AMERICAN PRESIDENTS: THE BEST, THE WORST, AND ALL THE REST
Robert Watson | Lynn University
U.S. presidents are evaluated in many ways, and this fascinating, timely and unique 2-part program will discuss nearly all of them. The major characteristics that academic and public polls use vary from survey to survey, but the main standards remain consistent. It is important to keep in mind that time changes what people consider critical characteristics, and presidential rankings reflect this. For example, early in U.S. history, the United States was isolationist, so foreign policy wasn’t a factor in presidential evaluations. Foreign policy became much more important in the 20th century. Below are some of the other factors that will be discussed in this fascinating program:
Leadership skills are necessary for a president to succeed. The more skills possessed, the more likely Congress will pass their policies. This is one way that presidents are judged and evaluated. In modern times, a president’s legislation has been judged according to the impact his policies have on social equality in U.S. society. The U.S. public looks to presidents as their political and economic leaders. They are held responsible for the political and economic climate, whether times are good or bad. Jimmy Carter and George H. Bush are recent presidents who lost their bids for reelection due to economic decline. At the same time, a booming economy can get a president reelected even if he is facing personal scandals, as Bill Clinton demonstrated in 1996.
The way presidents react to major foreign crises–such as a war or a terrorist attack–greatly affects their standing with the public and their rankings in the polls. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt–two presidents who always rank in the top five–rank high mainly because of their crisis-management skills. Lincoln reacted forcefully during the Civil War and kept the Union intact. Franklin Roosevelt guided the United States through World War II and turned the country into a superpower. Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, couldn’t deal with the conflict in Vietnam. This inability lowers his ranking, despite his major domestic accomplishments. Presidents are also measured by the people they appoint to public office. This area of evaluation includes appointments to the Supreme Court and the presidential cabinet. Presidents Harding and Grant destroyed their presidencies with inept, corrupt appointments, and their rankings reflect this. Appointing good, skilled people reflects positively on a president.
Of course, the attributes of character and integrity are important when judging presidents. A president who promotes corruption, lies to the public, or is involved in scandals will obviously be ranked lower than an honest president. President Nixon single-handedly destroyed his presidency and his place in history with the Watergate scandal. President Clinton undermined a successful presidency with many personal scandals, including lying to the public. President Clinton’s scandals continued even after he left office. President Harding destroyed what was left of his presidency with continuous extramarital affairs. The ranking of Donald Trump, who left office earlier this year, will almost certainly be affected by character and integrity, as well.
Robert Watson is an award-winning author, professor, historian, and analyst for numerous media outlets. He has published over forty books on history and politics, five works of fiction, and hundreds of scholarly journal articles, book chapters, and reference essays. He also serves as the series editor for the scholarly book anthology on the American presidency published by the State University of New York and as the editor of The American Presidents and American First Ladies. He serves as a distinguished Professor of American History, Avron Fogelman Eminent Research Professor, and Director of Project Civitas at Lynn University and as Senior Fellow at the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship.