One thing became clear to me in ranking the modern presidents: it’s hard to be a good leader. Of the 20 executives, there’s not a single one I can call excellent, and only six of them get a pass (either good or average). Most of them I judge to be either poor or bad, and two of them (Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush) are downright disgraceful.
My commentaries are lengthier than my entries under the pre-modern presidents, because presidents do a lot more than they used to. McKinley started America down a path from which it has seldom looked back, and the result is an executive branch with more and more power, well beyond what the founders and Constitution envisioned.
As before, I use Ivan Eland’s criteria as the best available. Presidents should be ranked not by their management style or charisma or leadership skills, but by what they actually did. Specifically, what they did for causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty — which pretty much everyone agrees should be the goals of the American government. This is Eland’s 60-point system, based on a potential of 20 for each of the three categories:
53-60 = Excellent
43-52 = Good
35-42 = Average
25-34 = Poor
9-24 = Bad
1-8 = Atrocious
I dispute some of Eland’s scores, but the only serious disagreement we have is over Kennedy. At the end, I predict what my ranking for Donald Trump will look like. Usually it’s hard to judge a president less than a year into his term, but Trump has already done so much that is so wrong that predicting his score isn’t too difficult.
1. Jimmy Carter. 39th President (1977-1981). Peace (17), Prosperity (18), Liberty (14); Total score = 49/60 = Good.
— Believed that America shouldn’t police the globe, showing rare wisdom for a president of the post World-War II era. Avoided war in the Horn of Africa. Refused to support Somali aggression against the Soviets, thus avoiding confrontation with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. Got Congress to ratify an end to the neocolonial U.S. occupation of the Canal Zone in Panama. Criticized both sides in the Nicaraguan civil war and stopped U.S. aid to the right-wing dictatorship. Scaled back involvement in this region (unlike Reagan who would zealously support a covert war favoring the right-wingers against the left). Finished normalizing relations with China, and terminated the U.S.-Taiwanese defense alliance (unlike George W. Bush who would later recklessly pledge to defend Taiwan from a nuclear attack, thereby putting American cities at risk). On the downside, Carter failed to successfully negotiate for the release of American hostages in Iran, though without negative long-term effects (U.S. policy in Iran was doomed to failure before Carter took office). His biggest blunder was overreacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and allowing his National Security Advisor to initiate the campaign which supported the mujaheddin in both Afghanistan and Pakistan — promoting, in other words, Islamism to fight Communist forces. Reagan would increase support for these jihadists on an insane level, but it began with Carter, and these U.S. funded Islamists would go on to spawn al-Qaeda. On whole, this record is extremely impressive for a president in the 20th century. For prosperity he scores even better. If Nixon was the last liberal president (until Obama), then Carter was the first conservative president (since Coolidge). This despite the fact that Nixon has the conservative image, and Carter the liberal one. Was a monetary tight-ass in a climate of concern. Promoted individuals taking responsibility for themselves, pushed for reducing the federal deficit, advocated the deregulation of industries, and believed that welfare was bad for the family and work ethic. Ford left him a rather stagnate economy; Carter’s conservative policies led to the prosperity of the Reagan years (not Reagan’s policies, on which see below), and they would set the precedent for later tight-money policies that led to prosperity in the Clinton years. Carter’s principled stand as a budget-hawk (his priority was lowering inflation, not reducing unemployment) would cost him the support of many Democrats, which is why he didn’t get reelected. Created the Department of Education. Supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which aimed to ensure that women were treated equally in society. Avoided the tendency of post World War II presidents to support communist-hating dictatorships that committed human rights violations.
