Since we are constantly bombarded by presidential rankings that are never objective and are entirely partisan, I decided it was time for me to tackle this task once and for all. I’ve read enough history to have the ability to do this (and will research any knowledge gaps along the way), and I can be reasonably objective in the manner in which I grade their individual effectiveness and performances.
To grade each president I will consider the following criteria (scores graded from 1-5 with 5 the highest):
- Foreign Policy
- Domestic Policy
- Crisis Management
- Enduring Accomplishments
- Adherence to Constitution and American principles
- Overall Legacy
Because of his tenure of only 31 days, William Henry Harrison will not be included in the rankings. I also won’t count Grover Cleveland twice. I will include the current president, Joe Biden, as well as the shortened presidencies of Gerald Ford, etc.
- George Washington
FP: 4.5, DP: 5, CM: 5, C: 4.5, EA: 4, AC: 5, OL: 5: Total Score: 4.71
Washington set a strong legacy for future presidents through his leadership, diplomacy, a strong cabinet, and his choosing not to run for a third term, paving the way for a democratic transition of power. Washington handled crises like the Whiskey Rebellion with a measured level of force, while still seeking to establish peaceful relations for trade and prosperity by signing the Jay Treaty with Great Britain. His cabinet appointments, particularly of Alexander Hamilton as treasury secretary were particularly valuable in determining the future direction and stability of the nation.
- John Adams
FP: 5, DP: 2, CM: 3, C: 2, EA: 3, AC: 1, OL: 3: Total Score: 2.29
Adams was undeniably a great patriot of great character and intellect. His defense of the British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre showed that America could be a nation of fair laws and justice under the guidance of men like Adams. However, as president, Adams passed the Alien and Sedition Acts that undid the Bill of Rights at a time when the nation’s future remained in a delicate state. His one notable achievement was avoiding a war with France, which would have likely been disastrous for the newly formed nation.
- Thomas Jefferson
FP: 3, DP: 4, CM: 4, C: 4, EA: 5, AC: 3.5, OL: 4.5: Total Score: 4.0
Jefferson was president showed immense foresight and a determination to dismantle federalism in favor of smaller government. His greatest accomplishment was the Louisiana Purchase which was followed up by the Lewis and Clark expedition. He rightly repealed the unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts and paid down the national debt, while also taking on the Barbary pirates militarily. Jefferson’s slaveholding is a point of modern criticism, but Jefferson also abolished the slave trade. His Embargo Act which blocked trade with England and France led to an economic decline in the formerly prospering states. He was also ineffective at dealing with England’s impressment of American sailors in the lead-up to war.
- James Madison
FP: 3, DP: 3.5, CM: 3, C: 2, EA: 3, AC: 4. OL: 3: Total Score: 3.07
Madison led the US through the war of 1812 which brought both disastrous defeats and impressive military victories for the nascent American armies against the British. Madison oversaw an increase in military spending and effectiveness over the course of the war after trying at the outset of his administration to downsize the military and federal government. Madison’s cabinet was particularly weak outside of Albert Gallatin and the appointment of James Monroe. Madison allowed the National Bank’s charter to lapse though encouraged by Gallatin of its necessity for credit and economic stability. A second National Bank was chartered at the end of his presidency.
- James Monroe
FP: 5, DP: 3, CM: 3.5, C: 3, EA: 5, AC: 4, OL: 4: Total Score: 3.92
James Monroe’s greatest legacy is arguably the Monroe Doctrine that led to a decline and eventual end of European colonialism in the Americas. Monroe also ratified treaties with England that formally ended hostilities from the War of 1812. Monroe supported the Missouri Compromise which temporarily calmed the issue of slavery in the western states that would later lead to war. Monroe took a hands-off approach to the economy which slumped in the postwar years from high inflation and a downturn in trade.
- John Quincy Adams
FP: 4.5, DP: 5, CM: 3, C: 3, EA: 4, AC: 5, OL: 4.5: Total Score: 4.14
John Quincy Adams entered the presidency after a contested election returned the election to the House of Representatives. Adams was ideologically a Federalist despite the disappearance of the party and intended to strengthen the federal government while also pursuing infrastructure improvements, including roads, canals and railroads. Adams also signed trade agreements with Europe and expanded American influence in Latin America.
