The Award For Worst President in History Goes To…

The Presidential Greatness Project is a periodic survey done of current and recent members of the Presidents & Executives Politics Section of the American Political Science Association. The 2024 version of the survey was completed during the final two months of 2023 and was overseen by Dr. Brandon Rottingham of the University of Houston and Dr. Justin S. Vaughn of Coastal Carolina University.

According to the Presidential Greatness Project report:

“The primary purpose of this survey was to create a ranking of presidential greatness that covered all presidents from George Washington to Joe Biden. To do this, we asked respondents to rate each president on a scale of 0-100 for their overall greatness, with 0=failure, 50=average, and 100=great. We then averaged the ratings for each president and ranked them from highest average to lowest. “

Who was the best and who was the worst? We’ll get to that in a minute. But what I found most interesting was the differences (or lack of difference) in how Republicans and Democrats voted, as well as between those that identified as conservative compared to those that identified as liberal. The results are really fascinating.

Let’s start with the overall results:

Top 5 Presidents Overall

Abraham Lincoln (93.87)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (90.83)
George Washington (90.32)
Theodore Roosevelt (78.58)
Thomas Jefferson (77.53)

The top five don’t really surprise me. What does surprise me is the huge fall off in score from the top three Presidents to the fourth and fifth ranked. Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Washington are held in much higher esteem than any of the other Presidents.

Next, let’s look at the bottom five presidents overall beginning with the worst:

Five Worst Presidents Overall

Donald Trump (10.92)
James Buchanan (16.71)
Andrew Johnson (21.56)
Franklin Pierce (24.60)
William Henry Harrison (26.01)

One thing that has always amazed me is the way current Trump supporters claim that Donald Trump was one of the greatest Presidents in history. The folks that actually study the accomplishments of Presidents disagree strongly. I suspect that at this juncture, Trump supporters will be saying that the former POTUS scored so low because the pin-headed academics that voted in this survey are all a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals. If that’s true, then we should see those scholars who identify as Republican and/or conservative rank Trump differently. Let’s see if that happens.

Next, let’s see how the rankings break down based on party affiliation. Let’s start with Republicans:

Top 5 Presidents Ranked by Republicans

George Washington  (96.94)
Abraham Lincoln (94.31)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (86.75)
Theodore Roosevelt (81.31)
Ronald Reagan (80.56)

It’s a little odd to me that overall, Lincoln ranked first, but among his fellow Republicans, he ranked second. Perhaps that goes to show how different the Republican Party is today compared to what they stood for in the mid-1800s.

It’s also a little surprising to see FDR rank so highly among Republicans. Not only was he a Democrat, but he is one of the most progressive Democrats to ever serve, ushering in social programs that many Republicans now find repugnant.

Finally, it should not be surprising to see Ronald Reagan rank so high among Republicans. After all, he is considered the father of the new conservative movement, and despite the fact that he is often pilloried by MAGA Republicans, he is still held in high regard among Republicans writ large.

Who did Republicans say were the five worst Presidents:

Bottom 5 Presidents Ranked by Republicans

James Buchanan (14.50)
Andrew Johnson (23.88)
Franklin Pierce (27.00)
William Henry Harrison (29.13)
Donald Trump (31.38)

Even among self-described Republicans, Donald Trump is considered one of the five worst Presidents in history. It will be interesting to see where he ranks among conservatives.

Next, Let’s look at how Democrats rank the top five Presidents:

Top 5 Presidents Ranked by Democrats

Abraham Lincoln (94.73)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (93.13)
George Washington (90.19)
Theodore Roosevelt (81.31)
Thomas Jefferson (78.88)

We see the same Presidents come up time and again on the “best ranked list” regardless of who is doing the ranking. The exception is Ronald Reagan, who Democrats ranked as the 18th best President; definitely not as high as Republicans ranked him, but still in the top half, which is respectable.

These are the Presidents who Democrats ranked as the worst in history:

Bottom 5 Presidents Ranked by Democrats

Donald Trump (6.66)
James Buchanan (16.33)
Andrew Johnson (20.00)
Franklin Pierce (23.27)
William Henry Harrison (25.96)

Republicans and Democrats agree that Trump is one of the worst presidents in history. The only difference is, Democrats think he is the worst ever, while Republicans think he is one of the worst, but not the absolute worst. BTW, Trump’s score among Democrats is not lost on me.

How about self-described conservatives? Who do they think are the top five Presidents?

Top 5 Presidents Ranked by Conservatives
George Washington (97.10)
Abraham Lincoln (91.29)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (87.00)
Thomas Jefferson (81.19)
Ronald Reagan (79.14)

The only difference between the top five Presidents as ranked by Republicans and those ranked by conservatives is Republicans had Theodore Roosevelt ranked fourth, while conservatives had Thomas Jefferson ranked fourth. Otherwise, their lists are the same.