2. Warren Harding. 29th President (1921-1923). Peace (20), Prosperity (16), Liberty (13); Total score = 49/60 = Good.
— Everyone hates Harding, but when he died the people loved him. It was only later, when details of his sexual activities and the Teapot Dome scandal came to light that his reputation went down. As with Bill Clinton, our obsession with a politician’s sex life obscures the truth of a good presidency. Harding does deserve to be docked for the behavior of his underlings in the Teapot affair, but not to the usual extent. Their bribes had to with venal greed, not the constitutional betrayals of Watergate in the Nixon years and the Iran-Contra scandal under Reagan. Harding returned the nation to peace, and negotiated one of the first multilateral arms limitation agreements (the Washington Naval Conference), aimed at reducing the number of battleships in the world. Put the federal government on a budget for the first time and set the conditions for the economic expansion of the Roaring Twenties. Established the Office of the Budget. Was an early advocate for civil rights, and addressed severe racial tensions that the war stirred up thanks to his racist predecessor Wilson. Supported anti-lynching laws. “Democracy is a lie,” he said, “without political equality for black citizens.” In his disfavor, he came out in favor of eugenics. Cooled anarchist and labor violence, the height of which included bombs exploding across the country at the homes of top political officials. Freed hundreds of political prisoners, repairing the severe wounds wrought by the Espionage and Sedition acts of 1917 and 1918 under Wilson which had been among the worst assaults on free speech. Harding called himself “a man of limited talents.” He was way too hard on himself. Our obsession with his sex life and the minor greed of his underlings has completely overshadowed his tremendous impact on a war-ravaged economy, astute foreign policy, and sound liberty record. Eland ranks him the best of the modern presidents and Jimmy Carter second. I reverse them: my scoring at 49 points each puts them at a tie, but I give Carter the edge since his executive restraint is all the more impressive when judged as a post World-War II president.
3. Dwight Eisenhower. 34th President (1953-1961). Peace (15), Prosperity (17), Liberty (13); Total score = 45/60 = Good.
— Realized that the price of winning the Korean War wasn’t worth it and thus ended it, saving many lives on both sides of a strategically unimportant conflict. Unlike Truman before him and the Cold War presidents after him, did not overstate the Soviet threat. As a military man, he knew what the others did not: that the basis of military power is a thriving economy, which the Soviets never had. On six occasions, he rejected the unanimous opinion of his advisors to go to war: over the Korean armistice negotiations in 1953; Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in 1954; the Quemoy and Matsu islands in the Strait of Formosa in 1955; the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956; the Israeli, British, and French attack on Egypt in 1956; Berlin in 1959; and the downing of the U-2 spy plane in Sovet airspace in 1960. This needs massive underscoring, because, absurdly, presidents seldom get credit for avoiding wars. Eisenhower boasted that under his administration, not a single soldier had been lost, and for a military man that’s doubly impressive. The only exception to his policy of military restraint was his put down of a Muslim rebellion in Lebanon, at the request of the nation’s Christian president. And he did rely on a lot of CIA covert action, which set a bad precedent for future Cold War presidents. He warned famously against a military industrial complex (a permanent peacetime military) that would threaten human liberty, and has been proven a prophet. Thanks to his rigorous fiscal policies, he presided over two whole terms of prosperity and a balanced budget, and an economy with negligible inflation — something no 20th century president can boast for an eight year stretch. His liberty record isn’t bad, but is somewhat marred by his refusal to publicly support the 1954 Supreme Court decision which outlawed racial segregation in public schools. Never denounced McCarthy’s witch hunts for communists, though he was vindicated in this, for he correctly believed that McCarthy would eventually hang himself politically.
4. Calvin Coolidge. 30th President (1923-1929). Peace (18), Prosperity (14), Liberty (12); Total score = 44/60 = Good.
— Was called “Silent Cal” for being a man of few words, and proof that being a good president doesn’t depend on charisma or oratory skills. Used restraint in foreign policy and stayed out of unneeded wars. Initiated a strategy of large tax and spending reductions to improve the economy. Harding had reduced the top income tax rate from 71% to 46%, but Coolidge’s three revenue acts in 1924, 1926 and 1928 brought it down to 25%. He continued Harding’s tight fiscal policy which kept the Roaring Twenties booming along, though he also pursued a liberal monetary policy (by expanding its supply) which contributed somewhat to the Great Depression after he left office. Quality of life improved hugely under Coolidge. As production costs declined for businesses and incomes rose for consumers, more people than ever were able to purchase goods that are common in households today — cars, indoor flush toilets, electricity. Criticized by historians as a “do-nothing president”, yet it was precisely by making sure the government did less that Coolidge left room for citizens to do more as businesses thrived. In this period, the rich, while paying at a lower rate, also paid a greater share of the income tax than they had under the higher rates. The middle class also prospered. Vocally opposed racism and supported anti-lynching legislation which led to the decline of the second KKK. On the other hand, he didn’t always rush to protect the rights of African Americans. Favored laws which limited the number of hours children could work. On whole, a very good president, and the kind we desperately need in the 21st century.