- Andrew Jackson
FP: 3, DP:3, CM:2, C: 3, EA: 2, AC: 3, OL: 3: Total Score: 2.7
Andrew Jackson was a populist president and the first president of the new Democratic party. Jackson’s administration was undermined by the Petticoat Affair and the spoils system and his determination to undo the federalist banking system caused a financial panic. The Indian Removal Act was popular at the time among the Southern agrarian class, but showed little humanity to the affected tribes. Jackson favored the expansion of slavery and supported the idea of “states rights” despite the Nullification Crisis that was led by South Carolina in refusing to agree to federal tariffs.
- Martin Van Buren
FP: 3, DP: 1, CM: 3, C: 3, EA: 2, AC: 4, OL: 2: Total Score: 2.57
Van Buren was a northern political ally of Andrew Jackson and rode the vice presidency to the presidency after Jackson’s term. His veto of the national bank caused a financial crisis as the country lost its ability to extend credit and money shifted to regional banks. Van Buren opposed the annexation of Texas over opposition to the possible expansion of slavery in the western states, though he believed the existing states had the right to its continuation without interference from the government. After his one term he ran again under the Free Soil Party to oppose the expansion of slavery.
- John Tyler
FP: 4, DP:2, CM: 2, C: 1, EA: 3, AC: 2, OL: 1: Total Score: 2.14
John Tyler was elevated to the presidency after the death of William Henry Harrison shortly after taking office as a member of the new Whig party. Tyler’s greatest accomplishment might well be that he took the oath of office on the death of President Harrison, and set a precedent for future VPs ascending to the presidency. Tyler decided to keep Harrison’s cabinet but the cabinet was hostile to the new president and incapable of resolving disputes in a fractious environment preceding the Civil War. Tyler was unable to bring about a resolution to the financial crisis of his predecessor and his vetoes of tariffs and hostility to even his own Whig party led to his impeachment. Tyler did expand foreign trade during his presidency with China and treaties with England to set the northern border. After his presidency Tyler died a supporter of the Confederacy and his coffin was draped in a Confederate flag.
- James K. Polk
FP: 5, DP: 4.5, CM: 4, C: 3, EA: 5, AC: 3, OL: 4.5: Total Score: 4.14
Polk served only one term as president (by choice), but by the end of his term the United States had acquired Texas by annexation, the Oregon Territory, California, and the American Southwest. Polk brilliantly applied military force, or the threat of it, to achieve his expansionist goals, defeating Mexico in war and pushing Great Britain to accept a favorable treaty to divide the Oregon Territory.
Polk also reduced tariffs to improve trade with England and the economy of the Southern States which had been harmed by protectionism, sparking a boom in the 1840s. He likewise reinstated the independent federal treasury which brought stability back to the federal banking system.
Finally Polk ensured that slavery would not be extended to the California territories and much of the southwest and Oregon.
- Zachary Taylor
FP: 3, DP: 3.5, CM: 3, C: 4, EA: 3, AC: 4, OL: 3: Total Score: 3.36
Zachary Taylor was the first of a line of largely forgotten presidents that presided in the period between the expansion of the US to the West Coast and the Civil War. This was a tense period in American history where several presidents struggled to keep the country intact against growing secessionist sentiment in the South.
Taylor wanted to keep slavery out of the western territories and favored direct statehood for California which allowed it to decide on the issue on its own. He also took a hard line against militias in Texas that wanted to invade New Mexico, which he intended to remain a free territory as well, threatening military action. Taylor managed a difficult balancing act that prevented the expansion of slavery while not outright opposing it where it already existed.
In foreign policy, Taylor negotiated a treaty with Great Britain over a proposed future canal in Central America and opposed an annexation of Cuba as was desired by southern war hawks. Taylor viewed this proposal as unconstitutional and illegal.
