2016 UK Survey of US Presidents: Results and Analysis
Franklin Roosevelt comes first again, but Lincoln close second;
Barack Obama in top ten; George W. Bush still in bottom ten
Michael Patrick Cullinane (University of Roehampton)
Iwan Morgan (University College London)
Simon Rofe (SOAS – University of London)
In 1960, US political scientist Richard Neustadt began his seminal book, Presidential Power, with the observation: “In the United States we like to ‘rate’ a President. We measure him as ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ and call what we are measuring his ‘leadership.’” In the half century since, systematic presidential rating has become a regular exercise for US scholars and the body politic. Over the same period, study and research of US history and politics expanded dramatically in UK universities.
In 2011 the United States Presidency Centre (USPC) now at University College London (UCL) conducted the first ever UK scholarly survey of US presidents (http://www.community-languages.org.uk/US-presidency-survey/). The survey offered an interim assessment of Barack Obama’s presidency and, as the 2016 presidential election neared, the opportunity to make a full assessment of Obama’s eight years in office, alongside further reflections prompted a second new survey. The second survey of UK-based scholars was organized by the Presidential History Network (PHN) steering committee and the USPC at UCL.
In total, 71 UK-based specialists on American history and politics took part in the survey that was conducted from June to November 2016. Participants were asked to rate the performance of all United States presidents (excluding William Henry Harrison and James A. Garfield who served less than a year in office) across the following five categories:
- vision/agenda-setting: did the president have the clarity of vision to establish overarching goals for his administration and shape the terms of policy discourse?
- domestic leadership: did the president display the political skill needed to achieve his domestic objectives and respond effectively to unforeseen developments?
- foreign policy leadership: was the president an effective leader in promoting US foreign policy interests and national security?
- moral authority: did the president uphold the moral authority of his office through his character, values, and conduct?
- positive historical significance of their legacy: did the president’s legacy have positive benefits for America’s development over time?
Participants were asked to score the presidents in each category, which was equally weighted, from one (“not effective”) to ten (“very effective”). The 2016 survey also introduced a “zero” score (“0”) if participants wanted to be excluded from answering a particular president or any category. The zero score was designed to allow participants who were less familiar and/or felt less confident in their knowledge of with an administration, or an aspect of a given administration, to opt out. Participants were given the opportunity to leave qualitative comments on the excluded administrations of William Henry Harrison and James A. Garfield, as well as a commentary on the survey overall. The survey organizers guaranteed that individual survey results would remain confidential. Survey responses were tabulated into overall scores by averaging the responses in a given category for each president (minus “0s”) and then averaging the scores from each category with equal weighting. The survey was conducted through www.surveymonkey.co.uk.
Analysis of Results
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45) came first overall, with Abraham Lincoln (1861-65) second, and George Washington (1789-97) third. These results largely match the overall assessment of the 2011 survey, although the gap between Roosevelt and Lincoln in 2016 shrank to a marginal 0.08. To give a sense of how narrow the difference, the gap between Lincoln and Washington – Lincoln’s nearest in score – is 0.674, or more than 8x (times) as wide a margin. Franklin Roosevelt topped two categories (Vision and Agenda Setting & Foreign Policy Leadership) whereas Lincoln topped three (Domestic Leadership, Moral Authority, and Positive Historical Significance of Legacy). The margin by which Franklin Roosevelt outranked Lincoln on Foreign Policy Leadership (+1.10) made the difference, which suggests that Roosevelt’s management of World War II was valued highly by participants. It should come as no surprise that Franklin Roosevelt, Lincoln, and Washington remain atop the rankings as a “trio of greats.” Almost every scholarly survey since such exercises began in 1948 has ranked them in the top three, although not always in the same order.
