Who are the best and worst U.S. presidents?

If your criteria is following the Constitution and promoting liberty and prosperity, the five best are:

1)George Washington
2)Grover Cleveland
3)Calvin Coolidge
4)James Monroe
5)Ronald Reagan

The five worst are:

36. Jimmy Carter
37. George W. Bush
38. Richard M. Nixon
39. Woodrow Wilson
40. Lyndon B. Johnson

Note: Obama was not in the survey. FDR was number 35.

As something of an amateur historian, I agree wholeheartedly with these results, although I might quibble here and there with some placements. For example, I am not convinced Reagan should be rated above Thomas Jefferson. But in general, yes, this is the way I see things.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B has had three main careers. Some of them have overlapped. After attending Stanford University (class of 1985), he worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. In 1995, he took up his favorite and third career as father. Soon thereafter, Heavenly Father hit him over the head with a two-by-four (wielded by the Holy Ghost) and he woke up from a long sleep. Since then, he's been learning a lot about the Gospel. He still has a lot to learn. Geoff's held several Church callings: young men's president, high priest group leader, member of the bishopric, stake director of public affairs, media specialist for church public affairs, high councilman. He tries his best in his callings but usually falls short. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

17 thoughts on “Who are the best and worst U.S. presidents?

  1. I’m thinking Pres Obama would rank in the bottom 5 when it comes to sustaining the Constitution and liberty. First, Obamacare is a big government entity that we now see is messing around with people’s liberty, increasing deficits and taxes on all Americans. Next, we have the NSA snooping on us. Then there’s the IRS abuses going on (some tied to Obamacare) to prevent conservative groups from being tax exempt, etc. Of course, we are now killing American citizens via drone without 4th Amendment due process. He’s attempted to limit the 2nd Amendment. He has signed dozens of executive orders that go contrary to Congress’ specific legislation language.
    Clearly, Chicago politics are not compatible with Constitutionalism.

  2. Geoff, wouldn’t it be nice to have more Presidential and Congressional candidates who would speak on how they will seek to protect our freedoms, rather than provide us with new “rights” and entitlements as a form of bribery?

  3. Rame, yes and yes. In fairness, it is worth pointing out that Obama’s worst excesses were all started by Bush, and there is zero evidence that either McCain or Romney would have been significantly better (except on 2nd amendment issues, of course). I think you can make an argument that McCain — the man of continual warfare — would have been significantly worse on NSA snooping, for example. (Although, it is worth pointing out that McCain’s health care proposal was quite good).

    In any case, there seems to be a widespread consensus in the ruling class among Dems and Republicans that the Constitution is a suggestion that is usually ignored, rather than a founding and guiding document. This also explains why so many recent presidents have been so horrific from a historical perspective.

  4. Given this is a Gospel oriented website I think it would be interesting to get opinions on which presidents best promoted core Gospel values in public policy. Meaning which tried implement policy which was inherently right, rather focused on maximizing political power or economic growth per se. Issues such as human rights, fair treatment under the law, caring for the poor and needy, promoting the ability of the Gospel to be spread, etc.

    President Washington would likely still in the top five, I doubt any of the others currently listed would be. (They certainly wouldn’t be in my top five.)

    I’m not saying this is how presidents should be judged by history (in fact I don’t think it is as they swear an oath to the Constitution, not the Gospel, and those are likely quite often in conflict). But it is an interesting thought experiment. I think we can safely assume that if the President of the Church were appointed or elected President of the US that he would likely approach the job quite a bit differently than have most US presidents, but he would also often be stuck between with choices he didn’t like. It is a whole lot easier to be president of the Church than it is to be president of the US.

  5. John, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Until the Millennium there will be many ways that U.S. president and Church presidents will see the world very differently.

    That said, the world would definitely be a better place if U.S. presidents followed the Golden Rule. If you do some research on Grover Cleveland and Coolidge, just to name two of the top five, you will find that they actually applied the Golden Rule to foreign and domestic policy. During their times as president, the U.S. avoided a lot unnecessary foreign adventures. They were both very conscious that taxpayer money was not their money and that they should not waste it on useless government projects. And, most importantly, they both helped create periods of prosperity that helped the poor most of all. (During the 1920s, the poverty rate was cut in half and millions of Americans were able to use time-saving devices that especially helped working class women most of all).

    Economic growth has many side effects that are important for the poor, such as improving home conditions for women, providing jobs, improving families and providing more harmony in the home because people are less worried about money. To the extent that presidents such as Coolidge and Grover Cleveland helped provide economic growth, they are in complete harmony with the Gospel.

    You are correct to point out, however, that the position of a U.S. president will inevitably provide areas of conflict with Gospel principles. Just to name the example of war, I cannot imagine a Church president declaring unconditional surrender against the Germans and Japanese (FDR and Truman) and ordering napalm and carpet bombing during the Vietnam War (LBJ and Nixon).

