||24||25||22 (tie)|
|29||Warren G. Harding||Republican||29||31||36||37||39||40||41||41||39||38||37||40||39||35||38||41||38||43|
|31||Herbert Hoover||Republican||20||19||21||21||27||28||29||24||35||34||29||31||31||36||34||36||26||29 (tie)|
|32||Franklin D. Roosevelt||Democratic||03||03||02||02||01||01||01||02||03||02||03||01||03||03||03||01||01||02|
|33||Harry S. Truman||Democratic||99 –||09||08||08||07||07||07||07||08||05||07||07||07||07||05||09||07||07|
|34||Dwight D. Eisenhower||Republican||99 –||22||11||09||11||12||08||09||10||09||09||10||08||06||08||10||10||08 (tie)|
|35||John F. Kennedy||Democratic||99 –||99 –||13||14 (tie)||08||10||10||15||12||08||18||14||15||11||06||11||15||11|
|36||Lyndon B. Johnson||Democratic||99 –||99 –||10||12||14||15||13||12||14||10||17||15||18||12||11||16||11||14 (tie)|
|37||Richard Nixon||Republican||99 –||99 –||34||34||28||25||23||32||36||25||33||26||32||38||27||30||23||32|
|38||Gerald Ford||Republican||99 –||99 –||24||23||23||27||32||27||28||23||28||28||28||25||22||28||24||26|
|39||Jimmy Carter||Democratic||99 –||99 –||25||26||33||24||25||19||27||22||30||25||34||32||25||32||18||27|
|40||Ronald Reagan||Republican||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||16 *||22||20||26||25||11||08||16||06||08||10||18||08||17|
|41||George H. W. Bush||Republican||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||18 *||31||22||24||20||21||22||21||20||18||22||22||22 (tie)|
|42||Bill Clinton||Democratic||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||16 *||23 *||20 *||21 *||24 *||18||22||23||15||13||19||20 (tie)|
|43||George W. Bush||Republican||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||23 *||19 *||37 *||36||39||31||34|
|44||Barack Obama||Democratic||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||99 –||15 *||99 –||14 (tie) *|
|Total in survey||29||31||36||38||39||40||41||41||39||41||39||42||40||42||42||43||40||43|
The surveys have been criticized for the way they have been organized. At times, the surveys have had low responses. The issue of the validity of the rankings has been of special interest to historians and political scientists, who have tried to specify the relative importance of personality, leadership, issues and partisanship. It has also been argued that those surveyed have tended to select their choices from personal preference rather than from a neutral perspective. Historian Thomas Bailey describes the endeavor as trying to "measure the immeasurable". Quantitative ranking by groups of scholars has been in favor in recent decades, displacing the traditional methods of evaluation by individual writers as typified by Bailey (1966) and most biographers.
The Murray-Blessing 1982 survey asked historians whether they were liberal or conservative on domestic, social and economic issues. The table below shows that the two groups had only small differences in ranking the best and worst presidents. Both groups agreed on the composition of nine of the top ten Presidents (and were split over the inclusion of either Lyndon B. Johnson or Dwight D. Eisenhower), and six of the worst seven (split over Jimmy Carter or Calvin Coolidge).
|Rank||Liberals (n=190)||Conservatives (n=50)|
|1||Franklin D. Roosevelt||Abraham Lincoln|
|2||Abraham Lincoln||George Washington|
|3||George Washington||Franklin D. Roosevelt|
|4||Thomas Jefferson||Thomas Jefferson|
|5||Theodore Roosevelt||Theodore Roosevelt|
|6||Woodrow Wilson||Andrew Jackson|
|7||Andrew Jackson||Harry S Truman|
|8||Harry S Truman||Woodrow Wilson|
|9||Lyndon B. Johnson||Dwight D. Eisenhower|
|10||John Adams||John Adams|
|30||Calvin Coolidge||Jimmy Carter|
|31||Franklin Pierce||Richard Nixon|
|32||James Buchanan||Franklin Pierce|
|33||Andrew Johnson||Andrew Johnson|
|34||Ulysses S. Grant||James Buchanan|
|35||Richard Nixon||Ulysses S. Grant|
|36||Warren G. Harding||Warren G. Harding|
In 2002, Ronald Walters, former director of the University of Maryland's African American Leadership Institute, stated that Presidents ranked by how each President balanced the interests of majority interests and the interests of excluded groups was practical in respect to American debate on racial politics. Presidents have traditionally been ranked on personal qualities and their leadership ability to solve problems that move the nation in a positive direction. Walters stated there was a qualitative difference between white and African American intellectuals in evaluating Presidents. In the 1996 New York Times Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. poll, 31 white historians and one black historian ranked Presidents on differing categories of greatness. In a survey done by Professor Hanes Walton, Jr., and Professor Robert Smith, in their text book American Politics And The African American Quest For Universal Freedom, 44 African American political scientists and historians ranked Presidents in terms of racial attitudes and racial legislation proposed. Individual President's attitudes, policies, and perspectives were historically ranked in five categories: White Supremacist; Racist; Racially Neutral; Racially Ambivalent; Antiracist.
In addition to conducting a historian survey, C-Span also conducted a presidential leadership survey of 1145 viewers in December 1999.