Again, FDR makes the conservatives list of top five Presidents. The survey doesn’t provide insight into this phenomenon. I find it interesting and would like to understand it better.

For conservatives, these were the five worst Presidents in history:

Bottom 5 Presidents Ranked by Conservatives

James Buchanan (17.57)
Franklin Pierce (25.81)
Donald Trump (26.76)
William Henry Harrison (27.85)
Andrew Johnson (28.57)

Republicans and conservatives agree on the bottom five Presidents in history, but they don’t agree on the ranking of those five worst presidents. Once again, Donald Trump makes the list of the five worst Presidents.

I think it’s worth mentioning that conservatives rank Trump lower than self-identified Republicans do. Should this be surprising? I don’t think so.

Self-identified conservatives are more closely married to a political philosophy than Republicans. To simplify this point, Republicans are a political party focused on winning elections. Conservatives are a group that is less concerned with political victories than with political philosophy. Naturally, there is some cross-over in both of these descriptions, but the point is that conservatives likely view Trump more harshly than Republicans because he is not a true believer.

Trump is not conservative. In fact, he has no core values or beliefs. He is an opportunist who will use any group–be it evangelicals, social conservatives, military hawks, country club Republicans, etc.–to get what he wants. He’ll also abandon any of these groups if he thinks it will help his cause. Conservatives, at least the conservatives involved in this project, see Trump for who he is. That’s why they are so critical of him in this survey.

Let’s next look at how liberals rank the top five Presidents:

Top 5 Presidents Ranked by Liberals

Abraham Lincoln (93.60)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (91.39)
George Washington (88.75)
Theodore Roosevelt (78.17)
Thomas Jefferson (77.22)

The usual suspects again make the top five list. Who made the liberal’s worst five list?

Bottom 5 Presidents Ranked by Liberals

Donald Trump (6.97)
James Buchanan (16.24)
Andrew Johnson (20.36)
Franklin Pierce (23.50)
William Henry Harrison (24.63)

Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, and liberals agree that Donald Trump is one of the worst, if not the absolute worst, President in history. It’s hard to argue with these findings.

Mount Rushmore

Survey Respondents were asked who should be the next face on Mount Rushmore. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt are the faces currently on Mount Rushmore. Who did respondents say should be next to join them?

Unsurprisingly, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was chosen by a wide margin (65.4%). Next was Barack Obama (11%), and a three-way tie between Dwight Eisenhower, James Madison, and John F. Kennedy (4%).

I happen to like Barack Obama, but I don’t think he was a great President. I might be wrong. Here’s how he was ranked by the various category of voters:

Overall — 7
Republicans — 15
Democrats — 6
Conservatives — 13
Liberals — 6

For me, this may be the biggest surprise of the entire survey. It’s not surprising that Democrats and liberals ranked Obama highly, but it’s hard to fathom that Republics and conservatives ranked him well in the top half of all Presidents. That’s an eye-opening surprise to me.

Most Polarizing

Respondents were asked to rank Presidents from the most polarizing to the least polarizing. Here are the results (average polarization rank):

Top 5 Most Polarizing Presidents

Donald Trump (1.4)
Andrew Johnson (3.1)
Andrew Jackson (3.4)
Barack Obama (3.5)
Richard Nixon (3.5)

Presidents who were considered almost as polarizing as these top five were Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Joe Biden, and Abraham Lincoln.

I’m trying to wrap my head around these rankings, and I have to admit I’m having a little trouble. I’m not surprised that Donald Trump tops the list. In my lifetime, there has never been a President that was nearly as polarizing. However, I’m surprised to see Barack Obama on the list, with Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Joe Biden close behind. Even Richard Nixon is a bit of a surprise. It seems to me that there might be some recency bias going on here.

Abraham Lincoln also seems like an outlier on this list. Of course, he was on one side of the bloodiest war in our nation’s history, so he was certainly polarizing in that regard. Nearly half the nation hated him. So, maybe it’s not so surprising.

Least Polarizing

According to respondents, the least polarizing Presidents in U.S. history are:

Top 5 Least Polarizing Presidents in History

George Washington (1.5)
Abraham Lincoln (1.8)
Dwight Eisenhower (2.7)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2.9)
James Monroe (3.1)

These top five least polarizing Presidents were followed closely by William Henry Harrison, Gerald Ford, and Theodore Roosevelt.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. How can Abraham Lincoln be one of the most polarizing and least polarizing Presidents in history? This is how surveys go when there is a large split in opinions among the respondents. One group of respondents felt strongly that Lincoln was polarizing, while another group felt he was among our least polarizing Presidents. I think both groups can justify their position.

Under Lincoln, the country broke up, states seceded, there was a great and bloody civil war. Many people in the country blamed Lincoln for the war. They didn’t believe the cause of emancipating the slaves or preserving the Union was worth the cost of so many lives. You can see how that would have caused polarization.