Taylor died after only 15 months as president. In the ensuing years there were theories that he was poisoned by arsenic and his body was exhumed. Tests later confirmed he was not poisoned.
- Millard Fillmore
FP:4, DP: 2, CM: 2.5, C: 4, EA: 2, AC: 4, OL: 3: Total Score: 3.07
- Franklin Pierce
FP: 4, DP: 2, CM: 1, C: 3, EA: 1, AC: 4, OL: 2: Total Score: 2.43
- James Buchanan
FP: 3, DP: 1, CM: 1, C: 2, EA: 1, AC: 3, OL: 1.5: Total Score: 1.79
- Abraham Lincoln
FP: 4, DP: 5, CM: 5, C: 4, EA: 5, AC: 5, OL: 5: Total Score: 4.71
- Andrew Johnson
FP: 3, DP: 1, CM: 2, C: 3, EA: 2, AC: 2, OL: 2: Total Score: 2.14
- Ulysses S Grant
FP: 4, DP: 5, CM: 4, C: 2, EA: 5, AC: 5, OL: 4.5: Total Score: 4.21
- Rutherford B. Hayes
FP: 3, DP: 3.5, CM: 3, C: 3, EA: 3, AC: 4, OL: 3: Total Score: 3.21
- James Garfield
FP: 4, DP: 4, CM: 3, C: 4, EA: 3.5, AC: 4, OL: 3.5: Total Score: 3.71
- Chester A. Arthur
FP: 2, DP: 3, CM; 3, C: 3, EA: 2, AC; 3, OL: 2.5: Total Score: 2.64
- Grover Cleveland
FP: 2, DP: 3, CM: 2, C: 3, EA: 3, AC: 3.5, OL: 3: Total Score: 2.79
- Benjamin Harrison
FP: 4, DP: 3.5, CM: 3, C: 3.5, EA: 4, AC: 4, OL : 3.5: Total Score: 3.64
- William McKinley
FP: 4.5, DP: 3, CM: 3, C: 4, EA: 4, AC: 3, OL: 3.5: Total Score: 3.57
- Theodore Roosevelt
FP: 5, DP: 5, CM: 4.5, C: 4, EA: 5, AC: 5, OL: 5: Total Score: 4.79
- William Howard Taft
FP: 5, DP: 3, CM: 3, C: 3, EA: 3, AC: 5, OL: 3.5: Total Score: 3.64
- Woodrow Wilson
FP: 5, DP: 3.5, CM: 5, C: 3, EA: 4, AC: 3, OL: 3.5: Total Score: 3.86
- Warren G. Harding
FP: 2, DP: 3.5, CM: 1, C: 1, EA: 1, AC: 3, OL: 2.5: Total Score: 1.86
- Calvin Coolidge
FP: 3, DP: 4, CM: 2, C: 3, EA: 3, AC: 3, OL: 3: Total Score: 3.0
- Herbert Hoover:
FP: 2.5, DP: 3, CM: 1.5, C: 3, EA: 3, AC: 3, OL: 2.5: Total Score: 2.64
- Franklin Roosevelt
FP: 5, DP: 4, CM: 4, C: 4, EA: 4, AC: 2, OL: 4: Total Score: 3.86
- Harry Truman
FP: 5, DP: 4, CM: 4, C: 3.5, EA: 4, AC: 3, OL: 4: Total Score: 3.93
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
FP: 4.5, DP: 5, CM: 4.5, C: 4, EA: 4.5, AC: 4.5, OL: 4.5: Total Score: 4.5
- John F. Kennedy
FP: 3.5, DP: 4.5, CM: 4.5, C: 4, EA: 4.5, AC: 4, OL: 4.5: Total Score: 4.21
JFK has a remarkable legacy as a president, his time in office marking the transition between the relative prosperity of the 50s and the social turbulence of the 60s. He set an agenda for Civil Rights legislation, Space Race, and military engagement in Vietnam that was carried out largely by his successor Lyndon Johnson. His attempt at overthrowing the Cuban regime of Fidel Castro backfired badly and led to a tense standoff with the Cuban and Soviet regimes at the height of the Cold War.
