The top US presidents: First poll of UK experts

By Iwan Morgan
Professor of US Studies, Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London

image captionTop three: Roosevelt (FDR), Lincoln, Washington. Next five: Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan

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:

  • vision/agenda-setting
  • domestic leadership
  • foreign policy leadership
  • moral authority
  • positive historical significance of their legacy

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.

image captionThe UK poll puts Lyndon Johnson 11th and JFK 15th out of 40

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.

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