5. Bill Clinton. 42nd President (1993-2001). Peace (14), Prosperity (15), Liberty (12); Total score = 41/60 = Average.
— Usually kept military efforts under control and was reluctant to use ground troops after the deaths of American soldiers in Somalia. The case of Somalia was probably the one legitimately humanitarian U.S. military intervention in the last century. Intervened in Bosnia, partly on humanitarian grounds but for political reasons too, as there were for the subsequent bombing of Serbia and Kosovo. Got somewhat lucky with Kosovo, when Serbian forces were withdrawn because the Russians suddenly stopped supporting Serbia. Got lucky with North Korea, when he threatened war against Kim Il Sung, and former president Jimmy Carter had to smooth things over and get Kim to freeze his nuclear program. Pounded al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and Sudan, taking steps to kill Osama Bin Laden but not persisting enough, though doing more than George W. Bush later did. Took office during the recession which resulted from the sins of Reagan and Bush, who gave fake tax cuts to benefit their rich Republican constituents without meaningful spending cuts. Clinton immediately reigned in government spending and became a budget hawk in the mold of Eisenhower and Carter (and the previous heads of the Federal Reserve System, Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan), to produce the prosperity of the mid to late ’90s. Worked with Republicans to curb welfare and converted a permanent underclass into temporary aid recipients who had to work while getting assistance. Expanded the Earned Income tax Credit, which lowered taxes for people just above poverty line which encouraged them to keep working instead of going on welfare. Created the World Trade Organization which on whole increased world trade flows. On the downside, was responsible for the David Koresh incident, in which many of the Branch Davidians were killed including children. To his credit, he wanted to lift the ban on gays in the military, but had to compromise with the silly “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prevented the military from rooting out gays but required gays to stay in the closet. Worse was his signing the Defense of Marriage Act, which stalled progress on gay marriage. To be fair, he was boxed in by his opponents on this issue, but in recent years Clinton has admitted that he was simply wrong to sign DOMA.
6. Gerald Ford. 38th President (1974-1977). Peace (15), Prosperity (11), Liberty (12); Total score = 38/60 = Average.
— The perfect example of an average president. Had one of the most commendably restrained foreign policies of any modern president. Engaged militarily overseas only a few times in minor ways, and for the most part resisted the counsel of his hawkish advisors. Maintained Nixon’s detente policy with China and the Soviet Union, and removed American support from the racist governments of South Africa and Rhodesia. On the downside, he increased defense spending, despite the end of the Vietnam War, and briefly attempted to get America re-involved in helping South Vietnam. Did about as much good as harm in trying to alleviate the bad economy in the war’s aftermath. Created government jobs to help the unemployment problem, arguably for better and worse. Kept most of Nixon’s programs going (which I consider mostly good), but used his veto power to stop the creation of more given the bad economy (which is reasonable). Some of his vetoes were overridden, but on whole they did have the result of the lowest annual spending increases since Eisenhower. Pardoned Nixon, which doesn’t do well for his liberty record, though that decision was not as bad as some make it out to be. Where Bill Clinton is average because his pros and cons counterbalance each other, Ford is pretty much average across the board.