Kennedy was determined to contain the Soviet Union and the spread of communism and supported proxy conflicts worldwide with increased military spending. While the Bay of Pigs was a devastating failure, Kennedy was able to protect West Berlin and ensure a peaceful end to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Domestically the economy grew under Kennedy’s administration via tax cuts and government spending. Kennedy took a strong stance against segregation in the South and utilized the national guard even in opposition to Governor Wallace of Alabama. Much of his Civil Rights agenda would have to be carried out by his vice president after his tragic assassination.
JFK is remembered as a visionary president and is generally considered one of the great presidents of the 20th century despite only holding office for three years.
- Lyndon Johnson
FP: 2.5, DP: 4, CM: 3, C: 3, EA: 5, AC: 3, OL: 3.5: Total Score: 3.42
Johnson’s presidency spanned the middle of the 1960s, and during that turbulent era LBJ’s legacy of accomplishments included the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid, and the overall War on Poverty. He carried out the Kennedy policy initiatives aimed at ending segregation, while also greatly expanding the role of the government in social programs. He also promoted and pushed for space race funding to carry out Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon.
Johnson enacted tax cuts which helped fuel an economic expansion at the same time that domestic spending increased with the space race and the war in Vietnam. This led to significant deficits through most of his administration.
Johnson’s expansion of American involvement in Vietnam became a source of domestic strife as protests swept the US. The war dragged on as more US soldiers were deployed with no clear end in sight by the end of Johnson’s term. Opposition to the war negatively affected Johnson’s popularity and would likely have led to his defeat in an election for a second term (which he declined to pursue).
- Richard Nixon
FP: 4.5, DP: 4.5, CM: 2, C: 2, EA: 4, AC: 2, OL: 3.5: Total Score: 3.29
Richard Nixon was both a highly successful president whose foreign and domestic policy successes would start the nation on the path to ending the Cold War and opening up trade relations with China, as well as winding down the Vietnam War, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the end of the Gold Standard, and the winning of the Space Race with the successful Apollo 11 mission and subsequent moon missions. He also supported the Space Shuttle program which would eventually become the backbone of the US space program.
Unfortunately, this was also a president whose deceit and efforts at a coverup of the Watergate break-in would lead to his certain impeachment. He resigned rather than face that prospect.
- Gerald Ford
FP: 2, DP: 2, CM: 2.5, C: 3, EA: 2, AC: 4, OL: 3: Total Score: 2.64
Ford took the presidency following the resignation of Richard Nixon who was facing impeachment. Ford controversially pardoned Nixon rather than subject the nation to more internal strife following the Watergate scandal. A period of relative domestic calm followed.
Ford completed the American withdrawal from Vietnam, declaring the war over for America. Quickly thereafter Saigon fell to communist forces and a hasty evacuation was needed to rescue stranded Americans and Vietnamese refugees. Likewise the American withdrawal had a cascading effect on Cambodia where communist forces took control of the country and slaughtered millions.
The economy declined and entered a period of recession which ultimately doomed his election chances in 1976.
- James Carter
FP: 3, DP: 2, CM: 1, C: 3, EA: 3.5, AC: 4, OL: 3: Total Score: 2.64
Carter won the presidency in 1976 after defeating Gerald Ford in the election. Carter’s presidency is often associated with the economic struggles of the 1970s and foreign policy successes and failures.
The country had emerged from the Watergate scandal but was stuck in a period of low growth an inflation which Carter was unable to respond to effectively. Arab nations were likewise ready to use oil embargoes to punish the US for its support of Israel, with a second embargo in 1979 creating log lines and frustration for Americans. Carter created the national petroleum reserve and deregulated domestic gas as a response, both of which later proved beneficial to the country.
Carter successfully negotiated a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel which helped diffuse tensions in the region. But the Iranian Revolution and capture of the American embassy, followed by the failed rescue mission seemed a final nail in the coffin to a presidency marked by endless challenges.
