Ronald Reagan America’s Greatest President?

In a new Gallup poll, Americans rank Ronald Reagan as America's Greatest President.

A new Gallup Poll reports that Ronald Reagan is viewed as America’s greatest President:

Ahead of Presidents Day 2011, Americans are most likely to say Ronald Reagan was the nation’s greatest president — slightly ahead of Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton. Reagan, Lincoln, or John F. Kennedy has been at the top of this “greatest president” list each time this question has been asked in eight surveys over the last 12 years.

Presidents Day, celebrated on the third Monday of February each year, officially commemorates the Feb. 22 birthday of George Washington. The country’s first president is not regarded by Americans as the nation’s greatest president, however. Gallup’s Feb. 2-5 update shows that Washington comes in fifth on the list, behind Reagan, Lincoln, Clinton, and Kennedy.

In the eight times Gallup has asked this same “greatest president” question over the last 12 years, one of three presidents — Lincoln, Reagan, and Kennedy — has topped the list each time. Reagan was the top vote getter in 2001, 2005, and now 2011. Lincoln won in 1999, in two 2003 surveys, and in 2007. Kennedy was on top in 2000, and tied with Lincoln in November 2003.

Americans as a group have a propensity to mention recent presidents, not surprising given that the average American constantly hears about and from presidents in office during their lifetime, and comparatively little about historical presidents long dead. Four of the five most recent presidents are in the top 10 greatest presidents list this year — Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, and Reagan

Here’s the list:

Not surprisingly, there are some serious disagreements when you break this down on ideological grounds:

Moreover, as Gallup admits, the polling methodology makes it more likely that recent Presidents would be at the top of the list:

This “greatest president” question is open-ended, meaning that respondents are asked to name a president off the top of their head. This type of measurement tends to increase the mention of recent presidents. Democrats, for example, are most likely to name Clinton — the most recent Democratic president not currently in office — as greatest. Republicans, in slightly different fashion, tend to skip over the two most recent Republican presidents, the two Bushes, and instead are most likely to choose Reagan.

Additionally, this poll was conducted between February 2nd and February 5th, just when the press coverage of Ronald Reagan’s centenary hit its apex. No doubt, that influenced the choices that many people made.

As for the general question itself, my centennial post on Ronald Reagan summed up my feelings about the man:

For me, Ronald Reagan was an inspiration and he was exactly the President America needed at the time he came along. He wasn’t perfect, though, and that was apparent to me even at the time he was in office. Mindless hagiography that ignores those flaws is as useless as the mindless detractors who ignore the undeniably good things about the Reagan era. Moreover, deifying Ronald Reagan ignores the fact that was, like all of us, a man and all men have their flaws. Rather than ignoring them or exaggerating them, acknowledging them gives us a more complete picture of a man who, in many ways, was the exemplar of the journey that America took in the 20th Century.

So, while I’d put Reagan on my own list of great Presidents and consider him to be the greatest President of my lifetime, I don’t think he was the greatest President we’ve ever had.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, US Politics, , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. PD Shaw says:

    I want a recount.

  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    I guess this shows exactly what these nonsense polls are worth. Reagan out ranks Washington, Lincoln and FDR. Yeah right.

  3. Dale says:

    81% in Poll View Reagan as Not the Greatest President

  4. Ben Wolf says:

    Sad that a terrorist-enabling debt-humper like Reagan even made it into the Top ten.

  5. Tony says:

    Ridiculous, loaded poll. Any poll like this suffers massively from the fact that the public’s collective abilities of recall are rubbish. Not something limited to the USA, incidentally. A recent poll ranking post-war British Prime Ministers had Harold Wilson beating Clement Attlee (generally seen by political obsessives and academics as vying with Mrs Thatcher for the top spot) and John Major beating Harold Macmillan.

  6. Tony says:

    Incidentally, in any poll of post-war presidents, Eisenhower and Bush 41 are both chronically under-rated. Nixon is also under-rated. Yeah, there was Watergate. But if people can still bring themselves to beat off over Andrew bloody Jackson, I don’t see why Nixon should be permanently consigned to the dog house.