7. John F. Kennedy. 35th President (1961-1963). Peace (10), Prosperity (13), Liberty (11); Total score = 34/60 = Poor.
— Inspired people with speeches, widely loved for his charisma, but on the merits of his presidency left much to be desired. Launched the Bay of Pigs invasion — sending into Cuba a force of 1,500 Cuban exiles against an opposition force of 25,000 — a hopeless endeavor to begin with, made all the more egregious by the knowledge that Castro knew in advance that the CIA were training Cuban exiles. After his embarrassing failure (especially after refusing to supply air power to rescue the Cuban exiles he trained), Kennedy needed to prove himself and so almost destroyed the world so as not to appear weak: The Soviet leader decided to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, which was in response to what America had done in putting missiles in Turkey, Italy and Japan. Instead of simply accepting this, Kennedy provoked a conflict that nearly ushered in Armageddon. His peace rating is saved only because he rejected the counsel of his advisors to order an airstrike or invasion to remove the Soviet missiles (which would have surely resulted in nuclear disaster), opting instead for a naval blockade to prevent missiles from arriving, and also because he started the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps is by far Kennedy’s best accomplishment, but unfortunately it wasn’t motivated by humanitarian concerns, but rather by propagandist designs to prove to the world that America could aid poverty-stricken countries better than communist ones. The Peace Corps has endured and remains one of America’s best programs (I am proud to have served in it), but given the “cold war” motivations behind its inception — and because even a peace program makes Kennedy look only so good when he came close to incinerating the world — I can’t let it count as high as it should (16-18 points by rights). Especially when Kennedy also overthrew South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, which resulted in greater hands-on American involvement in Vietnam; and authorized a coup against the pro-Soviet military leader of Iraq. For prosperity, he helped modestly to end the recession of 1960-61. Signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a promising step toward ending wage discrimination based on gender. Signed an increase in Social Security benefits, and allowed collective bargaining among federal employees. For his liberty record, he sent federal marshals to protect Freedom Riders, and troops to defend college students, and called for a ban on racial discrimination. On the downside, he wasn’t the best friend of civil rights, because when those Freedom Rides started, he demanded that the riders get off the buses. Eventually called for a Civil Rights Act. Eland ranks Kennedy way down at the bottom, with an atrocious score of 8, which I think misrepresents his overall record.
8. Herbert Hoover. 31st President (1929-1933). Peace (20), Prosperity (3), Liberty (8); Total score = 31/60 = Poor.
— Did great things prior to becoming president, the most notable being the campaign he launched during World War I that was without precedent in the history of warfare: a large-scale humanitarian effort to rescue a country (Belgium) from starvation, long before the U.S. had even entered the war. Hoover created the Committee for the Relief of Belgium, which consumed years of his life, and he succeeded in pressuring diplomats, heads of state, and thousands of American and European citizens to donate and distribute food to starving Belgians. Contrast this with his presidential legacy during the Great Depression. On the one hand he is known as a Nero Caesar (say the liberals) who refused to offer any relief as more and more destitute Americans crowded into shantytowns; on the other he is called (by the conservatives) a government activist who pushed an already demolished economy over the cliff, by signing the Smoot-Hawley tariff. That act raised tariffs to their highest level in American history, triggering a worldwide economic retaliation. His peace record, however, is flawless (a whopping 20). His liberty record leaves something to be desired, as he violated privacy by ordering the Treasury Department to publish the names of taxpayers who got large tax refunds from the government and also ordered the Justice Department to publish the names of those who had lobbied for the appointment of federal judges. Even worse, he zealously enforced Prohibition against the production and sale of alcohol.
