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Ranking the Post-WWII Presidents: From Truman to Trump

February 17, 2018

In this article by Rick Shenkman, he questions why President John F. Kennedy continues to rank so highly in the public’s imagination of post-WWII presidents. Shenkman is convinced that Kennedy benefits from superficial images: beautiful photographs of his family and their vacations, staged and candid pictures of the president and his gorgeous wife, etc. Shenkman excludes from his analysis images of Kennedy’s assassination, but I think he discounts the power of sympathy, hurt, and loss that evoke a nostalgia for what might have been. I can see that. And I bet that plays a part in the rankings of Reagan, Clinton, and Obama too.

I’m less interested in why Kennedy is ranked first than I am of the rankings on which Shenkman commented. They are conducted by Ipsos and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. The latest results were published on February 15, 2018. Here are they are:

Rankings-since-Eisenhower

Kennedy, Reagan, and Obama have the top bipartisan results. But the results from Independents correlate most closely with the actual rankings. The rankings go back to presidents from the 1950s, but for some reason exclude Truman.

Inspired by the rankings and Shenkman, what follows are my rankings of all thirteen post-WWII presidents—with a few brief keywords on what influenced my decision. Please note that I do not find every “accomplishment” a positive, but rather include some as significant (given each president’s goals and context):

1. Johnson – Civil Rights Acts of 1964/68, Great Society programs, Thurgood Marshall appointment, two Education acts, Medicare, Medicaid, 65 Immigration Act, Head Start, Apollo Program
2. Eisenhower – finished Korean War, 1956 Highway Act, 1957 Civil Rights Bill (and Civil Rights Commission support), navigated early Cold War, universally beloved, founded NASA, oversaw admissions of Alaska and Hawaii as states
3. Obama – ACA, pulled U.S. out of Great Recession, Wall Street reform, Iran Deal, eliminated bin Laden, auto bailout, climate change agreement, Cuba relations, deficit reduction, inspirational rhetoric, creative use of executive orders
4. Truman – oversaw end of WWII, desegregated military, Marshall Plan, Truman Doctrine, Berlin Airlift, NATO and support for UN, NSC, CIA, NSA, 1949 Housing Act (of Fair Deal), 1946 Atomic Energy Act, followed beloved FDR and managed reelection in 1948
5. Reagan – helped end Cold War w/USSR, INF Treaty, oversaw economic boom, weapons cuts, tax reform, ended national malaise, inspiring rhetoric
6. Clinton – economic expansion, family medical leave act, deficit reduction, diverse cabinet appointments, NAFTA
7. Kennedy – navigated Cuban Missile Crisis, forwarded major parts of agenda accomplished by Johnson, limited nuclear test ban, inspirational rhetoric
8. Bush 41 – successful prosecution of Gulf War, 1990 ADA, Bank bailout, semi-automatic rifle ban, arms reduction agreement with Russia (and START-1), Clean Air Act, 1990 Immigration act (expansion for aliens)
9. Carter – Created Departments of Energy and Education, SALT-II agreement, amnesty to Vietnam draft resistors, established diplomatic relations with China, returned Panama Canal to Panama, Israel-Egypt treaty, successful post-presidency legacy
10. Ford – Cut inflation, Nixon pardon
11. Bush 43 – Tax cut, Medicare drug benefit (part D), TARP in 2008, capture of Saddam Hussein
12. Nixon – Accomplished a number of things, but criminal actions that ended in Watergate and resignation overshadow all.
13. Trump – Tax Cut.

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9 Comments
  1. My ultimate criteria, I think, when composing this list was how I answered the following questions: Which president did the most for those with the least? Who helped the most American citizens both at the time of their presidency and after, due to policy?

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  2. Louis permalink

    That JFK and Reagan are at the top of the public poll really just underscores, to be blunt, the public’s lack of historical grasp. JFK was simply not in office long enough to accomplish a lot (credit him w navigating the Cuban missile crisis and the test ban treaty, ok, but other aspects of Kennedy’s foreign policy were considerably less successful). And that LBJ is close to the bottom of the public poll is ridiculous and sad, and no doubt many people benefiting from Medicare, e.g., don’t even know that it’s a Johnson program. Vietnam of course cannot be overlooked, but to have Johnson at the very bottom of the public poll is absurd.

