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Experts rank the best U.S. presidents of all time

  • Experts rank the best U.S. presidents of all time

    Since George Washington was sworn in as the country's first president in 1789, United States presidents have made many integral and difficult decisions to help shape this country. Civil and international wars, economic crises, and deep-rooted bigotry are just a few major installments that our presidents have had to tackle. It’s common to debate the efficacy, personalities, and politics of these office-holders during their terms, and opinions run far and wide many years later when analyzing past performance.  

    The expectations of the president have evolved over time. Jeremi Suri of the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs asserts in his book, “The Impossible Presidency,” that the White House has progressively taken on such infeasible demands—particularly in the most recent 24-hour news cycle—that the president cannot possibly please everyone. Drawing upon recent “disenchantment” with presidents, Suri discusses the limitations inherent in the day-to-day details and duties of the office; we often don’t recognize the near-impossible task of leaders meeting the big-picture goals they’d set out to conquer on the campaign trail.

    Despite these increasingly impossible expectations, some presidents have certainly made more of a mark than others—and Stacker draws on C-SPAN’s most recent 2017 ranking of 43 U.S. presidents to show you how they line up. Donald Trump is not included in this ranking, as the survey is conducted once a new president assumes office, so the next will be in either 2021 or 2025. According to C-SPAN, the survey was devised by academic advisers with a 1–10 scale of “not effective” to “very effective” based on performance in 10 categories: political persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, congressional relations, ability to set an agenda, the pursuit of equal justice for all, and overall performance within the context of the times. Ninety-one participants in total agreed to the survey, which was given to various historians and professional observers.

    With the 2020 presidential election less than two months away, Stacker takes a look at the full rankings. Continue reading to see the reasons why some presidents remain household names while others all but fade into the background of American history.

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  • #43. James Buchanan

    - 15th president (Served from: March 4, 1857–March 4, 1861)
    - Political party: Democratic
    - Overall C-SPAN score: 245
    --- Political persuasion score: 23.9 (#43 out of 43)
    --- Crisis leadership score: 17.4 (#43 out of 43)
    --- Economic management score: 30.1 (#42 out of 43)
    --- Moral authority score: 20.5 (#43 out of 43)
    --- International relations score: 32.1 (#43 out of 43)
    --- Administrative skills score: 34.0 (#41 out of 43)
    --- Congressional relations score: 28.4 (#42 out of 43)
    --- Vision/ability to set an agenda score: 19.7 (#43 out of 43)
    --- Pursued equal justice for all score: 18.4 (#43 out of 43)
    --- Performance within context of the times score: 20.4 (#43 out of 43)

    Though he intended to maintain peace between the pro-slavery South and anti-slavery North, Buchanan did little to prevent the conflict. A few days before he was elected, the Supreme Court passed the Dred Scott decision, denying the federal government power to regulate slavery in U.S. territories and depriving African Americans the rights of citizens. Hopeful that this decision would somehow smooth over the issue of slavery, Buchanan had worked to lobby a fellow Pennsylvanian Supreme Court justice to vote with the Southern majority.

    The Supreme Court gave Buchanan a heads up as far as their decision, and it became public that Buchanan supported it—arousing a heated reaction among abolitionists. Congressional Republicans were not happy with Buchanan’s proposed legislation, and did everything they could to hinder his agenda. This set the tone for what would become Buchanan’s unfortunate legacy: his inability to calm the explosive relationship between the North and South that led to the Civil War. This, along with his low marks for crisis leadership are what landed him at the bottom of this list.

  • #42. Andrew Johnson

    - 17th president (Served from: April 15, 1865–March 4, 1869)
    - Political party: National Union
    - Overall C-SPAN score: 275
    --- Political persuasion score: 24.9 (#42 out of 43)
    --- Crisis leadership score: 25.3 (#42 out of 43)
    --- Economic management score: 38.0 (#37 out of 43)
    --- Moral authority score: 24.3 (#41 out of 43)
    --- International relations score: 40.1 (#39 out of 43)
    --- Administrative skills score: 28.5 (#43 out of 43)
    --- Congressional relations score: 17.1 (#43 out of 43)
    --- Vision/ability to set an agenda score: 26.2 (#42 out of 43)
    --- Pursued equal justice for all score: 24.5 (#40 out of 43)
    --- Performance within context of the times score: 26.3 (#42 out of 43)

    Johnson took office upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. His main presidential task was to reconstruct former Confederate states while Congress was not in session. While Johnson re-established many Southern states and slavery was on the way to being eradicated, new Southern governments, led by ex-Confederates, quickly passed codes that controlled newly freed black citizens.