- Ronald Reagan
FP: 5, DP: 4.5, CM: 4, C: 4, EA: 3, AC: 4.5, OL: 4.5: Total Score: 4.21
The most popular and beloved president of the past 50 years, Reagan entered the presidency during a period of economic decline, high inflation, and foreign policy nightmares ranging from the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to Central American revolutions, etc. Upon his exit from presidency, the economy was on a strong footing and American power was unrivaled around the world with capitalist democracies well established as the most successful.
Reagan was a charismatic speaker and fostered great relationships with foreign leaders like Margaret Thatcher. Was able to steer the country on a track of prosperity following the recession of the early 80s that gained him a blowout election win in 1984.
During the second half of his presidency Reagan negotiated with Mikhail Gorbachev to ease Cold War tensions, but stood firmly in defense of the rights of Eastern European nations to be free from Soviet dominance, telling Gorbachev in Berlin to tear down the wall (it was soon after demolished in a popular uprising the united East and West Germany).
Reagan utilized measured force against Libya and in Grenada but largely avoided engaging the US in major military conflicts. Secretive CIA missions in Afghanistan and in Central America became a source of controversy and scandal and the arming of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan played a role in that country’s civil war and even 9/11 decades later.
Reagan’s presidency is often viewed as the paragon of a conservative presidency among modern Republicans.
- George HW Bush
FP: 4.5, DP: 3, CM: 4, C: 3, EA: 3, AC: 4, OL: 3.5: Total Score: 3.57
Bush arrived into the presidency at a time when the Soviet Bloc was collapsing and a series of Democratic movements swept through Eastern Europe, eventually leading to a revolution in the Soviet Union itself. Bush positioned himself as a partner to new democratic governments in Eastern Europe and to Boris Yeltsin in Russia in reforming and democratizing their governments and opening up new economic relationships.
After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait Bush was able to organize an effective coalition of Western and Arab forces to liberate Kuwait. Iraq was swiftly defeated and the coalition proved internationally popular as a response to the invasion. Bush declined to advance into Iraq and left Saddam Hussein in power, leading to massacres among the Iraq population who were willing to revolt against the dictator.
Though highly popular following the war, Bush’s popularity cratered as he failed to respond in a meaningful way to a recession that hit in the early 1990s. As the economy became a larger issue among the voting public, Bush alienated them by focusing on outdated ‘family values’ and decried popular television shows. His defeat in the 1992 presidential election was summed up by a Democratic presidential advisor: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
- Bill Clinton
FP: 3, DP: 4, CM: 3, C: 3, EA: 2, AC: 3, OL: 3.5: Total Score: 3.07
Bill Clinton was elected following end of the Cold War when America emerged on the world stage as the only superpower, both militarily and economically. A centrist Democrat, he quickly abandoned efforts at healthcare reform and pivoted to welfare reform and took on an almost conservative economic policy. Clinton was largely ineffective in dealing with foreign terror threats but did support the military overthrow of Milosevich in Serbia.
Domestically the country thrived with a Republican-controlled congress and the emergence of the internet. An embarrassing scandal involving an intern led to his impeachment and later censure. Overall, partly due to the economic growth, stability, and prosperity of the 1990s, his presidency is often regarded as having been a general success due to his economic policies and political tone.
- George W Bush
FP: 3, DP: 2, CM: 3, C: 3, EA: 2, AC: 3, OL: 2.5: Total Score: 2.64
The presidency of George W Bush was marked by the tragedy of 9/11, the Iraq War, and the start of the Great Recession. Bush handled 9/11 with effectiveness and created the Dept of Homeland Security as a way of consolidating agencies and preventing future attacks.
The Iraq War, however, was based on false intelligence and destabilized the Mideast even if it removed a murderous dictator from power. The Iraq War dragged on with the rise of Al-Qaida in Iraq long after Bush prematurely declared victory in the war by ousting Saddam Hussein.
Despite the advantage of a Republican majority in congress his first term, Bush was unable to pass any noteworthy legislation beyond security measures related to the War on Terror. Bush seemed unable to recognize the threat of the oncoming housing market crash and reacted ineffectively as the recession hit. As the economy declined rapidly and fatigue from the Iraq War weighed on the country, it became nearly impossible for any Republican to win the presidency in 2008.