9. Theodore Roosevelt. 26th President (1901-1909). Peace (8), Prosperity (14), Liberty (8); Total score = 30/60 = Poor.
— Enlarged the military and engaged in six incidents of ludicrous gunboat diplomacy, risking unnecessary wars over unimportant issues: opposed Britain and Germany over the small possibility that Germany might establish a toehold in Venezuela; sent the Great White Fleet (four squadrons of battleships) to intimidate the Japanese over a minor integration and immigration issue in San Fransisco; stole the Panama Canal Zone from Columbia (even his advisors were appalled, calling it a “rape”, and a “sleek and underhanded piece of national bank robbery”); sent navy ships to Turkey just because the sultan refused to give American missionaries the same privileges as European missionaries; pressured the sultan of Morocco into negotiating with a terrorist who had kidnapped someone he thought was a U.S. citizen but was actually a Greek (the kidnapper continued to think he was American, and so Roosevelt kept intervening because in his mind, the kidnapper was in effect insulting the United States); intervened in a Cuban insurrection without Congressional approval. In other words, Roosevelt expanded on McKinley’s quest for a trans-world empire. On the plus side, however, and unlike McKinley, he also resolved some major international disputes peacefully, such as mediating between the Russians and Japanese (for which he actually won a Nobel Prize in 1906), and then, even more importantly, avoided getting dragged into a European conflict over Morocco (which Germany wanted to wrest from France), which would have triggered World War I nine years in advance, and when Germany was at the height of its power; Roosevelt wisely proposed a compromise between Germany and France that worked. A fair prosperity record. On the one hand, presided over the Panic of 1907, but did other things to his credit: established national parks, started the Wildlife Refuge system, placing 230 million acres of land into public trust; promoted safe handling regulations for food and drugs, and passed the Pure Food and Drug Act; fought against misleading advertising; encouraged arbitration between businesses and unions. Had a mixed record on race relations, on the one hand believing that blacks were inferior to whites because of “natural limitations”, and even in the case of a group of black soldiers assumed they were guilty before proven innocent and wrongfully discharged them. On the other, he enraged the South by inviting Booker T. Washington (an African American author and educator) to the White House, the first time in history a black was a guest there, and took other actions in their favor. Teddy Roosevelt doesn’t deserve to have his face on Mount Rushmore, though he wasn’t entirely bad.
10. William Taft. 27th President (1909-1913). Peace (12), Prosperity (10), Liberty (8); Total score = 30/60 = Poor.
— Less aggressive than his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt, but still intervened in Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. Basically imitated the policy started by McKinley and followed by Roosevelt — the “dollar diplomacy” of expanding business overseas. Reduced Japanese influence in China and was rightly criticized for his blatant neomercantilism (messing with a neutral market for one’s own purposes). On the plus side, tried to create an international framework in which countries could arbitrate disputes that might otherwise lead to war. Pursued policies about as progressive as Roosevelt’s, but was less local in criticizing weathly capitalists. Proposed and got enacted the Sixteenth Amendment, which allowed the reinstitution of the income tax, which is arguably the worst thing he did; the income tax requires taxpayers to open their private lives to the government to make sure they aren’t hiding income, a violation of privacy. Proposed and got enacted the Publicity Act, which allowed the public to examine records of donors to campaigns for candidates to Congress. Sunshine laws are preferable to regulating campaign contributions. Taft should be commended for requiring transparency of contributions (instead of limiting contributions) to help fight corruption and backroom dealing. On whole, basically about as good and bad as his predecessor, with whom he is tied for an overall score.
11. Richard Nixon. 37th President (1969-1974). Peace (8), Prosperity (14), Liberty (6); Total score =28/60 = Poor.
— Should have ended the Vietnam War right away, but spent four years and 22,000 additional American lives (out of the 58,000 total between 1961-75) to get a peace settlement. Escalated the war in other ways, by bombing Cambodia and supporting a Vietnamese invasion of Laos, each without Congressional approval. On the plus side, had an otherwise humble and commendable foreign policy. His visit to China not only resulted in improved relations with that country, but made the Soviets want friendly and peaceful relations with America. To his serious credit, he ended the draft, which had been in place since 1940, thereby removing the stain on a free society that requires people of a certain age and gender to be forced to enter a dangerous occupation for little pay. Agreed to destroy U.S. biological and chemical weapons. Gave elderly people an increase on social security benefits, and proposed universal medical insurance that provided even stronger coverage than Obama’s later Affordable Health Care Act. Created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the war on cancer, and a federal subsidization of the arts — all big pluses. He forced car makers to reduce emissions under the Clean Air Act, signed the Endangered Species Act, and expanded national parks. That adds up to a very progressive track record, brought down only by the fact that some of Nixon’s federal spending was too unrestrained and ended up contributing to a problematic economy. Impeached for Watergate: spying on his enemies (or perceived enemies) undermined American liberty through the use of illegal tricks, misuse of security agencies, and obstruction of justice in trying to cover up crimes. Launched the obscene war on drugs, which criminalizes non-violent addicts (who need help, not jail) while causing violent criminals to go on parole in order to make room in prison for the drug offenders. Watergate and the drug war alone sink his liberty rating all the way down to 4, but I award him 2 more for endorsing a self-determination plan for the Indian tribes. Because of his activism Congress passed laws including the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act, and more than any modern president, Nixon changed the course that had driven vast numbers of Indians into poverty. It’s worth remembering that as Nixon was getting kicked out of the White House, the Indians were singing his praises.
