His­to­ri­ans not wa­ver­ing on best presidents

Lin­coln, Wash­ing­ton and the two Roo­sevelts keep their lock on the top spots in C-SPAN’s third poll, while Obama de­buts as No. 12 on the list

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY KAREN TUMULTY karen.tumulty@wash­post.com

Abra­ham Lin­coln, Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton and the two Roo­sevelts, Franklin and Theodore, have kept their lock on their po­si­tions as, re­spec­tively, the four best presidents in Amer­i­can his­tory, ac­cord­ing to a new rank­ing by 91 pres­i­den­tial his­to­ri­ans.

Barack Obama took the No. 12 spot in his first time on the sur­vey.

The poll, re­leased on the eve of Presidents’ Day week­end, is the third one con­ducted by the wonky pub­lic-af­fairs ca­ble net­work C-SPAN over the past 17 years.

The presidents in the bot­tom rank­ings were the same as in 2000 and in 2009.

They were An­drew John­son, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, who again comes in dead last. Buchanan, who served from 1857 to 1861, is re­garded as hav­ing been an in­ept and in­dif­fer­ent leader as the na­tion was headed to­ward civil war.

Yet there was also some move­ment in the rank­ings.

An­drew Jack­son — whose style of pop­ulism that Pres­i­dent Trump’s ad­vis­ers like to cite as a model for the cur­rent pres­i­dent — slipped five spots since 2009, com­ing in at the 18th best pres­i­dent.

Dwight D. Eisen­hower jumped into the top five for the first time, mov­ing up from No. 8 in 2009 and No. 9 in 2000.

Ge­orge W. Bush also gained slightly in the es­teem of the his­to­ri­ans, mov­ing up to 33rd in 2017, from 36th in 2009. But he was bested by his fa­ther, Ge­orge H.W. Bush, who ranked 20th.

Bill Clin­ton, whose pres­i­dency was book­ended by the two Bushes, re­mained in the 15th spot.

The sur­vey asked his­to­ri­ans to rank the presidents on a 1-to-10 scale on 10 qual­i­ties of lead­er­ship: pub­lic per­sua­sion, cri­sis lead­er­ship, eco­nomic man­age­ment, moral au­thor­ity, in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, ad­min­is­tra­tive skills, re­la­tions with Congress, vi­sion/set­ting an agenda, pur­sued equal jus­tice for all and per­for­mance within the con­text of his time.

“Once again, the big three are Lin­coln, Wash­ing­ton, and FDR — as it should be,” said Rice Univer­sity his­tory pro­fes­sor Dou­glas Brink­ley, one of the aca­demic ad­vis­ers to the study. “That Obama came in at No. 12 his first time out is quite im­pres­sive.”

How­ever, Edna Greene Medford of Howard Univer­sity, an­other ad­viser, said she would have ex­pected Obama to rank higher, given his high ap­proval rat­ings when he left of­fice in Jan­uary, that his ad­min­is­tra­tion had been close to scan­dal-free and for his role in steer­ing the econ­omy back from the brink af­ter the fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

“Of course,” she added, “his­to­ri­ans pre­fer to view the past from a dis­tance, and only time will re­veal his legacy.”

Over­all, the pe­riod from 1933 to 1969 was “the golden age of the Amer­i­can pres­i­dency,” said his­to­rian and bi­og­ra­pher Richard Nor­ton Smith. Five presidents from that pe­riod made it into the top 10. They were led by Franklin D. Roo­sevelt, who is re­garded as “not only the first modern pres­i­dent but the man who, in rein­vent­ing the of­fice, also es­tab­lished the cri­te­ria by which we judge our lead­ers,” Smith added.

The other mid-20th cen­tury presidents in the top 10 were Eisen­hower, Harry S Tru­man, John F. Kennedy, Ron­ald Rea­gan and Lyn­don B. John­son.

If that time was the apex, the pe­riod be­tween 1837 and 1869 might be re­garded as the most dis­mal era for the pres­i­dency, with No. 1-ranked Lin­coln be­ing a stark ex­cep­tion. Eight of the 10 low­es­trated presidents served dur­ing that pe­riod lead­ing up to and af­ter the Civil War.


Abra­ham Lin­coln re­mains at the top of the list of best presidents.


The first pres­i­dent, Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, still res­onates.


Franklin D. Roo­sevelt is cred­ited with rein­vent­ing the of­fice.


Theodore Roo­sevelt again comes in at No. 4 in the sur­vey.

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