By Matthew Knott

Washington: It was not until 1948 – more than 150 years since the first US presidential election – that anyone tried to create a systematic ranking of American presidents.

At the request of Life magazine, Harvard University historian Arthur M. Schlesinger polled 55 historians and asked them to rank the men who had held the presidency from first to last.

Schlesinger’s survey found that historians rated Abraham Lincoln, who led the US through the Civil War, the best president of all time. George Washington, the nation’s first president, was ranked number two. The most recent ex-president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, came in third thanks to his success steering the country through the Great Depression and World War II, as well as his ambitious New Deal program.

In last place was Warren Harding, who served in the White House from 1921 until his death in 1923. Although popular while in office, Harding's legacy was damaged by scandals that came to light after his death – including one of his cabinet members being convicted for bribery for leasing out oil reserves at below-market rates.

Warren Harding's reputation was tarnished by the scandals that emerged after his death. Credit:AP

Presidential ranking surveys have since proliferated, with historians and political scientists deploying increasingly elaborate methods to try to assess presidents' track records as objectively as possible.

The Siena College Research Institute in New York, which has conducted regular presidential surveys since 1982, asks experts to assess presidents based on 20 categories ranging from integrity, intelligence, willingness to take risks, management of the economy, foreign policy achievements and their relationship with Congress.

Even so, these surveys have their critics. Schlesinger's survey was accused of being biased towards Democrats – a common complaint about subsequent surveys given political scientists and historians tend to be significantly more left-leaning than the population at large.

The early presidents have also largely been given a pass for acts of racism that would destroy the reputation of their modern-day successors.

FDR consistently ranks among the top presidents, despite his decision to place Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II. Washington and Jefferson rank highly despite owning slaves, as does Woodrow Wilson despite segregating the federal bureaucracy based on race.

Abraham Lincoln is usually ranked the best president in the United States across most surveys. Credit:Getty Images

The rankings bounce around over time, and usually have slight differences depending who conducts the survey. But when it came to the best and worst presidents in history, there had been little change since Schlesinger's first list in 1948.

Washington, FDR and Lincoln nearly always dominated the top three slots. Harding has been consistently placed at the bottom, alongside Andrew Johnson (President from April 15, 1865 to March 4, 1869) and James Buchanan (who served from March 4, 1857 to March 4, 1861)

That all changed when Donald Trump came along.

Already ranked among the worst presidents ever, top historians and political scientists told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that Trump's his efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 election, on top of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, have cemented his place as America's worst president.

High marks for luck

In February 2018 political science professors Brandon Rottinghaus and Justin Vaughn published the second iteration of their Presidential Greatness Survey.

Almost 200 experts were asked to grade all presidents on a "greatness scale" from zero (failure) to 100 (excellence).

Lincoln came in top with a score of 95. Trump, who had just completed the first year of his presidency came in dead last with a score of just 12.3.

That compared to a score of 40.4 for George W. Bush and 71.1 for Barack Obama, his most immediate predecessors.

Such a low ranking for Trump – so early in his presidency – irked some including data guru Nate Silver. At the time unemployment was at near-record lows and there had been no national security crises.

"It speaks poorly to the field of presidential scholarship that political scientists have Trump ranked as the worst president of all time after only one year on the job, below presidents who e.g. helped blunder us into the Civil War & Great Depression," Silver wrote on Twitter.

Even when taking ideology into account, Trump did poorly in the survey, ranking 40th out of 44th among the Republican-leaning scholars who participated.

The most recent Siena College survey, released around the same time, was sightly less damning for Trump. Trump entered that survey at 42nd place out of 44, above only Buchanan and Andrew Johnson.

Buchanan is widely reviled for failing to prevent the outbreak of the Civil War while Johnson was the first president to ever be impeached after proving unable to work with Congress after the war had ended.

The experts consulted by Siena rated Trump last among all presidents when it came to integrity and intelligence. They ranked him highly in only one category – luck – reflecting their view that the strong economy and relatively benign foreign policy landscape was due to good fortune rather than Trump’s leadership.