On the other hand, Lincoln did a masterful job of uniting a very divided government, including his own cabinet. The country was being pulled in many different directions, and it was Lincoln’s skill of negotiation and compromise that kept the government together. Lincoln also re-united the nation, a task that was seemingly impossible at the time. It makes sense that people see him as among our least polarizing Presidents.

I’m not sure what to make of William Henry Harrison being on the least polarizing list while also being considered one of our country’s worst presidents. Can it be that he did a horrible job but didn’t rub anyone the wrong way?

I think it probably has to do with the fact that Harrison was only President for 31 days, the shortest Presidential tenure in history. Depending on who you believe, Harrison either caught a bad cold while giving an especially long-winded speech at his inauguration, the cold eventually turning into pneumonia, or he died of enteric fever, a bacterial infection known more commonly now as Typhoid fever.

Is it just me, or does it seem unfair to rank Harrison as one of the worst Presidents in history when he was only President for 31 days, and much of that time was spent too ill to work? I mean, give the guy a break.

Most Underrated

Respondents to the Presidential Greatness Project survey were also asked who they thought were the most underrated and most overrated Presidents. Here are the top five most underrated:

Top 5 Most Underrated Presidents

Jimmy Carter (2.2)
Lyndon Johnson (2.3)
Ulysses Grant (2.4)
Dwight Eisenhower (2.8)
George H.W. Bush (2.9)
Joe Biden (2.9)

I think there is a good case to be made for all of these Presidents as being underrated. The presidency of Jimmy Carter in particular is being re-examined and re-evaluated by scholars, and they are finding that far from leading an American malaise (a term he never used), he actually ushered the country through a very difficult economy and fraught foreign policy period.

More recently, Joe Biden has almost criminally not received credit for the job he has done over the past three-plus years. If you’ve read my political stories before, you know I’m not the world’s biggest Joe Biden fan,. But there’s no denying that he inherited a horrible situation from his predecessor and has turned the country and the economy around. We have one of the strongest economies in history, we produce more oil than ever before, wages are trending up, and he has not only held NATO together during the Russian-Ukraine war, he has strengthened and expanded it. Sure, he’s had a couple of missteps, but overall, he has done a fantastic job. Yet, according to polls, he has not received the credit he deserves and he is in danger of losing the upcoming Presidential race to the very guy that ruined our economy and damaged our relationship with our allies. It defies explanation.

Who are the most overrated Presidents in history?

Overrated Presidents

Top 5 Most Overrated Presidents

Ronald Reagan (2.1)
Andrew Jackson (2.3)
John F. Kennedy (2.4)
Thomas Jefferson (2.5)
Donald Trump (2.7)

I don’t know what to make of Reagan being at the top of these rankings, although I suspect that Democrats and liberals were united in ranking him as the most overrated President in history. To be certain, Reagan is a darling of the right and is credited with creating or championing or passing into law, all that Republicans and conservatives hold dear. I think the push to name him the most overrated President in history is overblown, but I guess I understand it.

JFK was viewed as near-royalty when he was in office. He was adored by the public as much, if not more, for the perception surrounding him and his family as he was for his politics. But a more sober examination of his presidency reveals many more missteps and errors than we knew at the time. Many scholars portray Kennedy as a man in over his head. True, he didn’t cause World War III, but there were times when he came close, either because of his inexperience or misunderstanding of the situation. I understand Kennedy’s inclusion on this list.

Jefferson has fallen out of favor with scholars in recent years, in no small part because he was a slaveholder who impregnated at least one of his slaves (Sally Hemmings) several times, then forced the offspring into slavery. On the one hand, that has more to do with his personal than his professional life. But I think scholars view it as, while not part of his presidency, it is part of his legacy, which they now feel has been overrated. It’s hard to argue with their reasoning.

Finally, Trump’s inclusion on this list gives us an idea of how really terrible he was. Not only is he considered one of the worst Presidents in history, but the people who ranked him as one of the worst also feel he is still overrated. Now, that’s bad.

Part of the problem with Trump is that, to this day, he takes credit for programs and laws that he was not involved with. For instance, he constantly takes credit for an improvement to veterans medical benefits that actually was put into law in 2014, two years before he was elected to office.

Another example is how right now, Trump is taking credit for the record high prices on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and NASDAQ. This, despite the fact that in 2020, Trump predicted that if Biden were to win the election, the stock market would tank. Not only did the stock market not tank, it’s soaring. So, Trump has changed his tune, claiming that the stock market is doing so well because investors know he’ll soon be back in the White House.

If nothing else, the survey shows that Donald Trump was a historically bad president. Across all party affiliations and political beliefs, Trump was ranked as one of our nation’s very worst Presidents.

It’s official! Congratulation to Donald Trump, the Presidential Greatness Project’s worst President in American history.


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