Historians: Obama Better Than Reagan!

A survey of historians ranks Obama as the 15th best president ever, ahead of Ronald Reagan and behind Bill Clinton.

A survey of  historians ranks Obama as the 15th best president ever, ahead of Ronald Reagan and behind Bill Clinton.

The Siena College poll, which surveyed 238 presidential scholars at U.S. colleges and universities, asked scholars to rate the nation’s 43 chief executives on 20 attributes ranging from legislative accomplishments to integrity and imagination.

In the overall ranking, Obama rated two places below Clinton, who was 13th best, and three better than Reagan, who is ranked as the 18th best.

Franklin D. Roosevelt again earned the top spot, as he has every time since the poll was first conducted in 1982. He and the Mount Rushmore presidents — Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — have consistently been the top five presidents in the poll’s findings.

While I’d quibble with the relative rankings, I agree those five are probably the top five.  I’d rank Reagan in the next five — certainly, above 18!  And I just don’t think it’s meaningful to rank Obama, who’s only 17 months into his term and barely gotten his feet wet.

But how are they being ranked, anyway?

While he ranked high on traits like imagination (6th), communication ability (7th) and intelligence (8th), Obama rated poorly ratings on background (32nd), which was composed of traits like family, education and experience.

Background?! That’s a reasonable enough factor in weighing a prospective president, although I’m dubious of including family history.  But shouldn’t we judge presidents based on how they perform in office, not who they were when they arrived?

Lonnstrom said the main factor that gives a president a top-five or top-10 ranking is his accomplishments — and an all-around high ranking in most categories.

You’d think this would be, by far, the most significant factor.

FDR, for example, ranks in the top 10 for every category except integrity, he said.

You’d think that would cost him a bit, especially when he’s up against George Washington and Abe Lincoln.

“The experts really are looking for consistency, a president who is looking good across most of these categories,” he said.

Kinda like a dog show?

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, was ranked at number 23 in 2002 — the last time Siena’s presidential expert poll was conducted — but has since dropped to number 39, qualifying him as one of the five worst presidents. Bush came in at number 42 — second to last — on issues such as handling the U.S. economy, foreign policy accomplishments and intelligence. (Warren G. Harding was rated the least intelligent president).

Bush joins Harding, Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce, all of whom have consistently ranked as the worst presidents since the poll started, in the bottom five.

Bush’s ranking is absurdly low considering how many of our pre-20th Century presidents accomplished nothing.   The presidency is simply a much more daunting task now than it was before America became a global superpower and the federal government’s power exploded.    Bush will never be considered a great president but I think he’ll rise into the ranks of the mediocrities given the advantage of hindsight.

Several other presidents also saw movement in their ratings this year. Bill Clinton moved up five places, from No. 18 in 2002 to No. 13 today; John F. Kennedy also moved up, from No. 14 to No. 11.

Carter, Reagan and Nixon all dropped in the rankings this year — Carter dropped seven spots, from No. 25 in 2002 to No. 32 now; Reagan dropped two spots, from No. 16 to No. 18; and Nixon fell four spots, from No. 26 to No. 30.

This makes no sense at all.   One could see some fluctuation in the opinions of our most recent presidents given perspective and new insights from the release of documents.
Presumably, Clinton looks better in hindsight now since the stink of the Lewinsky scandal has abated somewhat and he’s been a good ex-president.

But how does Carter drop seven spots?!  He was president when I was a kid and I thought a pretty poor one.  So, the 25 in 2002 was rather high.  But all he’s done since then is win the Nobel Peace Prize and write another couple books.  And that causes his stock to plummet?

At any rate, the toplines are available at Sienna’s website here.  Here’s the top ten list for all five iterations of the poll:

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Kinda like a dog show?”

    ……Since you didn’t like the results of the poll Jim I suppose this is a snarky way of dissing it. In fact to be a successful. president DOES require a formidable mix of talent, character and luck and this Siena poll does a good job of addressing all the relevant criteria. I agree it’s way too early to put Obama in the mix but I wouldn’t disagree with their ranking of Reagan as in the middle somewhere. Apart from those WSJ rigged polls this is where he usually appears in all these polls of historians. An interesting feature of this poll is a column where the actual result based on the the criteria is compared with the intuitive reaction of those polled where Lincoln emerges as 1 but after weighing all the “dog show” factors FDR pips him. I’ve always personally found it a tough call between the two of them. The other interesting feature of this poll is the continuing strength of TR and the relative strength of Eisenhower who is certainly the best postwar Republican president. Taking your point about the increasing complexity of the world I’m surprised Truman doesn’t do rather better than 9th I think although interestingly the intuitive rating was 6. Truman is probably the second or third greatest president of the 20th Century. As for Bush, I’d say accomplishing nothing represents is a considerable advance on creating some of the worst economic and foreign policy debacles in US history. Primum non nocere?

