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The top US presidents: First poll of UK experts

17 January 11 09:59
By Iwan Morgan
Professor of US Studies, Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London

Franklin D Roosevelt has topped the first ever UK academic poll rating the performance of 40 US presidents since George Washington.

Barack Obama was not included in the survey, but interim assessments indicate that he would have made the top 10 of the rankings. George W Bush was in 31st place, putting him in the bottom 10.

In 1960, US political scientist Richard Neustadt began his seminal book Presidential Power with the observation: "In the United States we like to 'rate' a President. We measure him as 'weak' or 'strong' and call what we are measuring his 'leadership'."

In the half century since then, systematic presidential rating has become a regular exercise for US scholars. Over the same period, study and research of US history and politics expanded dramatically in UK universities. Until now, however, there has been no UK poll of US presidents.

The new survey was conducted before the 2010 mid-term elections by the United States Presidency Centre of the Institute for the Study of the Americas (part of the University of London's School of Advanced Study).

In total, 47 British academics specialising in American history and politics took part. They were asked to rate the performance of every president from 1789 to 2009 (excluding William Henry Harrison and James Garfield, who both died shortly after taking office) in five categories:

Participants were required to score the presidents in each equally-weighted category from one ("not effective") to 10 ("very effective"). Results were then were tabulated by averaging all the responses in a given category for each president.

Franklin D Roosevelt (1933-45) came first in three categories: vision/agenda-setting; domestic leadership; and foreign policy leadership. George Washington (1789-97) came first for moral authority, and Abraham Lincoln (1861-65) did so for the positive significance of his legacy.

Only one president who has held office since 1960 - Ronald Reagan (1981-89) - made the overall top 10, in eighth position.

However, George W Bush (2001-09), in 31st position, was the lowest-rated president of any who has held office since the scandal-hit Warren Harding (1921-23), 38th.

Other than Harding, the bottom-rated five presidents held office just before and just after the Civil War (1861-65).

British differences

US polls habitually place Lincoln first because of his achievements as Civil War leader in restoring the Union and ending slavery. In addition, they often put Washington second because of his significance in establishing the authority of the presidency.

UK scholars, by contrast, elevated FDR in recognition of the breadth of the challenges he faced as president during the Great Depression and World War II, his confident and inspirational leadership in both of these crises, and the significance of his New Deal legacy.

It is also likely that Roosevelt's stock rose because the poll was conducted against the background of the worst economic troubles since the 1930s.

Lincoln was a close second overall. His achievement is further highlighted by the presence of very low-rated presidents before and after him (as in US polls).

Clearly, the US was fortunate to have a president with his skill, vision and humanity to fulfil the leadership potential of the office at America's moment of greatest crisis.

There are also significant differences between US and UK rankings of individual presidents outside the top three.

The most notable case is that of John F Kennedy (1961-63), ranked as high as sixth in some recent US surveys but only 15th in the UK poll. UK academics seemingly faulted JFK for the gap between his rhetoric and his substantive achievements as president.

Bill Clinton (1993-2001), who held a top 15 slot in one US poll slipped to 19th in the UK survey - mainly because of a very low rating for moral authority but also because his legacy, particularly his economic achievement, looks less robust 10 years on.

One of the criticisms often levelled against US presidential surveys is that the participants are driven by liberal bias to give high ratings to presidents who expanded the role of national government.

At first sight, the UK survey looks to have a similar leaning.

FDR, the architect of the modern state, is ranked first. The early 20th Century Progressive presidents, Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) and Woodrow Wilson (1913-21), are placed fifth and sixth, while FDR's liberal successors, Harry Truman (1945-53) and Lyndon Johnson (1963-69), come seventh and 11th respectively (the latter would have been placed much higher in recognition of his civil rights achievement but for the corrosive effect of Vietnam).

However, the UK survey also places some small government advocates higher than in some recent US polls. Thomas Jefferson (1801-09) was ranked fourth, Ronald Reagan was eighth, and Andrew Jackson (1829-37) was ninth (compared with their 2009 C-Span survey rankings of 7th, 10th, and 13th).

Difficult job

No less than their US counterparts, the views of UK scholars are influenced by their own times.

The passions of the present may well have affected the low position of George W Bush, and Barack Obama's high interim score, which would have placed him eighth overall if he had been included in the poll.

Memories are still raw regarding Bush's Iraq war policy and his perceived expansion of the "imperial presidency", but his bottom 10 placing arguably underestimates the strength of his vision/agenda setting and his success in achieving his domestic objectives.

Obama's score reflects his substantive legislative achievements and his symbolic importance as the first African American president. Nevertheless, it is well to note with regard to his ultimate (rather than interim) rating that no president in the UK survey top 10 failed to win re-election to a second term.

An important similarity between the UK survey and US ones stands out in terms of rating recent and early presidents.

Of the five presidents from 1977 to 2009, only Reagan makes the top 10 and none of the others is in the top 15.

In contrast, of the five presidents who held office from 1789 to 1825, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were in the top five and the other three made the top 15 - John Adams (1797-1801) in 12th position, James Monroe (1817-25) 13th, and James Madison (1809-17) 14th.

It might be concluded, therefore, that the early Republic possessed superior political leaders - but the more likely explanation for the discrepancy lies elsewhere.

The massive political, organisational and policy challenges of the modern presidency make it a far more difficult job than in the past. Our expectations as to what recent presidents could achieve may well be unrealistic when set against the many obstacles that inhibit their success.