  6. RE: Goeff B.
    “Economic growth has many side effects that are important for the poor, such as improving home conditions for women, providing jobs, improving families and providing more harmony in the home because people are less worried about money. To the extent that presidents such as Coolidge and Grover Cleveland helped provide economic growth, they are in complete harmony with the Gospel.”

    If you add the words “Widely distributed” at the beginning of this paragraph I would tend to agree. (I might quibble about the word “completely” at the end of the paragraph though.) However, I think it is important to note that economic growth per se may not help the poor (or even the average person) if it is benefits are not widely diffused. For instance the US economy has been growing now for several years, yet in the perceptions of many (probably the majority) it is hardly out of the “recession” (or maybe not even that) – part of the reason for that is the new income which has been generated has disproportionately gone to the very top tiers of the income spectrum. In some of the years since the financial crash the amount new income to the top tier exceeded the TOTAL new income throughout the entire economy, meaning a greater proportion than 100% of the benefits of economic growth went to the top tier in those years.

    Speaking as an economist (my profession) you are absolutely correct that in the long-run the *only* sustainable way to have an improving standard of living for the “average” person is through significant per capita economic growth. But as a society we need to find ways to ensure that very large portions of the population are productive with increasing incomes over time. Sadly for the last forty years the US has not done a very good job of meeting this objective. Since 1973 the real income at the bottom of the spectrum has stagnated and stayed basically flat, incomes in the middle have grown modesty, but lost significant ground as a percentage of the total, while those at the top have done very very well. That is not a recipe for a long run stable society. Such conditions tend to breed bad policy as many people begin to focus on the disparity (and suggest excessively redistributive policies) instead of focusing in implementing policies which would increase opportunities (education, tax or income incentives to work, etc.).

  7. John, you may be surprised to find out that I mostly agree with your above comment.
    You are correct to point out the trend of stagnation in living standards since the 1970s. This has been the greatest period of growth of government spending in U.S. history. This has also been the longest period when the U.S. has not had money backed by gold and silver. And, sadly, the last two decades have seen the greatest sustained increase in Fed money-printing in U.S. history. The result has been a lot of money for the banking cartel (government controlled and promoted) but relatively little for the middle and working classes, and less opportunity for the poor. The Occupy movement is correct to be upset about the 1 percent, but unfortunately the Occupy movement’s solutions would only make the situation worse. We have poured money into government-funded education but have had stagnant to falling results.

    If we truly want a different result, we need to recognize why we are where we are first and then come up with solutions that solve the problem rather than exacerbate it.

    Returning to the original post, most of our modern presidents (including Reagan, btw) have done nothing to address the real problems (our monetary system and the growth of government). Our most successful recent president at cutting government was Clinton working with a Republican Congress, and nobody appears to want to do anything about the Fed (except Volcker, appointed by Pres. Carter).

  8. I wonder what led to Monroe placing fourth since he was looser than Madison on internal improvements. Other factors, I guess.

  9. Obama, if he were included, would likely end up ranking right with Woodrow Wilson. There is a kind of poetic justice to that, since Wilson was the Obama of a century ago.

  10. Reagan gets in the top 5 partially on name rec. If you care about strict adherence to the Constitution, you should have a problem with ignoring war authorization requirements, increasing the debt ceiling, raising social security taxes, the Firearm Owners Protection Act. Not to mention the federal drug war. Sure, he’s proved to be the *most* conservative Pres. Since…Coolidge? And of course, his rhetoric was off the charts conservative, if not always on policy.

  11. Agreed Christian J. Frankly, Reagan was great on rhetoric, not so great on policy. You can make a pretty strong argument that Reagan prepared the groundwork for the George W Bush cutting taxes while not cutting spending, which turned out to be the disaster of Obama raising taxes while not cutting spending. In the end, the huge spending increases during the Reagan years were a disappointment, at best.

    At least Reagan was smart enough to retreat from Lebanon without getting us in another war. And his negotiations with Gorbachev were obviously very fruitful. And nobody can deny that the economy grew nicely during the 1980s, although many people point out this was mostly due to Volcker, not Reagan.

  12. John S. Harvey & others,
    The lack of economic improvement in the lower ranks of the population since 1973 is fairly clear. In addition to the big government waste already cited, I would add another macro cause. The US has been in competition globally with low wage, but industrialized, countries since around that time. While the better high education and abundance of capital here keeps the middle and upper classes at the top of the global economic ladder, global competition restricts the upward movement of low-skilled labor.
    Policies that do not recognize the key drivers of prosperity for these people are doomed to fail. Some recent bungles include: raising electricity prices through environmental over-regulation, raising food and energy prices through excess market interference and resource sequestration, etc.
    Yes, recent Obama policies have been disasters for the poor. Bush was no saint previously either.

  13. Holy cow! Are we going to argue “internal improvements?” Seriously, do some people really believe that regulation of interstate commerce does not permit the federal government to spend money on harbors and canals and roads?