By contrast Ronald Reagan (ranked 13th overall) scored highly on communication but low on intelligence; Bill Clinton (ranked 15th) was rated among the worst for integrity but among the best at handling the economy. George W. Bush was ranked 33rd, reflecting the fact he oversaw the ill-fated Iraq War and global financial crisis.

From bad to worse

When it comes to historical greatness, confronting a crisis is often a boon for a president. Clinton complained that he had never had to respond to a suffiently substantial disaster during his presidency to allow him rise to the ranks of the truly great presidents.

Bill Clinton has said he didn't face a big enough crisis to rank as one of the truly great presidents. Credit:Getty Images

University of Houston professor Brandon Rottinghaus, one of the political scientists who runs the Presidential Greatness Survey, says: "Presidential greatness tends to be moulded in times of adversity. That doesn't seem to apply to Trump in has last two years of office. In fact it seems to be the opposite."

Rather than helping him to move up the leaderboard, he says Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic has only pushed him further down. As well as downplaying the seriousness of the virus, Trump has promoted unproved cures, instigated feuds with scientific experts and shown a remarkable lack of empathy for the almost 400,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19 so far.

Then came Trump's months-long efforts to sow doubts about the legitimacy of the election result, culminating in the riot at the Capitol last week that saw five people lose their lives. This week he became the first president in US history to ever be impeached twice.

Timothy Naftali, the founding director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, says: "After his first impeachment and dereliction of duty during the COVID crisis Trump was already America's worst modern president.

"I think, as a result of his responsibility for the insurrection on January 6, he has edged out James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson as the worst US president ever."

Donald Trump was already the worst modern President by the time his first impeachment trial was over. Credit:Bloomberg

Howell says: "I'd put him right alongside Andrew Johnson – who laid the groundwork for the roll-back of reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow – as the worst. What he has unleashed in our politics is horrifying."

In defending their decision to vote against impeaching Trump this week, several congressional Republicans pointed to his policy achievements such as moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his record on the economy.

But Howell says this is a threadbare record compared to his predecessors – including other presidents who left office in disgrace. While he believes Richard Nixon (ranked 29th on the Siena survey) comitted criminal acts during the Watergate scandal, he says Nixon achieved significant milestones such as re-opening relations with China and creating the Environmental Protection Agency.

Historians have given Richard Nixon extremely low marks for integrity for his behaviour during the Watergate scandal.Credit:AP

"What has Trump accomplished in terms of policy achievements?" Howell asks. "Not very much. He certainly appointed lots of conservative justices and reduced taxes but any conservative worth his or her salt could have accomplished that.

"Things that a year or two ago, Trump's defenders could have pointed to as signs of real success have evaporated. We've had the pandemic and his utter failure to deal with it as well as his unending assault on democracy."

A re-assesment?

In Schlesinger’s first presidential ranking survey, Andrew Jackson, the nation's seventh president, came in sixth place. But over the years, as more attention was given to Jackson's harsh treatment of native Americans, he has fallen down the leaderboard – ranking 19th in the most recent Siena College survey.

By contrast when Harry Truman left office in 1953 he had a job approval rating of just 22 per cent, making him one of the most unpopular presidents in history. But history viewed him more kindly as the years went on thanks his foreign policy innovations such as the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild western Europe after WWII, and the creation of NATO. Most expert surveys now rank him in the top 10 presidents of all time.



Could Trump, who is leaving office with an average approval rating of 39 per cent according to FiveThirtyEight, hope for a similar resurgence in future years?

Brandon Rottinghaus says this is extremely unlikely.

"I don't see any way Trump could move up from the bottom of the list of our survey," he says.

William Howell says: "Being impeached twice is not solid ground to rise in the rankings. I don't think there is any chance of the kind of ascension Truman has had over time for Trump."

He says future events will determine just how poorly Trump is regarded. "Is it the story of him being a narcissist and a clown – or as an aspiring autocrat who did fundamental and enduring damage to our democracy?"

Trump Biden 2020

Understand the election result and its aftermath with expert analysis from US correspondent Matthew Knott. Sign up to The Sydney Morning Herald‘s newsletter here, The Age‘s here, Brisbane Times‘ here and WAtoday‘s here. 

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