Monday 6 February 2017

The best and worst US presidents of all time


My article on the three worst US Presidents (George W. Bush, 
Lincoln and Wilson were my choices) seems rather topical now that Donald Trump is president.

It is of course far too early to form a tentative judgment on President Trump after four weeks. He is promising in some ways, though certainly worrying in others. Never say never but it is hard to imagine that he will be as disastrous as George W. Bush.

Barack Obama was very mediocre, of course. Instead of being a mixed-race Ike who brought his country together and forgave whites for their history of racism, he was deliberately divisive. He used wedge issues like homosexual marriage and transgender people using the ladies to divide Republicans and conquer. 

Still, he was not outstandingly bad. Under him the economy improved and he to some extent kept his country out of wars. His biggest legacy, regardless of what you think of it, is creating the conditions in which President Trump won the White House.

The worst president was Lincoln. If you doubt that, try this mental exercise.

Suppose Scotland voted to leave the UK and Theresa May waged a war for four years to keep them in, in which hundreds of thousands died, before she subjugated the Scots.

Wouldn't you think her a cruel warmonger? But mutatis mutandis that is what Lincoln did. Yet even Pope Francis, who like all popes hates war, recently sang his praise

American historians are pretty united in thinking Lincoln the best president, along with Washington (from a conservative point of view a rebel against his king) and Franklin Roosevelt. 

As Professor Paul Gottfried said, American historians without thinking about it start with certain assumptions.
All the major conflicts into which our leaders thrust us from the Civil War on, with the possible exception of Vietnam, are seen as morally desirable actions. … The U.S. is a land of morally driven, energetic presidents who have made us into the envy and dread of the world.
To Vietnam may now be added the Iraq war. I don't know whether this will change the way American historians think about previous wars. 

A recent survey of 91 presidential historians rather surprisingly rated Barack Obama as the 12th best president. Some historians who took part thought he deserved a higher place. 

George W. Bush rose from 36th to 33rd out of 45. Bill Clinton was at number 15, George H.W. Bush at 20, Jimmy Carter 26, and Ronald Reagan at 9. 

Dr. Ivan Eland takes a very different view and sees that many celebrated presidents took the presidency far away from what the authors of the Constitution intended. Rather than admiring presidents who tried to achieve ambitious things at home and abroad, Dr. Eland rates them on such things as commitment to small government, belief in a limited role for the executive branch, ability to avoid war and yielding power to Congress

Dr. Eland ranks Jimmy Carter pretty highly and his five best are:

1. John Tyler
2. Grover Cleveland
3. Martin Van Buren
4. Rutherford B. Hayes
5. Chester A. Arthur

James Buchanan, Lincoln's predecessor, who took the view that the Southern states had no right to secede but the USA no right to go to war to prevent them, is as always thought the worst. 

Buchanan said on his deathbed.
“History will vindicate my memory from every unjust aspersion.”
I think he is unfairly treated by historians and I think he deserves praise for not launching a civil war, but his memory has still not been vindicated.

Lincoln's victory is the reason why Buchanan is considered so bad. Had the South won the war he would have looked better and Lincoln would have been seen as disastrous.

As Ed Miliband said, after leading the Labour Party in Great Britain to defeat in the 2015 election, 
When you win, everything you did was an act of genius and when you lose, everything you did was the work of a fool. 


  1. I would name both Johnsons and Obama as the three worst presidents. Andrew for his ruinous reconstruction, Lyndon.for the acceleration of Vietnam and Obama for ISIS and the migrant.crisis.

    1. Many do, you know. Obviously Bush's toppling of Saddam is part of the reason for ISIS.

  2. Replies
    1. Don't you think three weeks is too soon to make a judgment? I know journalism is the first draft of history but give him three months at least!

    2. He hasn't yet destroyed the Habsburg Empire or launched a civil war or invaded the Middle East for no good reason with disastrous consequences.

    3. This comparison might interest you from Peter Oborne whom I love. A veteran journalist demolishes BBC propaganda live on air, leaving the host utterly astounded

  3. Obama "kept his country out of wars"?? Whatever you're smoking is pretty dangerous bro.

    1. Steve, I take your point and have amended the article. Still he involved the USA in fewer wars than Hillary would have done. She was essentially a female Dick Cheney.

  4. The very left-wing historian Eric Foner (whose lectures I attended at university) on Trump.

  5. David in Banja Luka18 February 2017 at 14:20

    I like the Miliband quote.

    First time I have come across it.

    Probably his most profound words.

    1. Yes I agree. The best thing he ever said and deserving of a place in the dictionaries of quotations. Yet when I looked for it to check it on the internet it was surprisingly hard to find.

  6. Wilson was the worst.

  7. Wilson was a notorious white racist -- and he arranged to have the consolidating Southern system of Jim Crow imposed systematically on the federal government. For that reason alone.....

    And the fact that he is almost always discussed solely from the point of view of WW1 and his views on European self-determination (however important those things in fact were) shows how large blindspots are imposed over key currents of U.S. history