Ranking 20th Century U.S. Presidents

, Malcolm A. Kline, 4 Comments

Since everybody else is rating presidents, we thought we’d give it a shot too, since we’ve covered many of them, especially those who served in the last century.

The root of the word president, eminent historian Steve Hayward reminds us, is preside. Thus, we looked at the economies and foreign policies that these leaders presided over as well as their Supreme Court picks. Our greatest concern, taking those considerations down in order, were whether the presidents meddled in the economy, could distinguish friends and foes abroad, and chose justices and judges guided by the U. S. Constitution.

ronald reagan

The top five were fairly easy to choose, especially the first. After that, we looked for saving graces, so the numbers merely indicate their order of appearance.

  1. Ronald Reagan—Taxes down, inflation down, unemployment down, new businesses started up, Berlin Wall down. Also, under President Reagan, the growth in federal regulations was at a relative standstill, even if existing onerous rules remained in place. Maybe this was because he put his vice-president, George H. W. Bush, in charge of his deregulation task force. His Supreme Court picks were more of a mixed bag, for a variety of reasons, partially because he could not get the best of these—Robert Bork—through a highly partisan, some would say viciously so, Senate.
  2. Ronald Reagan’s favorite president, Calvin Coolidge, who cut taxes and government spending and refused to grant diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union.
  3. Coolidge’s seemingly hapless predecessor, Warren G. Harding. Although generations of schoolchildren have only heard of him in connection with the Teapot Dome scandal involving some of his cronies, he did have a few accomplishments: He too cut taxes and government spending in response to the recession that followed World War I and also refused to recognize the Soviet Union. The ensuing growth in the number of new businesses and jobs that go with them help explain why we still refer to the period from 1920-1930 as the Roaring 20s rather than the Harding Depression.
  4. President Dwight D. Eisenhower may not have been a supply-sider but he did hold the line on government spending while businesses and employment grew. Also, if he didn’t try to roll back the Soviet bloc, he at least faced down communist expansion: Two words—South Korea. As for judicial appointments, Ike famously admitted that the two biggest mistakes he made as president were both sitting on the Supreme Court. Apart from all of the above, Eisenhower always deserves honorable mention for desegregating the civil service and the District of Columbia.
  5. Ronald Reagan liked to bring up John F. Kennedy’s tax cuts when promoting his own. Yet and still, when JFK did cut taxes, he proved once again that when the government takes less out of the economy, the latter grows. Abroad, if his failures in the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam outweigh his success in the Cuban Missile Crisis, all of the above demonstrate an underlying opposition to communism. Finally, he put Whizzer White on the Supreme Court.
  6. Teddy Roosevelt was, to put it mildly, a helicopter parent when it came to the economy. His foreign policy could be described as questionable if not bellicose: He didn’t seem to know or care if he needed congressional approval to build the Panama Canal. His heart was in the right place.
  7. William Howard Taft largely continued his predecessor’s policies but, unlike him, had more respect for the Constitution and was reluctant to change it.
  8. Woodrow Wilson gave us the Federal Reserve, the federal income tax, draft boards, censorship boards and the segregation of both the Civil Service and the District of Columbia for the first time since the Civil War but he wouldn’t recognize the Soviet Union and sent aid to the Mensheviks fighting the Leninist Bolsheviks in Russia. Maybe when he heard that the former were known as the White Army, he thought it was a racial thing.
  9. A man of impeccable character with a record of literally groundbreaking achievement as an engineer, Herbert Hoover failed miserably when he tried to engineer the U. S. economy, but he too would not recognize the Soviet Union.
  10. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s recognition of the Soviet Union was only the beginning of his accommodation of Josef Stalin, the dictator who killed millions of his people as he tried to control every aspect of their lives. FDR’s appeasement of Stalin was in no way impeded by the number of Soviet agents working in the White House and federal agencies. As the late author M. Stanton Evans has noted, “there was sort of an affirmative action program for communists” in the Roosevelt Administration. At home, his myriad of government programs did nothing to alleviate the Depression. We’re still looking for FDR’s saving graces.
  11. Harry Truman also turned a blind eye towards Soviet activities in his own administration and applied frequently ham-handed efforts to guide the American economy. For example, he lifted the wage controls in place during World War II when the conflict ended but not the price controls. Nevertheless, HST was the first president to recognize the state of Israel.
  12. Lyndon Johnson tried to micromanage the Vietnam War and the Great Society programs he pushed through Congress, leading to a bloody stalemate in the former and riots in America. Nonetheless, he also gave us the Civil Rights Act that effectively ended all federal segregation and only morphed into quotas under #13.
  13. Richard Nixon also gave us wage and price controls, the EPA, and runaway entitlement spending. Yet, as journalist Allan Ryskind points out, not one country went communist under Nixon. His appointments to the Supreme Court were mostly abysmal with one shining exception — William Rehnquist.
  14. Gerald Ford fought inflation with Whip Inflation Now (WIN) buttons. Emblematic of his foreign policy, he refused to meet with Soviet dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn for fear of offending Soviet leaders. Ford’s saving grace was his vetoes.
  15. National Review dubbed Jimmy Carter “Captain Inflation and Commander Nerd,” not without reason. Inflation ran in double digits during his administration and the Soviets advanced in both hemispheres. Still, President Carter did deregulate airlines and cut capital gains taxes.
  16. George H. W. Bush raised taxes and government spending. In fact, raising taxes in the middle of a recession helped to exacerbate an already dismal economy. Bush did preside over the break-up of the Soviet Union, although he did his level best to prop it up. His saving grace is still sitting on the Supreme Court — Clarence Thomas.
  17. If Bill Clinton didn’t give Communist China the keys to the city, it’s because he didn’t have a set to spare. He gave them just about everything else, including the Panama Canal. His Supreme Court justices take a dim view of the freedom to choose just about everything except an abortion. Clinton’s saving grace was his ability to read and understand election returns: After Republicans took control of Congress, he refrained from meddling in the economy, for the most part.