04 December 2006

My Completely Subjective, Thoroughly Biased, Mostly Fact Free and Easily Dismissed Ranking of All Presidents Since FDR

Inspired by this WaPo article (which is just a poor excuse for a Bash Boooosh piece over Iraq, cause the Washington Post hasn't printed enough of those these past few years) and this Done With Mirrors post by Reader I Am, here are my thoughts on the most recent presidents.

From worst to first the list is as follows.

President James Carter. Worst. President. Ever. Easy call in my opinion. In four years he did more to undermine confidence in the United States than what before him would have ever thought humanly possible. The perfect storm of idiotic financial policy, misguided foreign policy, and mealy mouthed apologetic rhetoric lead to four years that would have done more damage had they not been followed by the best president since FDR. His attacking of America, coddling of dictators and clear hatred towards Israel have also made him the worst ex-President, by far. No other ex-President has been as wrong headedly critical and unnecessarily outspoken as Carter, and of course for this the press adores him.

President Richard Nixon. Nixon should be higher, but Carter is hard to beat when talking about lousy presidents. The most liberal president since FDR, and that's meant as an insult, not compliment. Introduced Realpolitik into American foreign policy, and the stain of that mindset continues to influence policymakers. It was a bad idea then, it's a worse idea now. Expansion of the welfare state, the 55 mile per hour speed limit just to name a few domestic issues, and his general paranoia lead to a corrosive and destructive presidency that has permanently damaged how Americans think of those they elect to serve them in Washington DC. Watergate is just the tip of a deep and broad iceberg as to all the wrongs that he committed as President. His good sense to be low key after his humiliation help keep him from the very bottom.

President Gerald Ford. How did we survive the 70s? A decade with Nixon, Ford and Carter leading this nation, and somehow we survived, though we certainly didn't thrive. A job he probably never really wanted, never was particularly suited for, and left without accomplishing much. He's as high as he is since his inability to separate himself from Watergate and cut through the press' distortion of him to led to the election of his execrable successor. A good man, but the wrong man.

President John Kennedy. Worse than Bush, Bush, Clinton, Eisenhower, Johnson, Reagan or Truman? Absolutely. One mostly avoidable crisis after another plagued his administration due to his inability to convince our enemies as to his steadfastness and seriousness. Our enemies were probably right, too. Better at portraying the President, than actually being the President (the exact opposite of Ford if you think about it). Had he not been assassinated, would most likely have been regarded as a mediocre to awful president who handled foreign policy and domestic policy inartfully. But, he's become a martyr and a symbol of what might have been for the Left, even though he didn't govern as a liberal, that was left up to his two immediate successors.

President Lyndon Johnson. A nasty man, and a real piece of work, but he got things done. The passage of the Civil Rights Act was an admirable accomplishment and the difficulty of getting that done when he did it should not be diminished. The death of Kennedy helped this happen, but I don't think anyone else could have gotten it done anyway. Embodies all that is bad, and some that is good, of what it means to be a politician in the United States. He didn't start Vietnam, and much of the perception about the war is media confirming their own biases with each other, but he made some huge mistakes and didn't find a way to see his way out of that conflict or sell it to the public despite the media.

President George H. W. Bush. A single term where he accomplished some great things, but left too much unfinished. He inherited a bit of a mess in some aspects from Reagan, and many of the problems he had connecting to the public were due to a hostile press determined to paint him as too patrician, too clueless, and too out of touch to lead the people. Probably would have been higher on the list if he had won a second term, but Ross Perot kept that from happening (more so than Clinton). He allowed discontent to grow from folks that should have been allies, and even though NAFTA was the right policy to follow, should have found a way to counter the populist nonsense of Perot. Also, in retrospect, Desert Storm has to be considered a huge disappointment and missed opportunity. Sometimes coalitions are necessary, but sometimes you have to be willing to go it alone if maintaining a coalition conflicts with what is right, moral, and beneficial for America.

President Dwight Eisenhower. There are no bad presidents left on this list, only less great ones. Ike was neither bad, nor great. He was a caretaker over a continued post war expansion that saw massive changes in the society bubbling under the surface. He maybe should have been more proactive in advocating the positive changes and fighting against old prejudices, but that wasn't his personality, and that's a task easier assigned in retrospect than taken up at the time. Also probably could have encouraged our proxies against the communist to be less repressive, and found a way to both fight spreading communism while encouraging spreading democracy, but that's a radical idea, and he was no radical.