- Barack Obama
FP: 2, DP: 3.5, CM: 3, C: 2, EA: 2.5, AC: 2.5, OL: 3: Total Score: 2.64
Though popular with the Democratic Left as the first black president, the presidency of Barack Obama was marked by increasing social tension and largely ineffective foreign policy. The housing market and economy largely recovered over the course of his presidency as a result of tighter lending standards enacted to prevent a repeat of the crash.
Obama supported a policy of indirect support for popular uprisings in the Mideast that overthrew a number of autocratic governments but failed to intervene as many countries were overrun by terror groups and civil war. Hostile foreign nations became more aggressive in response to a apparent weakness in American will for confrontation, but he did order the strike that killed Osama bin Laden. Tension between police and domestic groups and terror attacks by ISIS marked much of his presidency.
His signature accomplishment of Obamacare was passed without widespread approval and has remained on an uncertain footing. More than any prior president of the modern era, the mainstream media was mostly unwilling to challenge or question his leadership decisions and glossed over policy failures. Political division and distrust grew more pronounced over the course of his presidency, as well as growing fears and realizations of politically motivated investigations and agencies.
- Donald Trump
FP: 3.5, DP: 3.5, CM: 3, C: 2, EA: 4, AC: 1, OL: 2.5: Total Score: 2.78
Probably the most controversial president of all time. the presidency of Donald Trump was marked both by a list of impressive accomplishments but also endless investigations by a hostile opposition and an argumentative and at times juvenile use of social media.
Trump’s accomplishments included a tax reform bill, a NAFTA replacement trade agreement, criminal justice reform, the defeat of ISIS militarily and the killing of the leader of the terror group, the negotiated the return of hostages, the Great Outdoors Act, as well as bringing together pharmaceutical companies for Operation Warp Speed and handled the Covid-19 epidemic relatively well considering the scientific realities of the disease (it was never going to be controlled). His administration secured a number of peace treaties between Israel and Arab states.
Despite these successes his cabinet was a revolving door of ineffective choices (many of whom turned on him later) until his final year in office . As a communicator, his outspoken and combative tone alienated and angered many and played a significant role in his defeat for a second term. His unwillingness to accept election defeat stained his legacy and likely ended his political career after what might otherwise be reviewed historically as a very impressive presidency.
- Joe Biden (current)
FP: 2.5, DP: 2, CM: 1.5, C: 1.5, EA: 1.5, AC: 2, OL: 1.5: Total Score: 1.79
Elected with significant and controversial support from the mainstream media and technology companies, as well as the pandemic-related frustrations of Americans, Joe Biden was elected as the oldest president in history at age 78.
Despite promising to “end” the pandemic during his campaign, the scientific realities of the disease (largely already known in 2020) made this promise untenable. Rolled back a number of measures taken by Donald Trump to limit illegal immigration, leading to an ongoing border crisis and effectively open borders. Covid “relief” measures that incurred trillions in debt spending, an inability to correct for supply-chain issues, and poor energy policy have led to runaway inflation that currently plagues the country as of 2022.
Despite showing obvious signs of mental decline, Joe Biden has been largely shielded from criticism by the media though his teleprompter gaffes are undeniably embarrassing. The future of this presidency brings a great deal of uncertainty and doubt as to whether a second term will be desired even by his supporters.
The highest rated presidents were:
1: Theodore Roosevelt: 4.79
2: Tie: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln: 4.71
4. Dwight D. Eisenhower: 4.5
5. Tie: Ulysses S. Grant, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan: 4.21
The lowest rated presidents are:
1. Tie James Buchanan and Joe Biden: 1.79
3. Warren G Harding: 1.86
4. Tie Andrew Johnson and John Tyler: 2.14
I did my best to be objective throughout this effort and relied on factual information rather than partisan opinions to make my assessments. I realize it’s harder than ever to be politically objective in today’s society, but for the sake of historical comparison, I made that my purpose here.