Ranking the presidents, best to worst

Presidents (from left) John Q. Adams, Martin Van Buren, Benjamin Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, Chester Arthur and George Washington.
Presidents (from left) John Q. Adams, Martin Van Buren, Benjamin Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, Chester Arthur and George Washington.
Images: Presidential portraits, WhiteHouse.gov
The presidential election is one long debate about which qualities make a man -- or woman -- presidential timber.

   But historians constantly mull this issue, and periodically colleges and think tanks ask them to rank presidents from best to worst. In the following ranking, done in 2010 by the Siena Research Institute, 238 presidential scholars were asked to rank the presidents on different aspects of leadership, specifically:
  • Background, imagination, integrity, intelligence, luck and willingness to take risks.
  • Ability to compromise, executive ability, leadership ability, communication and overall ability.
  • Accomplishments, specifically, handling of the economy, other domestic affairs, working with Congress and their party, appointing Supreme Court justices and members of the executive branch, avoiding crucial mistakes and foreign policy.

    In various areas, a president could have excelled or fallen short. For example, when historians considered intelligence, they ranked John Adams seventh from the top. But Adams is ranked 17th overall. (We’ll tackle the issue of intellect in a different story.) Here is how historians ranked the presidents, best to worst, overall:

  1. Franklin D. Roosevelt
  2. Theodore Roosevelt
  3. Abraham Lincoln
  4. George Washington
  5. Thomas Jefferson
  6. James Madison
  7. James Monroe
  8. Woodrow Wilson
  9. Harry S. Truman
  10. Dwight D. Eisenhower
  11. John F. Kennedy
  12. James K. Polk
  13. Bill Clinton
  14. Andrew Jackson
  15. Barack Obama
  16. Lyndon B. Johnson
  17. John Adams
  18. Ronald Reagan
  19. John Quincy Adams
  20. Grover Cleveland
  21. William McKinley
  22. George H.W. Bush
  23. Martin Van Buren
  24. William Taft
  25. Chester A. Arthur
  26. Ulysses S. Grant
  27. James A. Garfield
  28. Gerald R. Ford
  29. Calvin Coolidge
  30. Richard Nixon
  31. Rutherford B. Hayes
  32. Jimmy Carter
  33. Zachary Taylor
  34. Benjamin Harrison
  35. William Henry Harrison
  36. Herbert Hoover
  37. John Tyler
  38. Millard Fillmore
  39. George W. Bush
  40. Franklin Pierce
  41. Warren G. Harding
  42. James Buchanan
  43. Andrew Johnson


    History and the first ladies: How do they rate?

    Senator, governor: Who makes the best president?

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