Only one president who has held office since 1960 made the top ten: Barack Obama (2009-2017), coming at no. 7. Most of the recent presidents held middling positions in the poll: Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) was placed at no. 13; Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) was at no. 18; Bill Clinton (1993-2001) came in at no. 19; and George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) placed at no. 21. His son, George W. Bush (2001-2009), is the exception to this trend – he was ranked at no. 34, the lowest ranking of any post-World War II president and the lowest-rated since the scandal-ridden Warren G. Harding administration (1921-1923). In comparison to the 2011 survey, these presidents remain in much the same position. Ronald Reagan, however, recorded the steepest decline from no. 8 in 2011 to no. 13 in 2016.
The first six presidents are idolized at the top of the rankings. George Washington (1789-1797), Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), and John Adams (1797-1801) make the top 10, with James Monroe (1817-1825) and James Madison (1809-1817) rounding out the top 15, and John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) at no. 17. Part of the reason the last three do so well is the low percentage of respondents. Participants scored “0” for these presidents than they did for any other period. Partly too, the United States’ first presidents are credited with setting the executive office on its way as an institution and they carry an aura of greatness pertaining to their role as founders. What is also worth noting is the long service of these presidents. All of them achieved historical greatness before they became president, perhaps with the exception of John Quincy Adams who continued to serve his country in Congress after the presidency. Whether Adams Sr., Madison, or Adams Jr. lived up to their pre or post-presidential achievements while in office remains debatable.
In stark contrast, the bottom of the league table includes those presidents that held office just before and after the Civil War. These were: John Tyler (1841-1845) at no. 36, Millard Fillmore (1850-1853) at no. 39, Franklin Pierce (1853-1857) at no. 40, James Buchanan (1857-1861) at no. 41, and Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) at no. 37. Surveys regularly rank these five, along with Warren G. Harding, as failures. Tyler, Fillmore, and Pierce failed to arrest the sectionalism of the antebellum era, and Buchanan is regularly blamed for the onset of the Civil War. Andrew Johnson’s obstruction of Reconstruction and battles with Congress led to his impeachment and legacy as a failure. None of the bottom ranking five sought re-nomination or won re-nomination from their parties, making them all one-term presidents. How astonishing, and fortunate for the United States, that it should have the great Abraham Lincoln in the White House at such a time!
Many Cold War presidents are clustered in the top quartile. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) leads the pack at no. 8, immediately followed by his successor Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) at no. 9, John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) at no. 11, and Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963-1969) at no. 12. Two exceptions include Richard Nixon (1969-1974) ranked slightly below average at no. 26 and Gerald Ford (1974-1977) who fared even worse at no. 28. Nixon’s place is almost wholly the result of poor marks for “Moral Authority,” a category he scored the lowest of all presidents and a grade most likely based on the Watergate scandal. Perhaps Ford’s most notable act – except for being the only chief executive never elected as president or vice-president – was to pardon Nixon.
Scandal, it seems, can have a hefty impact on overall rankings and particularly the scores for “Moral Authority.” Bill Clinton earned high scores for “Domestic Leadership” (no. 7) and ranked no. 13 for “Vision and Agenda Setting.” His 1998 impeachment after revelations of numerous sex scandals emerged, and the Whitewater controversy that dogged his second term led scholars to rank his “Moral Authority” at no. 34 amongst the failed presidencies of George W. Bush and the antebellum era. The only other president impeached – Andrew Johnson – joins Clinton and Nixon near the bottom in this category. Of course, Warren G. Harding’s truncated term in office is best remembered for the Teapot Dome scandal and bribery allegations in the Justice Department and Veterans’ Bureau. Correspondingly, Harding ranks near bottom. Interestingly, however, some scandal-hit presidencies escaped this kind of scrutiny. When Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 & 1893-1897) campaigned for president in 1884, opponents exposed an illegitimate child and a sex scandal. Interestingly, Cleveland’s moral authority did not suffer. The corruption allegations leveled against Harry S. Truman in the final years of his presidency did not keep participants from ranking his moral authority in the top 10.