A Washington College poll about presidential greatness, taken February 11, 2005, asked 800 adults in the US, "Thinking about all the presidents of the United States throughout history to the present, who would you say was America's greatest president?"
According to a Rasmussen poll conducted in 2007, six presidents—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy—were rated favorably by at least 80% of Americans. 
|Franklin D. Roosevelt||81||12||69|
|John F. Kennedy||80||13||67|
|Dwight D. Eisenhower||72||15||57|
|Harry S. Truman||70||14||56|
|John Quincy Adams||59||7||52|
|Ulysses S. Grant||58||24||34|
|George H. W. Bush||57||41||16|
|William Howard Taft||57||15||42|
|Lyndon B. Johnson||45||42||3|
|Chester A. Arthur||43||17||26|
|James A. Garfield||42||16||26|
|George W. Bush||41||59||-18|
|Rutherford B. Hayes||38||19||19|
|Warren G. Harding||29||33||-4|
|James K. Polk||27||21||6|
|Martin Van Buren||23||19||4|
|William Henry Harrison||21||16||5|
These polls evaluate recent Presidents only.
A Gallup poll, taken on November 19–21, 2010, asked Americans to say, based on what they know or remember about the nine most recent former presidents, whether they approve or disapprove of how each handled his job in office.
A Public Policy Polling poll, taken between September 8–11, 2011, asked 665 American voters, based on what they know or remember about the nine most recent former presidents, whether they hold favorable or unfavorable views of how each handled his job in office.
A Vision Critical/Angus Reid poll, taken on February 18–19, 2011, asked respondents about 11 former presidents plus the current president and whether they were a good or bad president.
A Gallup Poll, taken February 7-10, 2013, asked 1039 adults in the US, "How do you think each of the following presidents will go down in history—as an outstanding president, above average, average, below average, or poor?"
|Result||Barack Obama||George W. Bush||Bill Clinton||George H. W. Bush||Ronald Reagan||Jimmy Carter||Gerald Ford||Richard Nixon||Lyndon Johnson||John F. Kennedy||Dwight Eisenhower|
|2. above average||22%||18%||44%||24%||42%||19%||14%||13%||16%||56%||39%|
|4. below average||18%||20%||9%||12%||6%||20%||15%||29%||14%||2%||2%|
Best president since World War II
Worst president since World War II
|Seq.||Name||Background||Party Leadership||Communication Ability||Relations with Congress||Court Appointments||Handling of Economy||Luck||Ability to Compromise||Willing to take Risks||Executive Appointments||Overall Ability||Imagination||Domestic Accomplishments||Integrity||Executive Ability||Foreign Policy Accomplishments||Leadership Ability||Intelligence||Avoid Crucial Mistakes||Expert's View||Overall|
|6||John Quincy Adams||2||34||20||35||16||14||30||29||23||13||15||11||18||4||21||16||26||5||20||21||19|
|8||Martin Van Buren||16||13||23||19||24||38||33||13||32||25||24||24||27||29||23||25||27||22||27||24||23|
|9||William Henry Harrison||24||30||25||31||33||27||42||35||30||24||37||35||36||30||33||39||24||31||33||34||35|
|11||James K. Polk||17||9||13||12||21||15||7||23||7||16||17||14||11||24||9||8||10||20||9||11||12|
|18||Ulysses S. Grant||26||28||24||22||25||29||21||22||22||40||28||26||26||27||34||24||21||29||31||31||26|
|19||Rutherford B. Hayes||29||33||30||29||29||26||19||18||33||33||33||32||33||28||30||30||32||30||24||29||31|
|20||James A. Garfield||20||22||22||24||32||23||41||27||31||29||25||28||25||25||26||31||23||26||22||27||27|
|21||Chester A. Arthur||41||31||32||27||28||19||14||21||27||26||30||25||20||32||27||26||28||32||17||26||25|
|27||William Howard Taft||14||36||29||30||18||20||32||24||36||22||23||30||21||18||25||23||31||18||28||23||24|
|29||Warren G. Harding||43||38||36||34||36||39||37||26||40||43||43||43||40||42||43||37||41||43||39||41||41|
|32||Franklin D. Roosevelt||5||1||1||2||2||1||5||2||3||3||2||4||3||16||3||1||3||10||4||2||1|
|34||Dwight D. Eisenhower||12||17||21||10||9||11||8||5||20||17||11||20||13||9||7||9||7||19||5||7||10|
|35||John F. Kennedy||13||19||4||13||12||7||27||6||10||6||14||7||15||35||13||17||11||11||16||14||11|
|36||Lyndon B. Johnson||15||3||16||1||5||10||28||9||12||12||9||12||5||34||12||43||15||21||37||16||16|
|41||George H. W. Bush||11||27||33||23||34||32||26||16||29||27||27||31||28||20||22||14||22||24||18||22||22|
|43||George W. Bush||36||39||42||32||41||42||18||42||19||41||40||40||38||39||39||42||38||42||38||39||39|
In January 2013, New York Times journalist and statistician Nate Silver composed a composite list of previous presidential rankings by scholars for the purpose of predicting President Barack Obama's ranking among presidents.