12. Lyndon Johnson. 36th President (1963-1969). Peace (1), Prosperity (7), Liberty (16); Total score = 24/60 = Bad.
— Escalated involvement in Vietnam to monstrous proportions — even knowing, in his own words, that it was a hopeless war not worth fighting — because he feared the Republican Right would censure him and another McCarthy might arise. Never aimed for victory in Vietnam, but for a negotiations settlement, and so bombed the North in a graduated campaign which prolonged the war even more. At the same time, escalated the conflict by provoking the North Vietnamese to attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, so that he could take any measures necessary against the Viet Cong as he saw fit. Throughout his term, the U.S. engaged in massive war crimes in Southeast Asia, and the war cost hundred of billions of dollars. His colossal mess in Vietnam is rivaled only by George W. Bush’s fiasco in Iraq. I throw Johnson a single peace point for showing restraint in China (he considered bombing nuclear installations there but didn’t), but obviously his Vietnam campaign utterly torpedoes his legacy. His Great Society vision had hits and misses. The programs did help reduce poverty, but on the other hand created a permanent underclass dependent on the government for their livelihood. To his immense credit, got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, a landmark piece of legislation outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origins, and also prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations. By the end of 1966, there were only four states in the South where fewer than 50% of African Americans were registered to vote. Against his liberty rating, on the other hand, is the fact that the Vietnam War (like most big wars) led to government abuses of civil liberties at home. Johnson did considerable spying on domestic antiwar protesters, and he had the FBI make recordings of his opponents’ telephone calls at conventions, and placed bugs at embassies and businesses — a lot like Nixon’s behavior in Watergate.
13. Barack Obama. 44th President (2009-2017). Peace (4), Prosperity (10), Liberty (6); Total score = 20/60 = Bad.
— A barely improved version of George W. Bush in matters of foreign policy. Both presidents attacked countries for no good reason, escalated needless wars, and got vast numbers of American soldiers and indigenous peoples killed for little gain. Like Bush, Obama waged these wars under the illusion that America could bring democracy to the Middle East by removing dictators and encouraging their opponents to work for elections and peaceful change. Bush thought this in toppling Saddam, and Obama thought it when he helped bring down Mubarak in Egypt, and Gaddafi in Syria, and then Assad. The result was anarchy in Libya, instability in Egypt, and the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups who are much worse than the supplanted dictators. Obama was even worse than Bush on the subject of Islamism, for he ordered the removal of all mention of Islam from counter-terror training, and refused to allow high-ranking law enforcement and intelligence officials to study the religious ideology of the terrorists, which is necessary to understand and counter them. He also expanded, rather than reduced, Bush’s 9/11 drone wars, ramping them up in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. On the plus side he succeeded in killing Osama Bin Laden, but what he should have done at that point was declare the war on terror over, end the drone wars, and return America to a long-overdue policy of restraint and normality. Obama did none of these things. He deserves credit, however, for resisting strong pressures from American war hawks, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to pursue aggressive policies with Iran and Syria. Thus his peace score of 4 over Bush’s rotten goose-egg. For prosperity, the Affordable Health Care Act is a huge positive achievement, though he must be downgraded for his complete failure over two terms to address the plight of the middle class, for which reason Donald Trump was elected. His stimulus package was a mixed bag — a fiscal monster on the one hand, but reduced unemployment and prevented a significant increase in poverty in the short term. For liberty, he continued Bush’s policies of indefinite detentions without trial, and watered-down kangaroo military commissions. Was just as bad as Bush in killing people overseas without Congressional approval of hostilities, and in using domestic surveillance of American citizens without warrants. He deserves credit, however, for stopping the use of torture and overseas detention centers run by the CIA. Got the military to stop the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, just as he ordered Justice Department lawyers to stop supporting the Defense of Marriage Act in courts, both of which had treated gays as second-class citizens. For all of this he would get a liberty rating of about 9, but must be downgraded for doing nothing for the drug war, which is beyond reprehensible for African American president, especially given the increased demands at this time for legalization.