Average and below-average presidents, or those ranking in the lower-middle quartile from 22 to 32, tended to be one-term presidents who lost re-election or never attempted to run. James K. Polk (1845-1849) came in at no. 22. He is unfairly classed as a one-term president because he promised to serve only four years, but William Howard Taft (1909-1913) at no. 25, Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) at no. 27, Gerald Ford (1974-1977) at no. 28, Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) at no. 29, and Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) at no. 30 all lost re-election. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881), who came no. 32 on the list, did not seek re-election.
There are some striking differences and obvious similarities between the 2011 UK survey and the 2016 UK survey. The “trio of greats” remains the same, and in the top ten there are some minor moves. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) pipped Jefferson to 4th place. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) stayed put at no. 6, and Barack Obama’s entry at no. 7 moved those behind him down a place or two. At the top of the table, the big surprise is Ronald Reagan’s decline from no. 8 to no. 13, and Andrew Jackson’s (1829-1837) drop from no. 9 to no. 16 was the largest plunge. The only big move upward was Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) from no. 29 to no. 23, a shift that might be owed to historiographical revisions made the last ten years and the campaigns of the U.S. Grant Memorial Association. The discrepancy between the 2011 and 2016 survey is statistically slight. 22 presidents ranked exactly the same or varied by 1 place (a normal variance given Obama’s entry). 11 presidents moved 2 or 3 places, and 8 presidents moved 4 or more places (Reagan, Jackson, Polk, Ford, Coolidge, and Fillmore moved down; Grant and Harrison moved up).
There are more significant differences between US and UK rankings of individual presidents. The very same weekend the results of the UK 2016 were released, C-SPAN released its updated rankings. Among the trio of greats, the two polls are similar, although the UK ranked FDR and Lincoln as close competitors for the top position, whereas American academics put Lincoln far ahead of Washington, and Washington comfortably ahead of FDR. The most notable differences in the top 10 are that of Barack Obama (7 in the UK / 12 in the US), John F. Kennedy (12 in the UK / 8 in the US) and Ronald Reagan (13 in the UK / 9 in the US). UK academics perhaps faulted JFK for gaps between his rhetoric and his achievements, while a liberal bias may have lent Reagan and Obama higher ratings. Such a bias is often levelled against presidential surveys, and the UK survey appears to have a similar leaning. Democratic presidents after 1933 score comparatively higher than Republican presidents in the same period. The 7 Democratic presidents in this period rank as nos. 1, 7, 8, 11, 12, 18, and 19. The 6 Republican presidents of the same period rank as nos. 9, 13, 21, 26, 28, and 34. In the CSPAN survey, Republican presidents fare somewhat better.
Of course, complete objectivity in surveys of this kind is impossible. No less than their US counterparts, the views of UK scholars are influenced by not only their own times but also their perceptions of how America’s leaders have represented that nation’s best values both at home and abroad. The passions of the present have evidently affected the lowly position of George W. Bush and high position of Barack Obama. Memories are still raw regarding Bush’s Iraq war policy, but his position in the bottom ten arguably underestimates the strength of his vision/agenda setting and his success in achieving his domestic objectives. Likewise, Obama’s score reflects his substantive legislative achievements (even if their repeal seems imminent in 2017), his different style of leadership from Bush’s, and what he symbolically represents as the first African American president. And the one thing academics on both sides of the ocean and the political fence can agree on is that Obama’s eight years in office were scandal-free. There was no Monica Lewinski, no Iran-Contra, no Watergate, no Teapot Dome, and no Sally Hemmings.
Regardless of differences between the UK and US surveys, similarity of great significance stand out: the trio of great remain the same; antebellum presidents retain a low position; Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt are considered near-greats; liberal modern presidents rank ahead of conservative modern presidents; two-term presidents rank far ahead of one-term presidents; and Barack Obama ranks in the top quartile of both. Over time and political cultures, our sense of success and failure is noticeably consistent.
Oh, and one more thing: these surveys hold the interest of audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. The second UK survey of US presidents, and the larger response rate in 2016, demonstrates that UK-based academics have an enduring interest in the American executive. Although critics of these ranking games complain that the historical juxtaposition of presidents is about as useful as comparing apples and oranges, the results draw us in and make us think about what makes a great leader.