WHEN BARACK OBAMA is inaugurated as US president for the second time tomorrow, he knows that, without the option of a third term of office, the only polls he has to worry about in the future are those conducted among US historians which will determine his ranking among the presidents.
Ranking the presidents and separating the truly great and the truly bad from the rest is a game which US historians play compulsively. It began in 1948 when Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr, of Harvard University, asked fifty-five authorities to rate the presidents and then published a compilation of the results. He repeated the exercise in 1962, and there have been many further polls since then.
The ratings are remarkably consistent across all polls. Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Washington are generally regarded as the three greatest presidents, and usually in that order. Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson and Truman are the next highly regarded in most polls. It then gets more problematic, but with seven other presidents – John Adams, Madison, Jackson, Polk, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan – polling strongly.
At the other end of the scale, most polls agree that Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Harding were the worst presidents. Others who fare badly are Grant, Coolidge, Hoover, Nixon, Carter, George W. Bush and a quartet of long-forgotten pre-Civil War presidents – Tyler, Taylor, Fillmore and Pierce. Two presidents – William H. Harrison and Garfield – are normally not included in the polls because neither served for a sufficiently long period, both dying in office.
Grant, Lyndon Johnson and Nixon are probably the most difficult presidents to rate because their records comprise great achievements and great disasters. Grant’s reputation is redeemed by his success as the general who won the Civil War, while Lyndon Johnson’s positive legacy in the area of civil rights legislation tips the balance in his favour. On the other hand, Nixon’s ignominy in being the only president driven from office – because of Watergate and the cover-up that followed – outweighs his substantial foreign policy achievements.
‘The needs of the time must be exceptional’
What makes an American president great? He must at least be transformative: he must make a difference for the better. He should also be a skilled orator. Leadership requires inspiring rhetoric, and we remember some presidents – Jefferson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Kennedy and Reagan – for their words as much as for their deeds. One more thing is required.
Barack and Michelle Obama on the day of his inauguration on 20 January 2009 (AP Photo/Doug Mills)
The needs of the time must be exceptional, and those needs and the skills of the man in office must be well matched. Lincoln’s greatness cannot be divorced from the ordeal of the Civil War, and Franklin Roosevelt had to steer his country through the aftermath of the Great Depression and then through the Second World War. Likewise, Washington had led the American Revolution and it fell to him to define the office of the presidency as the first incumbent. All three had the qualities required to respond to extraordinary challenges which were particular to their times, but without those challenges they would not have had the opportunity for real greatness. Few presidents get that opportunity.
Conversely, many of the weakest presidents are adjudged failures precisely because they did not rise to the challenges of their times. Buchanan and others in the years before the Civil War are examples of that. They failed to defuse the issues that led to the Civil War. A more recent example is George W. Bush who bungled the response to 9/11 and then mishandled the crisis in the US banking system – and we are still living with the consequences.
Ranking the presidents may seem a pointless task, which contributes little to the main purpose of studying history – namely, to explore what actually happened in the past, why it happened and why it had the effects that it had. It is, nevertheless, a fascinating exercise which helps stimulate interest in history and reminds us not to underestimate the impact of an individual in shaping events. It may also tell us something about the contemporary world – for, in the words of President Kennedy spoken at Amherst College just a few weeks before his assassination, ‘a nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honours, the men it remembers’.
Felix M Larkin is academic director of the 2013 Parnell Summer School, the theme of which is ‘Parnell & Kennedy: Lost Leaders’ (to be held at Parnell’s ancestral home, Avondale, Co. Wicklow, 11–16 August 2013).