A while ago, I came across one of Ben Shapiro’s videos where he ranked some US presidents by their contribution in history, and I just learned that historians have been doing that for a long time! As a history nerd myself, I thought the idea was interesting and might rate some of them on my own— with the same tier levels as Shapiro. Because everyone has their own preferences, you don’t have to completely agree with me on this one, as my perspectives may center on how the president’s action affects me personally.
And of course, it is impossible to comment on every single president within one article, but I will try my best to elaborate on at least one president from every major historical period in American history.
-F tier (very poor)
Some worst-of-all-time presidents in my opinion can be found in this century.
George W Bush. While he had a record-high approval rating shortly after the September 11 attacks and the launch of the Iraq War, many people nowadays have changed their minds. Bush is seen as an ineffective leader, especially during Katrina, and has been described as a war criminal for invading Iraq–further and severely destabilizing the Middle East. Over time, Bush, along with the ideas of neoconservatism more generally, started to diminish within the American public, even getting opposed by Republicans after the rise of the Tea Party Movement and the election of Trump.
Barack Obama. I don’t think the successor to Bush was satisfactory either. First of all, I would give him credit for proving the point that you can become president regardless of race, alleviating the impacts of the 2008 recession, and executing Bin Laden. However, many of Obama’s beliefs and policies turned out to be damaging to society, and influenced large numbers of Generation Z to support unrealistically progressive policies, especially on issues such as immigration, education, and healthcare. Though many people admire his charisma, he barely left the American public with anything beneficial on a national level.
I would be more than willing to place the current president Joe Biden here for his corruption, weak leadership, and lack of a robust economy; but it might be too early to judge his contributions in a big historical picture as anything could change in the future. Doing so after his presidency would be a smarter decision, instead of ranting about how he is screwing up the job currently.
-C tier (poor)
Harry S Truman, according to many historians, has a quite positive image, as he nuked Japan, ended WWII, and later steadfastly opposed the spread of communism in Europe, and I must agree that these were important. The famous picture of him holding a “Dewey Defeats Truman” indicates an adorable personality too. But a little-known piece of history suggests otherwise, in which I have previously written about. His unwise intervention in the Chinese Civil War ultimately led to the victory of Mao Zedong–further strengthened other Asian communist regimes which would then cost tens of thousands of US lives in Korea and Vietnam. The public in the 1950s favored WWII generals like MacArthur and Eisenhower over Truman for the obvious reason.
Just like Truman, people nowadays rank LBJ as a great president for his many efforts during the Civil Rights Movement and for environmental protection, even though he was not popular at that time. We are also unable to conclude if Johnson’s Great Society program indeed managed to eliminate poverty, while the impacts of unprecedented government spending on welfare started to manifest in the 1970s. Let us also not forget that his leadership during the Vietnam War was a failure. More troops, more bombs, and more “search-and-destroy” only led to more casualties–instead of strategic victories.
-B tier (average)
There is a reason why Andrew Jackson is on the twenty dollar bill— and why many people call for that to change. Jackson is a very influential former general who, with his charisma and firm beliefs, converted this rather brand-new nation into a much more mature, steady, and powerful republic. He is someone who had a holistic understanding of the Constitution, spoke for the people against the establishment, and defended state rights. Many of the ideas were ahead of their time. However, his pro-slavery views and cold-blooded actions that drove the Native Americans away from their homelands are blatantly racist by today’s standards.
Be surprised, but I would place Abraham Lincoln in the B tier instead of the greatest-of-all-time. We can all agree that Lincoln successfully lead the north to victory in the Civil War and abolished slavery. However, some aspects of him might be seen as controversial. First, Lincoln is mistakenly considered an abolitionist by people today, which is false; though the Republican party at that time includes many fervent abolitionists, Lincoln focused the most on merely preserving the union, and in fact emancipated southern slaves in 1863, in the middle of the war, as a strategy to beat the Confederacy. Though I acknowledge that the South’s primary concern of secession is slavery, which I do not endorse, the Constitution makes no provision about states leaving the union–casting doubts on the war’s morality from the Confederate perspective. The Civil War largely devastated the South (like Sherman’s March to the Sea) when the North continued to benefit from the Industrial Revolution, further polarizing instead of uniting both groups of people in the long run. Admittedly, to African Americans, Lincoln’s legacy is just as extraordinary as those of Fredrick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and MLK’s.
-A tier (good)
The following presidents are known for economic policies, which I admit not being an expert on, but I will explain to the best of my knowledge.
In Ben Shapiro’s commentary, he gave FDR a very low ranking as his expansive government expenditures did not effectively combat the Great Depression. He was also responsible for the imprisonment of numerous Japanese immigrants. But we should recognize that his predecessor, Hoover, was fiscally laissez-faire (editor’s note: some of our other writers would disagree) and he struggled with the crisis throughout his presidency as well. The frustrated public chose Roosevelt instead, and at least were not disappointed by his innovative fireside chats. You can also argue that WWII happened to happen during his presidency, which was the ultimate factor that pulled America out of its lasting economic dilemma. Nevertheless, this job of a war-time president is never easy either. Whether in depression or war, there would be protests against the government’s overreaching power throughout society, but FDR handled most of the challenges effectively.
Ronald Reagan is one of the conservatives’ favorite idols. The term “Reaganomics” was invented to describe his extremely successful economic policies that center on low taxes and free markets, in contrast to redistributing wealth and overly emphasizing income equity— as the Great Society sought to achieve. In response, the US recovered quickly from the oil crisis and inflation in the early 1980s with record economic growth and a low unemployment rate. He was also a key factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reagan’s legacy is also a major motivation to the conservative movement even till today.
Personally, Donald Trump is one of my favorite presidents for his charisma, in contrast to most career politicians, and his strong sense of patriotism that had been absent in the White House for over a decade. It is true that Trump has made numerous problematic remarks, his economic achievement to a large extent was based on the momentum of the recovery from the 2008 recession, and his extreme trade protectionism policies and quarrels with allies may have harmed the American people. However, I think that the amount of positive change he brought to US politics outweighs those downsides. Two of his predecessors put all their effort in “helping” foreign countries through massive taxpayer-money-spending and warfare, in which many were total failures, while overlooking the loss of common sense within the country itself. No matter if Trump’s actions toward illegal immigration, employment, mediation within Middle Eastern countries, and Covid response appear effective to you or not, I would give him much credit for his determination.
-S tier (excellent)
No president throughout US history has more intelligence and achievements than those who built this republic themselves. Four of the Founding Fathers had become presidents, including George Washington, crucial in defeating the British and noteworthy for not running a third term for fear of being a tyrant himself; John Adams, creator of the US Navy and the new capital of DC; Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence; and James Madison, who drafted the US Constitution along with the Bill of Rights. True, they largely disagreed with each other on the role of the federal government, and failed to prevent factions from existing as many of them feared would happen, and Washington and Jefferson nowadays are also facing heavy criticism for keeping slaves on their plantations, but I would say that this attitude of merely judging historical figures by today’s standard while ignoring their contribution in the long term is quite immature. Their creation became the first democracy in the modern world, and flourished for over two centuries until today. The Constitution, written by people with ingenious philosophical knowledge, granted freedom and power to the people and made it possible for future generations to correct their past wrongdoings.
As the chief executive of a constitutional republic, the president of the US does not take full control of the country, especially in the dawn of this nation when the federal government had not expanded to today’s extent. It is not always fair to judge them by historical situations that were not necessarily easy to deal with. In the end, I hope that my thoughts have given you new insights while analyzing this great American journey.