  2. Dantheman says:

    “Bush’s ranking is absurdly low considering how many of our pre-20th Century presidents accomplished nothing.”

    Umm, no. A series of negative accomplishments is far worse than no accomplishments at all.

  3. MarkedMan says:

    Prediction: Bush will eventually be primarily remembered as the torture president. In popular opinion he will be dead last. Roosevelt escaped being known as the concentration camp president because he led us through a fabulously successful war campaign, so his internment of Japanese-American citizens in concentration camps is viewed as a negative which was balanced by a lot of positives. But Bush has no successes to provide balance. His tenure in office is defined by the fact that he panicked over a terrorist attack and threw everything decent America stands for on the ground and trampled it. The fact that he truly seemed to believe this extremely ugly and violent terrorist group posed a threat to the very existence of the United States will not pass the next generation’s laugh test. And the budget breaking Iraq war as bad for our standing and influence as Vietnam, and Bush owns that war entirely. Vietnam sullied both Johnson’s and Nixon’s reputation, but throw Kennedy into the mix and the blame was too diluted to totally cover any one president. Iraq is 100% Bush’s war.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    I’m not sure why an historian would place Teddy Roosevelt in the top five, let alone second. I’d probably say (1) Washington, (2) Lincoln, (3) FDR, (4) Jefferson and (5) either Truman or Eisenhower.

    The inclusion of James Madison on so many of these lists suggests that pre-Presidential events are being considered.

    A few of these Presidents are so important, yet deeply flawed that they should not appear in the top 10: Jackson, Polk and Wilson in particular.

  5. G.A.Phillips says:

    I wonder how many times the names Stalin and Mao instantly came to the minds of the people who answered this Poll
    ..lol….

    Top three, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan…

    Bottom three,, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Barrack Obama.

    But it does appear that Obama may yet be the worst, I will give him to the end of his first term before stating the obvious and giving him Wilson’s place…

  6. What I’m wondering is how William Henry Harrison ended up at # 35 on this list considering he was only President for a month and bedridden for most of that time.

    As for myself, my own list would go something like this:

    Top 5

    1. Washington
    2. Jefferson
    3. Lincoln
    4. Grover Cleveland
    5. Calvin Coolidge

    Bottom 5:

    1. James Buchanan
    2. Andrew Johnson
    3. Richard Nixon
    4. Woodrow Wilson
    5. George W. Bush

    Let the arrows fly

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    I think the problem I have is in the fine points of this guy was 1% better than that guy. I think about the best you can do with these rankings is to divide them into maybe five batches: Pretty good, Meh, and Pretty Bad. Then two smaller categories: Damn Good and Sucked. Like a bell curve, where the bulge is Meh and the tail ends are just a few spectacularly good or spectacularly bad presidents,

    Although historians may want to clean up those category titles.

    I think GW Bush ‘s best hope is to somehow climb out of the “Sucked” category, and his best chance of that is for us to have a few more really awful presidents in the future. I’m at a loss as to his accomplishments, but his failures are pretty easy to name.

    It’s absurd to have Obama in the list at all. How do you weigh 18 months against 8 years or against a 4 term president who was handed both a depression and a world war?

    I’d put Reagan into the “pretty good” category, along with Bill Clinton.

  8. Michael,

    It’s absurd to have Obama in the list at all. How do you weigh 18 months against 8 years or against a 4 term president who was handed both a depression and a world war?

    Obviously, anyone who puts Obama in either of the lists at this point does so for ideological reasons.

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    Doug:

    Harrison died before he could f–k anything up. That’s so much better than Nixon or GW Bush or Buchanan. Look at it this way: wouldn’t we all be better off today if W or Nixon had spent a month in bed rather than 8 years in the WH?

  10. Michael,

    Point taken.

  11. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***Obviously, anyone who puts Obama in either of the lists at this point does so for ideological reasons.**** hahaha dude were have you been the last year and half. plus he was a senator who was part of the liberal job, liberty, baby, car,power,gulf,energy, old people,earnings and citizen education killing machine for two…..

    4. Woodrow Wilson
    5. George W. Bush

    Then your going to put Bush last with a ****ing progressive racist in front of him.

    Damn dude, unbelievable…

  12. I should have noted that the list started out with the person at # 1 being the absolute worst so, in that sense I’m actually saying that Bush was less worse, in my opinion, than Wilson.

  13. PD Shaw says:

    William Henry Harrison is under-appreciated. He had the popularity, the legislative support and the ideological fitness to forge a national Whig party that would have posed a challenge to increasing sectionalism. Just by being elected he put a temporary halt to the Democratic Party spoils system put in place by Van Buren. Prior to being elected he was a national war hero and as governor and representative of the Old Northwest territory, he crafted the land legislation for the area’s development. He was one of the first U.S. trade ambassadors to South America. That his Presidency was to be an ambitious revitalization of the Republic was demonstrated by the lengthy inaugural address that killed him.

