Editor’s Note: Please also take a look at The Five Worst U.S. Presidents of All Time by Robert W. Merry.
Who are the greatest American presidents, and what can they tell us about our own time? How do we define greatness in the presidency, anyway, and who gets to pick the executives included in that hallowed circle? Or is it all just a mystery, fodder for those intermittent academic polls on presidential performance and animated discussions of political and historical junkies?
We take up this discussion with a purpose. Seldom has the American republic been more acutely in need of truly effective presidential leadership than it is right now. The country is in drift, beset by seemingly hopeless political clashes that are gumming up the gears of democracy. Its foreign policy lacks definition and coherence, while domestic issues kick up controversies of such intensity that the country can hardly move. This isn’t all Obama’s fault, though his philosophical adversaries would have us blame it all on him. But his job is to effectively address the nation’s ills, and he has proved himself incapable of doing that.
We must not lose sight of the fact that we live under a presidential system, which means that great crises get solved through presidential leadership or not at all. So, with that in mind, let’s play the Great White House Rating Game and identify, say, the six greatest presidents of all time.
Some will be included in that category with hardly a serious murmur of dissent, though certain minority outlooks will always generate naysayers against the consensus judgment. And that’s just fine, because the Great White House Rating Game is open to all and has no rigid rules.
But we can discern history’s consensus judgment on the greats and near-greats because those occasional academic polls have generated, over time, a body of survey information on the matter. And those polls suggest that the greats and near-greats are Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt (usually in that order), followed in various rank order by Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman.
But let’s not just take the historians’ word for it because they may harbor prejudices that could skew the results. So let’s crank in the contemporaneous judgment of the electorate and toss out those presidents who ultimately found themselves seriously crosswise with the American people during their times in office. In the above list, that would eliminate Wilson and Truman (and possibly Polk, but with him it’s difficult to tell because he had vowed, when accepting his party’s nomination, not to run for a second term).
Wilson and Truman did some great things, particularly Truman. But Wilson’s second term was a disaster. The war into which he pushed his country never produced the results he had promised with such dreamy idealism. He leveraged the war to push federal intervention into American life far more than anyone had ever done before—and far more than the country was prepared to accept. His policies produced a horrendous recession, with a 6.5 percent decline in GDP in two years. The American people, at the next election, gave Wilson’s Democratic Party one of its most severe repudiations in American history—60.3 percent victory for a nonentity Republican opponent, a loss of sixty-three seats in the House and eleven in the Senate.
Truman is a tougher call. His inherited term was nothing short of heroic—ending the war with Japan; relatively smooth transition from wartime to peacetime economy; emergence of the “containment” policy against the Soviet Union; Marshall Plan; National Security Act of 1947; Berlin airlift. But his second term was mediocre. Though NATO came into existence during this term, it was more significantly characterized by a war that the president couldn’t win and couldn’t get out of (political poison for any president); a faltering economy; and petty corruption on the part of presidential cronies from Kansas City, who were given jobs for which they weren’t qualified.
Thus, we shall eliminate presidents whose records, however laudatory at certain times, also sputtered at other times. That leaves us with a top six of Lincoln, Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Jefferson, Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt. Here we have a circle of presidents who not only get constant plaudits from the historians but who also were revered by large electoral majorities during their times in power. A good index here: a two-term president succeeded by a president of his own party.
What do they have in common? They all emerged at times when the country needed a new direction, and all set the country upon that new, needed course. Lincoln broke the nation’s political logjam, saved the nation from disintegration and ended slavery. Washington ensured that the delicate flower of American democracy could take root in the New World soil. FDR transformed the nation in the face of its worst economic crisis, then transformed the world in the face of a dark global crisis (placing America at the heart of world power). Jefferson expunged from American politics the aristocratic tendencies of the Federalists and initiated his country’s westward expansion. Jackson fashioned a political ethos—governmental restraint, low taxes, strict construction of the Constitution—that became a significant part of the American debate up to our own time. And TR injected progressivism into the body politic to address some of the contradictions and dislocations of the nineteenth century industrial revolution (and thus created a healthy counterweight to the Jacksonian ethos).
In doing these things, all of these presidents altered the American political landscape, scraped away deadlock issues, and provided national momentum that lasted well beyond their presidential tenures. In each instance, their views and basic governing philosophies dominated the political scene for significant periods of time.
It should be noted, though, that not every president needs to rise to this level of greatness. Indeed, not every era calls for new directions, new political paradigms, bold new thinking to bust up the encrustations stifling the American democracy. The first challenge for any president, therefore, is to understand the times in which he was elected.
But today we are living in such times, desperately in need of effective presidential leadership and fresh new thinking to propel it out of its current doldrums.
It might get Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton, as the polls and pols are suggesting these days. But neither is likely to fill that bill (although another important lesson from our presidential history is that we never really know how any new president will govern). But politicians such as Bush and Clinton seem to be thoroughgoing products of their time, and the country doesn’t need products of our time. It needs figures like the ancient greats, who shed the thinking of their times in leading the country toward entirely new eras.
Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.