    As for Reagan, I’d put him lower than the #5 where you rank him (huge increases in defense spending early in the term, smashing the air traffic controllers’ union, doing little or nothing to prevent de-industrialization or increasing inequality, indifferent enforcement of civil rights laws etc.)

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    • Louis: Thanks for the comment. I agree with you on JFK. I think you’re correct about the general lack of historical knowledge re LBJ’s accomplishments. Vietnam seems to overshadow all, as well as LBJ’s weird personality. On my ranking of Reagan, my placement is mostly an acknowledgment of contrast with Carter (on leadership), perceptions of his personality, and a few prominent accomplishments. In terms of correspondence with my politics, I’d rank him near the bottom. – TL

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  3. Harry Angell permalink

    LBJ, by an objective measure of success and later influence, cannot be denied 1. By that same measure, Reagan is a close second. The outcome of the Cuban missile crisis is no measure of the policy’s efficacy…we didn’t blow up the earth…a pass or fail. Indeed, when that same incrementalism was applied by the very same men in Vietnam (with the very same goals as in 1963…Kennedy goals) it revealed, again, the failure of intellectualism, at the expense of wisdom, in the executive. Nixon should be much higher as well, based on the same measure, and not opinion or political bent. Danial Patrick Moynihan called him “our last liberal President”shortly after Nixon’s death. Nixon’s economics, environmentalism and masterly foreign policy (I am not praising all of it) are overshadowed by his crooked ethics. The much maligned Carter, whose failed foreign policy overshadows his influential accomplishments, started several trends such as deregulation and tighter monitary policy by appointing Paul Volker. Obama was a populist president, as is Trump, and populists need more time to age out of the moment…too early to judge, especially for their partisans, who are love blind. Clinton and Reagan deserve special mention for their handling of the executive without their party owning the congress, something that stymied Obama and something likely to do the same to Trump. So a pretty good list, Tim, with some quibbles.
    Of all the books I have read on LBJ, there is nothing, to me, more revealing about the man than the very long chapter on him in The Best and Brightest. Halberstam writes writes with detail and zeal about the man. LBJ personal power and energy for the office was simply unparalleled.

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    • Harry: Thanks for the comment. Nixon was one of the last, except for Carter (less so), operating within the New Deal paradigm. He was constrained by those programs, and offered additions, as political ploys more than by conviction (universal basic income, EPA, etc.). – TL

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  4. Thought provoking piece Tim! Regarding Johnson, while the great achievements you lay out are unarguable, his continued prosecution of the ground war in Vietnam, despite him knowing the war un-winnable, then lying to the American people about, is simply unforgivable. While he should be near the top, it IS interesting that public places on the bottom the top three liars: Johnson, Nixon and Trump, the latter being the clear winner. Also the ’65 Immigration Act, while fixing a racist system, over-reached in its breadth, helping lead to the politics of resentment we see today (e.g. Chain Migration) as well as creating the undocumented immigration problem by limiting Immigration from our hemisphere. I think that history will not see Obama as high as we do now, however likable, and Bush 41 handling of Cold War and German reunification will place him higher than 8 of 13. Finally, Bush 43 should be below Nixon — Iraq War of his making and a total disaster. Oh, and the Financial Crisis…

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    • Emery: I hear you on Johnson’s downsides. I know them. I disagree on the 65 Immigration Act. That said, in *Fog of War*, Robert McNamara threw LBJ under the bus—hard and dramatically. Johnson’s lies about Vietnam can, to some extent, be blamed on the nature of war and national interests. Whereas for Nixon and Trump, the lies are about personal failings, moral lapses, and psychological problems. …All this said, I do appreciate you dropping by my (too) sleepy blog. My comments sections could use more heat and a few wrestling matches. :)- TL

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      • Tim: Thanks. I take your point about McNamara, the former car exec, and others on the ground Johnson chose to listen to, misrepresenting things upward. However, evidence suggests that LBJ did know relatively early that the war was not winnable — even Kennedy wanted to get past the ’64 election before pulling out (though we will never know for sure if he would have) — LBJ did not want to be the 1st US President to lose a War. And yes, the cynical Nixon undermined his efforts to make peace in ’68 as candidate, costing countless lives. Bigger picture, I don’t let LBJ off the hook because his administration’s lies about Vietnam, coupled with Nixon’s lies about his expansion of the conflict, coupled with the Watergate crime & cover up together jump started the steady erosion of public trust in our government, in our institutions and deep cynicism……and ultimately the electoral embrace of the ultimate cynic Trump.

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