    Congressional Radical Republicans fought bitterly with Johnson over what they considered was a weak approach to post-war reform—including his vetoes within the Freedmen's Bureau and Civil Rights bills, and his efforts to convince the South not to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment (which permitted Black people citizenship). Johnson’s actions created so much tension between himself and Congress that the House of Representatives tried to impeach him, but their attempts failed. Johnson’s strained congressional relations put him at 42nd place.

  • #41. Franklin Pierce

    - 14th president (Served from: March 4, 1853–March 4, 1857)
    - Political party: Democratic
    - Overall C-SPAN score: 315
    --- Political persuasion score: 32.3 (#41 out of 43)
    --- Crisis leadership score: 26.9 (#41 out of 43)
    --- Economic management score: 36.6 (#41 out of 43)
    --- Moral authority score: 29.6 (#39 out of 43)
    --- International relations score: 37.5 (#40 out of 43)
    --- Administrative skills score: 36.7 (#39 out of 43)
    --- Congressional relations score: 36.6 (#40 out of 43)
    --- Vision/ability to set an agenda score: 27.5 (#41 out of 43)
    --- Pursued equal justice for all score: 22.6 (#42 out of 43)
    --- Performance within context of the times score: 28.8 (#41 out of 43)

    When Franklin Pierce became president, the country was experiencing relative peacefulness. But his desire to expand the nation annoyed Northerners, who thought he was acting in the interest of those who supported slavery. However, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was what was most likely the biggest issue to arise during Pierce’s presidency. The legislation established Kansas and Nebraska into territories, making them available for the building of settlements and railroads, while also reversing the prohibition of slavery in Kansas. Pierce’s support for this bill led Kansas, formerly a free state, to become a battlefield for pro- and anti-slavery citizens. Pierce received his low rating primarily for his failure to pursue equal justice in his neglect to resolve this civil rights issue.

  • #40. Warren G. Harding

    - 29th president (Served from: March 4, 1921–Aug. 2, 1923)
    - Political party: Republican
    - Overall C-SPAN score: 360
    --- Political persuasion score: 41.4 (#36 out of 43)
    --- Crisis leadership score: 32.1 (#39 out of 43)
    --- Economic management score: 40.6 (#35 out of 43)
    --- Moral authority score: 24.7 (#40 out of 43)
    --- International relations score: 42.1 (#37 out of 43)
    --- Administrative skills score: 32.5 (#42 out of 43)
    --- Congressional relations score: 43.8 (#34 out of 43)
    --- Vision/ability to set an agenda score: 32.8 (#40 out of 43)
    --- Pursued equal justice for all score: 37.0 (#33 out of 43)
    --- Performance within context of the times score: 33.2 (#40 out of 43)

    As a Republican president, Warren G. Harding cut taxes for the wealthy and for corporations, passed high protective tariffs, and restricted immigration. He also signed the Budget and Accounting Act, which integrated the federal budget system, and called for the General Accounting Office to analyze federal expenses.

    Harding’s presidency was also marred by scandal, particularly the Teapot Dome issue, in which Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall made a secret deal that allowed oil companies to tap the Teapot Dome oil reserve in Wyoming in exchange for monetary compensation, as well as other embezzlement-related scandals. However, Harding himself was never found to be tied to any of these dealings. It was Harding’s administrative skills that were most likely responsible for his ranking, as he hired untrustworthy officials who corrupted the executive branch.