  7. sam says:

    Any poll that puts Reagan ahead of Lincoln is suspect in the extreme.

  8. PJ says:

    Gallup: “Tax raiser is viewed as America’s greatest President.”

    Did Lincoln raise taxes?

  9. Neil Hudelson says:

    It’s sad that not just Reagan made #1, but that Clinton and Kennedy ranked in the top 5 as well.

    in that order.

  10. wr says:

    Of course Reagan is better than Lincoln. How many Central American peasants did Lincoln have tortured and murdered? It’s not even close!

  11. michael reynolds says:

    Americans are idiots. Reagan and Clinton and Kennedy outrank George Freaking Washington? What?

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    I have never seen a stronger indictment of the media and the educational system. Words fail me.

  13. floyd says:

    “Americans are idiots”
    And THIS is what it took to convince you??[LOL]

  14. Have A Nice G.A. says:

    I guess that the Republicans understand history and it’s significance the best.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    “I guess that the Republicans understand history and it’s significance the best.”

    Not really, considering that top five…

  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    Reagan is the one man most directly responsible for the deficits Republicans now claim will destroy us. It was Reagan who sold this country on government you don’t have to pay for.

    A great president? No.

  17. ponce says:

    Haha, is that W. at #5 on the Republican’s list?

  18. Jim says:

    Obummer made the list? You got to be kidding! Carter made the list? Actually, obummer should be dead last… as for Reagan, he was the greatest of my time (I am 53 years old) but to list him ahead of Washington and Lincoln… I don’t think so… Clinton, near the top of the list? Who put this list together anyway?

  19. michael reynolds says:

    This has been eating at me since I read it. I mean, I knew people were ignorant. I knew a substantial portion were just stupid. But sweet Jesus, how is this possible?

    Abraham Lincoln edges Bill Clinton by one point? I love Bill Clinton, but Clinton wouldn’t for a second pretend he was within a point of Abraham Lincoln. On the one hand, Clinton balanced the budget. On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln fought this nation’s deadliest war, saved the union, freed the slaves and by the way, was an amazing writer. He redefined who we are. And he’s beat by 5 points by a genial dishonest windbag like Reagan?

  20. Franklin says:

    I’d always kind of assumed that everybody always said Lincoln; I didn’t realize there was significant disparity in the answer. But as usual, it appears that Independents are the only ones with something resembling brains.

  21. matt says:

    The office of the presidency was invented for Washington and he defined the office through his actions. I STRONGLY suggest y’all brush up a little on George Washington. If nothing else just read through the Wikipedia article on him and I guarantee you will quickly realize why he deserves the number one spot. No other president has so defined this nation and the office..

  22. Tony says:

    Perhaps the greatest thing about Washington (and I don’t mean this in a negative way) is very simply the fact that he knew when to back up his bags and bugger off.

    See also: Nelson Mandela.

  23. muffler says:

    First: It’s a Gallup poll.. DISCOUNT! They do this poll every year so why does it change all the time? DISCOUNT The timing of this poll around the Wisconsin unrest and the budget battle is too well placed DISCOUNT! DISCOUNT!

  24. Tlaloc says:

    “So, while I’d put Reagan on my own list of great Presidents and consider him to be the greatest President of my lifetime”

    What’s a little selling arms to our enemies in order to illegal fund nun rapers among friends, eh?

    As for Lincoln, we wouldn’t be in many of our current messes if he’d just let the damn south go. We had one great chance to rid ourselves of that cesspool and he decided to not only refuse but waste hundreds of thousands of lives forcing them to stay? Yeah thanks, Abe, I’m so glad you fought to keep the bigots and Nascar fan ancestors in the union.


  25. matt says:

    Tony : That too is my favorite thing about him. It’s quite impressive the amount of times he walked away from great power..

  26. matt says:

    I’m a nascar fan why all the hate? 🙁

    Since Nascar has trimmed most of their road courses I’m a lot less of a fan…

  27. Sarge says:

    We will have to let time tell if Obama is number 1 but I suspect he is.I think he will face more problems then any other and respond accordingly.