    It seems to me that if you are going to rate Madison high, who was not a great President, but in the words of Andrew Jackson, “a great civilian,” Harrison deserves a similar assessment in terms of intellect, character and integrity.

  14. fndclark says:

    Ain’t it amazin that a bunch of acedemics would rate FDR as America’s greatest president!?
    Having done so, how could they not count his post mortem protege’ as second best ever?
    Without a statist bent, how could most of these “historians” survive?
    Publish?[lol]

  15. fndclark says:

    It seems odd that we ask the same people who write the history to rate its principals
    Historians are mostly the “PR” men of the past, promoting their bias with little regard for the truth. Please note… I said truth , not facts.
    The judgement is “built-in” when the history is written.

  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    These lists are always interesting for what they tell you about the Democratic and Republican Zeitgeist. It has to be said that Republicans seem to be losing all sense of qualitative judgement. Let’s forget the Democratic boogymen and just focus on Republican presidents. When you see folks who are clearly of a Repubican bent elevating Coolidge and Reagan above Eisenhower and TR the eyes have to roll. And of course the messengers (in this case academic historians and not the media) remain the villains distorting “truth” to promote their personal agendas.

  17. John P. (Tupelo) says:

    I didn’t see Taft on the list so “awesome” must not have been a rankable category. President, then Chief Justice? The man got stuck in a bathtub and if that’s a myth I don’t want to know the truth.

    I bet if you sat in a chair after he had just gotten up from it, it would have been really warm..

  18. TangoMan says:

    It’s absurd to have Obama in the list at all. How do you weigh 18 months against 8 years or against a 4 term president who was handed both a depression and a world war?

    Hey, if the Nobel Committee can judge Obama on his first 2 days in office and deem his Presidential accomplishments to be sufficient to win a Nobel Peace Prize then I’m sure that a committee similarly comprised of partisan leftist hacks drawn from the ranks of historians can proclaim Obama to have stopped the rise of the oceans within his first 18 months of office, thus making him the greatest president evah.

  19. steve says:

    I think Reagan would/should have been a top ten when he left office. Now that we have seen the unintended consequences of his Afghanistan policy and his “starve the beast” economic plan, he definitely goes back to upper middle. Obama is too early to rate. Bush too for that matter, though I suspect he is a bottom ten if you look at how he left the economy. His foreign policy outside of Iraq and Afghanistan was not all that bad, but he sorely mishandled those two for a long time.

    Steve

  20. When you see folks who are clearly of a Repubican bent elevating Coolidge and Reagan above Eisenhower and TR the eyes have to roll.

    Why ?

    Coolidge and Eisenhower were President’s who recognizes the limitations that the Constitution places on the Presidency and choose to recognize them. TR was a blowhard with a bully pulpit who left office upset that there wasn’t a war he could get the US involved in to make him famous.

    Given the choice, I’d rather have more Ike’s and Calvin’s and far fewer TR’s

    As for Reagan, he’s definitely in my top ten.

  21. An Interested Party says:

    “Bush will never be considered a great president but I think he’ll rise into the ranks of the mediocrities given the advantage of hindsight.”

    Well, there’s something to aspire to…

    These lists are good, if for no other reason, in that they allow for all the usual suspects to foam at the mouth over the fact that FDR is constantly rated so highly…the little WW II thing, no big deal…

  22. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***I should have noted that the list started out with the person at # 1 being the absolute worst so, in that sense I’m actually saying that Bush was less worse, in my opinion, than Wilson.***

    I should have noted that last means the bottom 5 and you have a man who freed 50 million slaves, Bush, in with a man who was a progressive racist and Nazi role model, Wilson…..

  23. […] James Joyner: “Kinda like a dog show?” […]

  24. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***Ain’t it amazing that a bunch of academics would rate FDR as America’s greatest president!?***Not anymore……

    Anyone that has a collage degree and doesn’t understand that washington and lincoln were the greatest presidents this country will ever know, LOL, and this also goes for those who have finished first grade.

    the system has failed you.

  25. I consider Lincoln one of the worst presidents actually. Yes, he won the civil war. But if he’d actually been a great president, the war probably wouldn’t have been necessary. And in the process of winning the civil war he did massive damage to the constitutional structure of our government.

    Every western nation got rid of slavery. We were the only one that had to kill a million people and burn down several major cities to do it.

  26. An Interested Party says:

    “But if he’d actually been a great president, the war probably wouldn’t have been necessary.”

    Really? How can that be, considering that seven Southern states declared their secession from the Union even before Lincoln took office? The war wouldn’t have been necessary to bring them back into the Union?