  • #39. John Tyler

    - 10th president (Served from: April 4, 1841–March 4, 1845)
    - Political party: Independent
    - Overall C-SPAN score: 372
    --- Political persuasion score: 36.8 (#39 out of 43)
    --- Crisis leadership score: 40.1 (#36 out of 43)
    --- Economic management score: 37.7 (#39 out of 43)
    --- Moral authority score: 34.7 (#37 out of 43)
    --- International relations score: 50.9 (#28 out of 43)
    --- Administrative skills score: 40.6 (#38 out of 43)
    --- Congressional relations score: 31.0 (#41 out of 43)
    --- Vision/ability to set an agenda score: 37.5 (#37 out of 43)
    --- Pursued equal justice for all score: 24.1 (#41 out of 43)
    --- Performance within context of the times score: 38.9 (#36 out of 43)

    John Tyler was the first vice president to assume the presidency because of the death of his forerunner. In fact, he was nicknamed “His Accidency.” As he ran for office on the same ticket as William Henry Harrison, the Whig Party viewed him as representative of the common man, one who fought against the American Indians along with Harrison. Though he maintained Harrison’s Cabinet, he was against much of the Whigs’ legislative program, which led the party to disown and attempt to impeach him.

    Their efforts failed, and Tyler continued to carry out his agenda—which included legislation that allowed a citizen to purchase 160 acres of public land, solving a boundary conflict between the U.S. and British North American colonies, and annexing Texas, which joined the Union later the same year. Tyler placed 39th because of his failed pursuit of equal justice; he was later elected to the Confederate House of Representatives.

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  • #38. William Henry Harrison

    - 9th president (Served from: March 4, 1841–April 4, 1841)
    - Political party: Whig
    - Overall C-SPAN score: 383
    --- Political persuasion score: 47.6 (#28 out of 43)
    --- Crisis leadership score: 32.7 (#38 out of 43)
    --- Economic management score: 37.8 (#38 out of 43)
    --- Moral authority score: 46.9 (#31 out of 43)
    --- International relations score: 34.3 (#42 out of 43)
    --- Administrative skills score: 34.5 (#40 out of 43)
    --- Congressional relations score: 40.5 (#38 out of 43)
    --- Vision/ability to set an agenda score: 40.4 (#36 out of 43)
    --- Pursued equal justice for all score: 31.4 (#37 out of 43)
    --- Performance within context of the times score: 37.1 (#38 out of 43)

    William Henry Harrison passed away just 32 days into his presidency, so his accomplishments are limited. Leading up to his time in office, he served as governor of the Indiana territory, where he negotiated the U.S. acquisition of land with American Indian tribes. Negotiations were rocky, which led to war with the Indian confederacy—in which Harrison defeated Shawnee leader Tecumseh in the battle on the Tippecanoe River.

    Harrison served as commander of the Northwest army in the War of 1812. From there, the Whig Party nominated him in the 1840 election. He died of pneumonia after delivering an extremely long inaugural address, during which he did not wear a coat or hat. He gained his ranking due to his shoddy crisis leadership skills, according to CBS News, perhaps due in part to the fact that he left it to the states to deal with the issue of slavery, and believed that antislavery movements threatened states’ rights.

  • #37. Millard Fillmore

    - 13th president (Served from: July 9, 1850–March 4, 1853)
    - Political party: Whig
    - Overall C-SPAN score: 394
    --- Political persuasion score: 36.3 (#40 out of 43)
    --- Crisis leadership score: 42.4 (#34 out of 43)
    --- Economic management score: 40.8 (#34 out of 43)
    --- Moral authority score: 35.8 (#36 out of 43)
    --- International relations score: 48.2 (#34 out of 43)
    --- Administrative skills score: 42.9 (#36 out of 43)
    --- Congressional relations score: 43.1 (#36 out of 43)
    --- Vision/ability to set an agenda score: 37.1 (#39 out of 43)
    --- Pursued equal justice for all score: 28.6 (#39 out of 43)
    --- Performance within context of the times score: 38.4 (#37 out of 43)

    Millard Fillmore took office upon the death of Zachary Taylor. Leading up to his presidency, Fillmore had been supervising the debate surrounding the Compromise of 1850, made up of five laws that addressed the issue of slavery—California joined the Union as a free state, New Mexico joined as a territory, Washington D.C. saw the abolition of slavery, Utah gained a territorial government, and the Fugitive Slave Act made it so runaway slaves could legally be returned to their owners. Although Fillmore opposed slavery in his personal convictions, he believed the Compromise was a way of preserving the Union, and passed it to the disapproval of Northern states. He comes in 37th because of his pro-slavery legislation convictions.