President Bill Clinton. I only rate three men higher than him since FDR. Governed as the second most conservative President in the post WWII era. Had great achievements with welfare reform, and balancing the budget (even if that balance was achieved through bubble based projections). If he had been more disciplined personally, could have done much more to prevent the divisions that continue to wreck the polity in this country. He governed far better than he acted as a person. His fecklessness with regards to the growing terror threat are a huge black mark against him. Treating terror as a police matter probably should place him worse than Carter on this list, but he wasn't that kind of leader and he shouldn't be blamed too greatly for a national consensus that wanted to ignore the looming threat. Too poll driven, too concerned with his place in history, and too willing to go after the symbolic rather than the actual (see Oslo), but still even his critics must concede that he had a hand in the prosperity our country continues to enjoy. Luckily he governed during a time of split government, because if he had a Democratic majority in both houses his whole administration he probably would have done many frightening things as President.

President George W. Bush. Our current president is only bettered by two great men, Truman and Reagan. The audacity of moving swiftly on Afghanistan (an obvious decision, but one that a President Gore would not have made, despite whatever he may say on the matter) and then convincing the country of the need to attack terror supporting nations preemptively are major shifts in foreign policy that will continue to reverberate for decades to come. We are in a war we can not lose, the cost to the world of defeat are too great, yet many of our "allies" seem content to stay on the sidelines. It takes greatness to forge ahead anyway. He will be viewed as a great president in the future, but his domestic policy, and his complete abandonment of small government Reaganite conservatism lowers my regard for him. Also, his inability to get over the press distortions effectively keep him from being considered above Truman or Reagan.

President Harry Truman. In the immediate aftermath of WWII many mistakes were made, but the things he got right helped win the long cold war, and prevented that war from ever becoming too hot. Very similar presidency to George W. Bush's, maligned, misunderestimated, taken for a rube, yet set the framework for a victory that needn't have been as certain as it eventually became. Sometimes blood certain stubbornness is required from our presidents, luckily we had two truly stubborn SOBs just at the right time. Plus integrating the military in the late 40s was no small accomplishment.

President Ronald Reagan. His wasn't a perfect presidency. Many mistakes were made, but he singlehandedly brought the United States out of the malaise that was the 70s. Morning again in America wasn't just a political slogan, it was a real and direct effect of Reagan's personality and style of governance. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to reform government as much as he would have liked, the inertia and bureaucracy of the federal government is a nearly unbeatable behemoth, but Reagan did enough to at least redirect the flow if not completely change the course of that river. The Cold War didn't have to end how it did and when it did, it took the will of three remarkable people, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and of course President Ronald Reagan to help expose the cracks in the facade of Soviet Communism and thoroughly reshape the world. We will never see his like again, that is certain.

UPDATE: After giving it some thought, a simple list, even with explanation is an inadequate way to rank Presidents (more thoughts on a system of metrics, here). So I'll add a metric to each president to show their relative position to each other. Reagan is the gold standard, so all other presidents will be measured in milli-Reagans (a post about the idea of creating metrics can be found here). Also Callimachus at Done With Mirrors responed with a list of his own (and kindly links to this one).

Carter: 10 milli-Reagans. Yes, he was that awful.

Nixon: 12 milli-Reagans. Nearly as awful as Carter, a huge gap between these two jokers and the rest.

Ford: 250 milli-Reagans. Not horrendously awful, just wrong.

Kennedy: 275 milli-Reagans. He was pretty crappy, this worship of him never made any sense.

Johnson: 375 milli-Reagans. A third as good as Reagan isn't so bad really, could have done a lot better with his time in office, though.

Bush 41: 500 milli-Reagans. Precisely half the president that his predecessor was. Which was pretty darn good, actually.

Eisenhower: 650 milli-Reagans. A pretty good president. His legacy both domestic and foreign shines in most aspects. However, there still were missed opportunities to move the country forward, further and faster during his tenure that count against him in my mind.

Clinton: 666 milli-Reagans. Only slightly better than Eisenhower. Did a masterful job of governing in some respects, but personal behavior, and being too poll driven drop him down quite a bit. Had the opportunity to be almost as good as Reagan, and completely blew it.

Bush 43: 750 milli-Reagans. This rating is based on the knowledge that Iraq has been a success, and will continue to be a success from the perspective of preventing spectacular attacks within the United States (Al Qaeda is less of a threat, not more because of Iraq, Iran has spent much treasure in Iraq, and Saddam who was a real threat, is no longer any threat to the people of the United States, pretty great accomplishments, even with the perceived bumbling). If you were rating Truman late in 1950 he would have looked pretty lousy, too, yet only Reagan was better in my opinion.

Truman: 850 milli-Reagans. Did what needed to be done and didn't equivocate about it. He lead at a time when leadership was needed, and that's no small achievement.

Reagan 1000 milli-Reagans. There's only one Reagan, and he is the standard. Yet, he was vilified, treated as a joke, and lampooned as dangerous to the world at the time. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

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