    “Every western nation got rid of slavery. We were the only one that had to kill a million people and burn down several major cities to do it.”

    And that is Lincoln’s fault? If there had been no Civil War, how long would it have been from 1860 until the South finally got rid of that insidious practice? 5 years? 50 years? Even longer?

  27. TangoMan says:

    Really? How can that be, considering that seven Southern states declared their secession from the Union even before Lincoln took office? The war wouldn’t have been necessary to bring them back into the Union?

    He could have exercised soft power instead of hard power. He could have had a summit and bowed before Confederate President Jefferson Davis, he could have sent inspectors of some sort into the Confederacy, he could have marshaled world opinion against the Confederacy, he could have held summits on the issue, he could have had reports written about the issue, he could have shuffled Davis into the side door of the White House for a head of state meeting thus denying Davis the honor of having his photo taken with Lincoln. Soft power is the way to go, ask President Obama.

  28. Wyatt Earp says:

    Can we please just stop with the “Bush is the worst president ever” nonsense? He’s not, and probably not in the bottom five. Buchanan did nothing to stop the oncoming Civil War. Jimmy Carter led us into massive inflation, an energy crisis, and a 444-day Iranian hostage crisis.

    Harding was beset by scandals and corruption. Garfield held the office for six months – and did nothing while there – before being assassinated by Guiteau.

    John Tyler spent his tenure warring with his own party and vetoing most of the bills that came his way. Andrew Johnson was impeached for cripes’ sake!

    Franklin Pierce paved the way for the expansion of slavery in the West, and Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act – despicable legislation.

    If you want to put Bush in the bottom third, be my guest, but worst ever? Please.

    As for Obama, you can’t possibly rank the man until he served his first term. After that, rank away!

  29. Brummagem Joe says:

    Doug Mataconis says:

    “Why ?”

    Doug, for some reason you slipped Eisenhower (who I rate highly) in there after you’d previously chosen to disregard him and elevate Coolidge into your top five which is as preposterous as someone else putting Reagan in the top three. Coolidge is one of those presidents who accomplished nothing (which is not necessarily bad) but he presided over a)the slide into isolationism which along with Vietnam I would regard as one of the two major US foreign policy blunders of the 20th century and b) the genesis of the biggest economic catastrophe in the nation’s history. Apart from that he was huge success.

  30. Brummagem Joe says:

    Wyatt Earp says:
    Saturday, July 3, 2010 at 00:50
    “Can we please just stop with the “Bush is the worst president ever” nonsense? He’s not, and probably not in the bottom five. Buchanan did nothing to stop the oncoming Civil War. Jimmy Carter led us into massive inflation, an energy crisis, and a 444-day Iranian hostage crisis.”

    Carter’s presidency was a failure but he looks good by comparison with Bush who was author of his own misfortunes whereas Carter was largely a victim of circumstances. The inflation had little to do with him and was a product of the policies of Johnson and Nixon and the explosion in oil prices, and he appointed the guy Volcker who ultimately fixed it. He was essentially powerless in hostage crisis and they all came home in one piece. He mishandled the energy crisis somewhat but even that was largely driven externally. I’d agree that Bush is not the worst but he’s definitely in the bottom five.

  31. wr says:

    Wyatt Earp — I realize it’s now a right-wing article of faith that Jimmy Carter was responsible for everything that went wrong in the 70s — soon we’ll hear Beck explain how it was Carter who pulled US troops out of Vietnam — but I lived through that decade, and Carter didn’t invent inflation. It was a problem that plagued his predecessor as well, although Ford came up with a snazzier solution — handing out “WIN” (whip inflation now”) buttons to the populace.

    As for the Iranian hostage crisis, yes Carter did not resolve it. But he was inheriting the fruits of years of American foreign policy. The reason there was an Iranian revolution was because the CIA had toppled that country’s democratically elected, but not sufficiently oil company friendly, president and installed a dictator as cruel and vicious as Saddam.

  32. The war wouldn’t have been necessary to bring them back into the Union?

    And why must they have been brought back into the Union? Everything had more or less died down on its own by April 1865. Four of the states and three of the territories that eventually made up the Confederacy hadn’t even seceded. The seven states that had seceded weren’t threatening to attack the rest of the country. There was no reason, other than Lincoln’s bruised sense of honor, to start a war at that point.

  33. By April 1861, I mean

  34. An Interested Party says:

    So it’s just fine for states to leave the Union, if they so desire? Last time I checked, we lived in one country, not a confederation of states…

  35. “So it’s just fine for states to leave the Union, if they so desire?”

    Yes.

  36. An Interested Party says:

    Well, it’s a good thing Lincoln didn’t think like you, otherwise, we would probably be in a very different place right now…