  • #36. Herbert Hoover

    - 31st president (Served from: March 4, 1929–March 4, 1933)
    - Political party: Republican
    - Overall C-SPAN score: 416
    --- Political persuasion score: 37.0 (#38 out of 43)
    --- Crisis leadership score: 29.7 (#40 out of 43)
    --- Economic management score: 28.4 (#43 out of 43)
    --- Moral authority score: 48.0 (#29 out of 43)
    --- International relations score: 49.6 (#31 out of 43)
    --- Administrative skills score: 64.7 (#14 out of 43)
    --- Congressional relations score: 44.9 (#31 out of 43)
    --- Vision/ability to set an agenda score: 37.1 (#38 out of 43)
    --- Pursued equal justice for all score: 40.0 (#28 out of 43)
    --- Performance within context of the times score: 36.6 (#39 out of 43)

    Months into Herbert Hoover’s presidency, the infamous stock market crash of 1929 transpired, sparking the Great Depression. Many people lost their jobs and homes, and resorted to living in run-down communities that came to be known as Hoovervilles. Though the actions of previous presidents undoubtedly contributed to the crash, the American people largely blamed Hoover. While he did take some measures to try to stimulate the economy, he believed in limited federal involvement and for relief to be delivered on a local level—he even vetoed bills that would have eased some of the economic woes. It’s no surprise that Hoover’s economic management is at the crux of his 36th place.

  • #35. Chester A. Arthur

    - 21st president (Served from: Sept. 19, 1881–March 4, 1885)
    - Political party: Republican
    - Overall C-SPAN score: 446
    --- Political persuasion score: 41.3 (#37 out of 43)
    --- Crisis leadership score: 42.8 (#32 out of 43)
    --- Economic management score: 43.8 (#31 out of 43)
    --- Moral authority score: 44.2 (#35 out of 43)
    --- International relations score: 47.5 (#35 out of 43)
    --- Administrative skills score: 52.3 (#28 out of 43)
    --- Congressional relations score: 45.9 (#29 out of 43)
    --- Vision/ability to set an agenda score: 41.8 (#34 out of 43)
    --- Pursued equal justice for all score: 40.8 (#27 out of 43)
    --- Performance within context of the times score: 45.9 (#32 out of 43)

    Chester Arthur assumed the presidency upon the assassination of James Garfield. In office, he signed the Pendleton Civil Service Act into law, which created a bipartisan Civil Service Commission, declared that certain government jobs be appointed based on merit, and prevented government workers from being fired based on political reasons.

    Though he initially vetoed the Chinese Exclusion Act, Congress pulled rank and limited the ban on Chinese immigrants to 10 years, at which point Arthur passed the bill. It also excluded immigrants who were paupers, felons, or considered insane. Arthur’s placement at #35 is due mostly to his rating in the pursuit of equal justice—the first major immigration law was passed under his administration, and it excluded people based on race, financial status, and mental health.

  • #34. Martin Van Buren

    - 8th president (Served from: March 4, 1837–March 4, 1841)
    - Political party: Democratic
    - Overall C-SPAN score: 450
    --- Political persuasion score: 46.0 (#30 out of 43)
    --- Crisis leadership score: 41.1 (#35 out of 43)
    --- Economic management score: 37.1 (#40 out of 43)
    --- Moral authority score: 46.8 (#33 out of 43)
    --- International relations score: 51.0 (#26 out of 43)
    --- Administrative skills score: 55.1 (#26 out of 43)
    --- Congressional relations score: 47.9 (#28 out of 43)
    --- Vision/ability to set an agenda score: 41.8 (#33 out of 43)
    --- Pursued equal justice for all score: 38.9 (#30 out of 43)
    --- Performance within context of the times score: 44.5 (#33 out of 43)

    While Martin Van Buren was serving in the Senate leading up to the 1828 election, he spearheaded an oppositional party to John Quincy Adams: a coalition of Jackson-supporting Republicans that formed the basis of the Democratic party. Shortly into Van Buren’s stint as president, America was hit by financial upheaval, caused in part by the moving of federal funds from the then-obsolete Bank of the United States to state banks.

    To remedy this problem, Van Buren planned to create an independent treasury to deal with the funds that were moved to state banks, and to stop government expenses. But his plan sparked drawn-out debate and alienated conservative Democrats. Not surprisingly, Van Buren’s economic management is responsible for his low ranking. His upholding of Jackson’s economic policies did not help the country’s financial turmoil, and he blamed the state of the economy on American and foreign businesses and banks.

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