Neil Joseph | Tuesday, February 21, 2017
Last week, C-SPAN released a ranking of every president by assembling a poll of a variety of historians. The ranking, which can be found here, had many controversial placements that liberals, conservatives, commentators and historians all found to be upsetting. Here’s what I think about a few of the rankings.
No. 1 through No. 3 have been the same for the last 20 years according to this poll (Lincoln, Washington, Roosevelt) — and they’ll stay that way for a long time. It’s difficult to top saving the country, starting the country and serving through both the largest economic downturn and the largest war our country has ever seen. My one minor problem, however, is that Lincoln is ahead of Washington. Yes, it’s true that Lincoln’s decisions throughout the Civil War quite possibly saved the United States as it is today. But George Washington literally created the United States. Half the things presidents have done for the last 200 or more years is because of him. Without him, we wouldn’t be the democracy we are today, we wouldn’t have such peaceful transitions of power and our president wouldn’t be as constrained as he is today. Although he had the ability to wield ultimate power, Washington didn’t, even though he could’ve been justified. That’s greatness.
JFK at No. 8? Seems a little high for a man who didn’t even get to three years as president. Certainly his work during the Cuban Missile Crisis was unprecedented, but what significant impact did he have other than that? The Bay of Pigs offsets the good he did with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his lack of legislative achievements, which is mostly due to his short term in office, means that his presidency is almost certainly not top 10, and definitely not ahead of the likes of LBJ and Woodrow Wilson.
The other top 10 problem that I have is Ronald Reagan at No. 9. I don’t think he should be much lower, but he should be behind presidents such as LBJ and Woodrow Wilson. Reagan’s most difficult accomplishment (his handling of the Cold War) most certainly is better than Wilson’s handling of the world post World War I or LBJ’s Vietnam War debacle. But all in all, the impact on the country as a whole was greater from both Wilson and Johnson.
Wilson single-handedly moved the United States from a policy of isolationism to involvement in the world as a whole — a mindset that hasn’t been challenged until today. Additionally, his passage of the Federal Reserve Act has undoubtedly benefitted everyday Americans for the last 100 years. Similarly, LBJ’s “Great Society” established a precedent for the federal government to aid those who are unable to care for themselves through both poverty alleviation programs and Medicare and Medicaid.
Reagan’s overall legacy, however, has less clear of an impact today. Aside from ending the Cold War, Reagan policies have had varied effect. His policy of “Reaganomics” is controversial — although his presidency coincided with great economic growth (a factor that can be attributed to good luck), the Reaganomics principles that President George W. Bush pursued failed miserably. Additionally, conservatives hail him as the savior of the conservative movement — but look where it is now. It’s the opposite of Reagan Republicans. Big government, isolationist, high-spending conservatism is the opposite of Reaganism, but here we are less than 40 years later — and it seems that Reaganism is dead.
Finally, I think President Obama is ranked too high at No. 12. Although I love Obama, the jury is still out. His groundbreaking healthcare law may be dismantled and his greatest foreign policy accomplishment (the Iran deal) may also fall apart. His historic presidency and grace in office is unparalleled, but the policy and long-term impact of his time in office is less clear than presidents such as James K. Polk and Bill Clinton.
What’s also interesting is how a few years can have an impact on what people think about presidencies 100 years ago. Ulysses S. Grant jumped 11 spots in 17 years, Wilson fell five in 17 years and Bill Clinton jumped six in 17 years. As our national ideals change, so do our readings of history. Who knows — maybe one day James Buchanan won’t be last.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.