One of the things that modern-day historians have done is rank U.S. presidents from best to worst. Wikipedia has an interesting collection of these dating back to 1948. To help provide a visual map, they’ve color-coded them by quartiles:
Blue – first quartile
Green – second quartile
Orange – third quartile
Red – fourth quartile
Some interesting patterns show up. For example, according to these historians, this country had a string of fairly competent presidents in its early years from Washington to Jackson. Then came a period of some of the worst, as the Whig Party was in the midst of its demise (primarily over the issue of slavery) – giving way to the formation of the Republican Party. The years following the Great Depression brought us another series of competent presidents – from FDR through Johnson – followed by our modern-day presidents who have gravitated to the second and third quartile.
There are several things to notice about this history that might be instructive for forming a really big picture of what is happening today. The president who averages number one is Abraham Lincoln. But he is surrounded by a sea of incompetence both before and after his tenure. In other words, the greatest American president didn’t leave a legacy that built on his achievements. His genius was in traversing one of the most difficult periods in this country’s history – the question of slavery, which led to the Civil War.
A similar upheaval marked the years following LBJ’s presidency when, rather than the demise of a party as happened to the Whigs, the Republican and Democratic Parties switched positions on the critical question of civil rights. As that realignment was happening, the country went from some of its best leaders to Nixon, Ford and Carter.
Ronald Reagan ushered in the revival of Republicanism that solidified the realignment that began after Johnson. He rates as 15th on the scale of effective presidents – the best for a Republican since Eisenhower at 10th. To the extent that Reagan represents “peak Republicanism,” it is interesting to note what has happened to the parties presidents since then.
Ronald Reagan – 15
George HW Bush – 22
George W Bush – 35
Donald Trump – (worst in our history?)
Jimmy Carter – 27
Bill Clinton – 20
Barack Obama – 17
It is worth noting that only three of the eighteen rankings included Obama – and only one was completed after his second term (in which he was ranked #12).
What sparked my interest in looking at this was the fact that it was pretty commonly noted during the George W. Bush years that he was one of the worst presidents in our history. Some of us thought the Republicans couldn’t go any lower — until they elected Donald Trump. Can they do any worse?
The truth is that in these rankings, historians tend to focus on competence. As we all know, that isn’t necessarily what elections are all about. But Reaganism brought the fantasy of Republican policies to their peak. Since then, they’ve been a disaster and have led to the election of increasingly incompetent presidents. Now, as McKay Coppins documents, the GOP is having an identity crisis in the Trump era.
Meanwhile, Democrats are demonstrating an increasing competence when it comes to leadership. While there are some on the left who think that change isn’t happening fast enough, the trajectory we’ve seen so far is something that party can continue to build upon.