A selection of your comments:

To exclude Lyndon Johnson from the top eight US Presidents is a grave error. While the Vietnam War escalation is an indelible stain on his record, LBJ, more than any other Presidents with the exception of FDR, transformed America domestically. Medicare and Medicaid, which are the closest we have to National Health Care, the Civil Rights act,Voting Rights act, the appointment of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American on the Supreme court. These efforts, led and enshrined in law beause of LBJ's extraordinary abilities, transformed America in the sixties, and despite the Reagan counter revolution, we have not looked back.

Howard Dean, Burlington, Vermont, USA

FDR encountered huge resistance to his program all the way up to Pearl Harbor, and his New Deal was received only with a mix of gratitude and suspicion in his own day. Given his unusually long tenure, it is surprising that the economy really did not revive until the war. In addition, he simply could not convince the nation to join one of the most significant wars in Western history. Then he gave away Eastern Europe at Yalta. Polio or no, he hardly deserves to be remembered among the top five US presidents.

Jim, Baltimore, USA

Jackson and Washington weren't as high on the English rankings because they destroyed the so called "British Empire" and caused the controllers to become controlled.

Tyler Durden, Gotham City, USA

I wholeheartedly concur with Franklin Delano Roosevelt's position as the most prominent US President. He delivered to the United States a way out of the Great Depression when his opponents offered nothing more than what had got the economy into trouble in the first place. Thus he ensured that the US had the wherewithal to be the economic and industrial power to become the saviour of the western liberal democracies. In short, no FDR no Western world.

Bob Cains, Perth, Western Australia

Not a mention of Kennedy - someone who defied the CIA and the military, set out a plan to put US astronauts on the moon by the end of the decade and appealed to the young protest generation that sprang up in opposition to LBJ's efforts to prosecute the war in Vietnam? Not a word about the visionary who tasked Americans to ask "not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"? The fact that his life was cut short by conspirators should be no reason to ignore him in this vote.

Paul Miazga, Kyiv, Ukraine

This study from the UK's perspective is pretty interesting. Presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter are commonly taught in the states to have been rather ineffective leaders. While their agendas are seen as positive their accomplishments are taught in schools to have fallen very short. JFK on the other hand is idolized as a hero of the people.

Jared Bliss, Kingston, New York

I believe Woodrow Wilson, president during WW1, should also be listed at the bottom. He should have kept the US out of WW1. And he was willing to sacrifice everything at the end of WW1 to bring about the League of Nations - which was an ineffective organization. His efforts simply encouraged unrest in Germany and helped ignite the flames of WW2.

Howard Klopp, Chicago, US

I thought this was a serious study until I saw the ranking of Jimmy Carter and where Barak Obama were ranked. This is makes as much sense as ranking Neville Chamberlain in the top half of all your Prime Ministers. I'm not surprised at the ranking of FDR, on the one hand we helped support you in WWII where Lincoln merely held our nation together in a time when among others England wanted to support the South, slavery and the cotton it produced for your mills.

Rick, Omaha, NE

I'm awfully curious about how Reagan, the man who increased the national debt more than all previous presidents COMBINED, got on that list for being an advocate of small government; the very fact that he advocated small government shows an enormous gap between his rhetoric and his substantive achievements as president (the negative point given for Kennedy).

Douglas, Seoul

You are correct in saying that most Americans would rate Harry Truman in the top 10. But many of us wonder why Roosevelt did not groom him for the presidency, knowing he was ill. Truman was not informed of the atomic bomb before Roosevelt died, nor was he prepared by him for anything as complex as Potsdam, both of which he faced in the first 6 months of presidency. In hindsight I believe he was one of our top 5 presidents.

Mary May, Kansas City, Missouri, USA

Obama "would have made the top 10" on the basis of what? hope?

Bruce Fletcher, London

As far as Poland is concerned, this is poll almost offensive. At Yalta, Roosevelt single-handedly sold Poland down the river and into the red dragon's den that was then communist Soviet Russia.

Kat Yn, Warsaw, Poland

It's difficult to vote FDR's "Vision" highly in light of his persistent inadequacy to understand Stalin and the Soviet Union's aim to split Europe down the middle after the end of WWII.

Bob Campbell, Northampton, UK

It is outrageous to me to put Franklin Roosevelt so high on the list. His attempt to pack the Supreme Court was inexcusable and a direct assault on our constitutional form of government. As for his leadership, he is the only man who's ever managed to take a recession and turn it into a decade-long national tragedy.

Jay, Wilmington, Delaware

Roosevelt #1? Ouch. Given that he opened the gates to big government more than anyone else and in some informed circles did not do a good job handling the great depression it is hard for me to accept this. But he did successfully maneuver a reluctant USA to support Britain and confront the axis before it was too late. It is hard not to admire his foresight and skill in this regard and easy to see why this rates high in Britain. On the other hand his reckless handling of Japan certainly did not show an equivalent skill.

Richard C Crewdson, Palo Alto, CA USA

I believe Abe Lincoln stands out of all the former presidents. His contribution towards the abolishment of slavery and and subsequent emancipation of slaves by far stands out. What a leader he was no wonder he is remembered to date.

Salim Bakari, Nairobi, Kenya

FDR prolonged the depression with his anti-freetrade legislation. He created the present problem in health care with his policies on forced insurance by employers, he created a lot of wastage and increased the size of the governement to the detriment of freedom and enterprise.

V Salt, London, UK

I'm surprised that Wilson is ranked so highly though. I would consider his foreign policy to be quite ineffective. It was nice to see Nixon being given fair treatment for his accomplishments, rather than automatically banished to the bottom because of one scandal.

Joseph, Philadelphia, USA

Everyone's forgotten Truman who took over on Roosevelt's death, never got any briefings beforehand and had to make some quick hard decisions, particularly the atom bomb use.

Judy Taaffe, Perth Western Australia

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