    And, I’d put Lincoln near the top of the list. Sure, a lot of self-appointed strict constitutionalists point to things that he did which expanded federal power beyond previous bounds, but without those actions there wouldn’t have been a nation or a constitution for any subsequent presidents to defend.

    Further, he followed constitutional principles when possible: he took no actions to free the slaves in the states, as he recognized that that was beyond his powers, but he did free the slaves in the areas that were in rebellion, as a legitimate exercise of his powers as commander-in-chief of the armed forces during wartime. He did suspend the writ of habeas corpus, but as soon as Congress met he requested, and obtained, Congressional approval for the suspension of the writ. He did not suspend or delay the normal electoral processes–despite some encouragement that he do so, and despite very real concerns in autumn 1864 that he might lose, which, as he recognized, would give the union until March 4, 1865 to win the war or to see the union dissolved.

    You can’t judge Lincoln by the standards applied to others, who served in times of peace. And, given the crisis that arose following his election (and which was only worsened by Buchanan’s dithering during the four months before Lincoln’s inauguration), Lincoln adhered to constitutional principles as well as anyone could have.

  14. Mark B, arguing against the cult of Lincoln is a waste of time. I am not going to address the totality of your argument (again, a waste of time), but concentrate on the logic of the following argument: “without those actions there wouldn’t have been a nation or a constitution for any subsequent presidents to defend.”

    Let’s consider the following thought experiment: Lincoln gets elected and instead of very quickly ordering troops into the south he says, “we will let them go and let them be a separate country if they wish.”

    Do you seriously think there “wouldn’t have been a nation or a constitution for any subsequent presidents to defend?”

    What would have happened is that the United States would have divided into two countries. The southern states would have been like Canada, i.e., another country that was once under British control but now is a separate country. The northern states would have kept the Constitution and presidents, etc. Yes, slavery would have continued in the South. Slavery continued in Brazil until the 1880s. Eventually, the South would have gotten rid of slavery, probably because of international pressure, which is what happened to Brazil. I think you can make a strong argument that eventually the South would have reapplied to join the Union, but even if that didn’t happen: so what? Canada is a separate country that once was considered part of British America, and we get along very well with Canada. There is absolutely no reason to think that the South and North would not have coexisted peacefully if Lincoln had let the southern states go.

    Every major battle for the first two years of the Civil War was fought on southern territory. From the South’s perspective, this was a war of northern aggression, where troops from the north invaded the confederate states. This of course changed with Gettysburg, but note this is the battle in the north that eventually caused the South to lose. Lee was very popular when fighting a defensive war. He lost support when he invaded the north, and note that southern troops were only in northern territory for a few weeks.

    Go on worshipping Lincoln if you must. But please consider the illogic of your argument that the north wouldn’t have existed without Lincoln. The north would have continued to exist just fine. If you want to read some things that may make you take another look at Lincoln, please let me know and I’ll send you some links.

  15. Geoff, thanks, but I still haven’t finished Hoover’s magnum opus.

    Had secession become an accepted response to political differences, what logical limitation would there have been to further secessions by states or regions that felt themselves aggrieved by policies of the national government? There is none, and the union would have ceased to exist. It would have become like modern-day marriage–terminable at will by any of the parties to it.

    As to your conclusion that the war, in the South’s eyes, was a “war of northern aggression” because most of the battles were fought in the South, you first of all neglected the first invasion of the north by the Army of Northern Virginia, in September 1862, resulting in the Battle of Antietam, or Sharpsburg, if you prefer. But, more important, that argument ignores the facts that the rebellious South had taken Federal properties–forts, customs houses, post offices, etc., had interfered with the execution of the laws which Lincoln had sworn faithfully to execute and had claimed to dissolve a union which he had sworn to defend. When he moved to provide food and other supplies–not arms–to Fort Sumter, the rebel armies attacked the fort.

    And then their apologists blame the North for attacking, and call the Civil War the War of Northern Aggression? I’m not buying.

  16. Mark B, glad to hear you are reading Hoover’s take on the history of the FDR years. (sarc).

    I am not convinced that secession becoming a common thing is a bad thing. Local rule is always more responsive to the needs of the individual than large, centralized rule. I fail to see any downsides with the United States being three countries or five or 10, for that matter. We started out as 13 separate countries that were fused into one with the understanding that states could leave if they wanted to. Yet when some states decided to leave, Lincoln and the north ignored that clear history.

    As for the South taking “northern” properties, I thought they were all part of one country in the first place. By claiming that properties in the south really belonged to the north, you are accepting the idea that the south really was a separate country in the first place, which I am pretty sure was not your point. Southern taxes were paid to help pay for the “northern” properties for many decades. Fort Sumter was just as much part of the south as it was part of the north, and the land itself happened to be in the south so….

    Just to be clear: I am not arguing that the south never did anything bad, never made any mistakes or was on the side of the Saints. History is much too complex for black or white judgements. My only point is simply to point out that your original claim that there would not have been a nation is obviously not true. You appear to be backing away from that claim, so we really don’t have anything more to argue about.

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