14. Franklin D. Roosevelt. 32nd President (1933-1945). Peace (12), Prosperity (3), Liberty (4); Total score = 19/60 = Bad.
— Had mesmerizing charisma; since his term presidents have been evaluated more on their personas than their presidencies. Imposed an oil embargo against the Japanese to make them attack the U.S., resulting in 2500 American deaths at Pearl Harbor, which then allowed him to “justifiably” enter World War II. Feared that if Germany defeated the British and gained access to their fleet, the Germans could isolate the U.S. He certainly did not oppose Hitler for Nazi human rights violations. Hitler didn’t start his mass executions until well into 1942, and if a moral crusade was the point — that is, if the U.S. really had to side with one totalitarian regime over another — one could make the case, given what America knew at the time, to side with Germany over the Russians. Stalin murdered millions in the 1930s, and America knew about this before entering the war in 1941. (And yet FDR referred to Stalin affectionately as “Uncle Joe”.) It’s true that America did end up on the morally superior side of the war: the combined expansionist evil of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan effectively made Russia the lesser of two evils. But this can only be seen from a hindsight perspective. FDR got “lucky” choosing the right side, as it turns out, for wrong reasons. To his credit, he at least won the war, which ended Axis power in the world, and that jacks up his peace rating considerably. However, though his war crimes paled in comparison to those of the Axis powers, he did commit serious war crimes nonetheless. For prosperity, he exacerbated and prolonged the Great Depression, with an aggressive governmental interventionist program that had no real form or content. The New Deal provided relief work for the unemployed, but only about one in six, and only offering minimal wages under harsh working conditions. The poor ended up being the chief victims of the New Deal. The National Industrial Recovery Act cut back production and forced wages above market levels, making it more expensive for employers to hire people; African Americans alone lost about 500,000 jobs because of the act. His Agricultural Adjustment Act cut back farm production and devastated tenant farmers who needed work. The great myth is that FDR’s New Deal pulled the nation out of the Great Depression, but even pro-FDR scholars acknowledge this now to be a myth. It wasn’t government spending, but government shrinkage — sharp reductions in spending, taxes and regulation at the end of World War II — that finally ended the Great Depression. Did not want to promote civil rights for African Americans, despite the fact that his wife was a crusader on this front. (One of the keys to his New Deal legislation was its expansion among white southerners, and civil rights agendas would have killed that electoral support.) Issued an executive order that threw 70,000 Japanese American citizens, and tens of thousands of Japanese resident aliens, into crowded prison camps without charges or trials — just because of their ethnic heritage, not because they were accused of spying or sabotage. Denied entry to Jewish refugees fleeing the horrors of the Third Reich. Invited British agents to help him tap phones, intercept mail, crack safes, and kidnap people in a campaign against “isolationists” who opposed the war. Had the government censor radio programs and newspapers, some of which were banned altogether. Tried stacking the Supreme Court with justices favorable to his New Deal Program, one of the most egregious acts of executive overreach in the nation’s history: the bill would have granted the president power to appoint up to six additional justices to a total of fifteen. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is not only a hugely overrated president, he was quite bad.
15. Ronald Reagan. 40th President (1981-1989). Peace (2), Prosperity (5), Liberty (6); Total score = 13/60 = Bad.
— Reversed Nixon’s friendly detente policy with the Soviets, with his anti-Soviet policies and massive defense buildup. Raised the specter of nuclear war. Failed to win the Cold War, despite his swaggering anticommunist rhetoric. The Soviet empire collapsed because of its poor economic performance and over-extending itself in other countries. And as the Soviets were in decline, Reagan launched needless and harmful missions elsewhere. Sent forces to Lebanon. Invaded Grenada. Attacked Libya. All without congressional approval as required by the Constitution. In Lebanon, he actually cut and ran after Shi’ite jihadists killed hundreds of American troops (Osama Bin Laden would remember the way western leaders, even macho-men like Reagan, tend to beat a hasty retreat.) He then went to Grenada in a silly “rescue” of medical students from a supposed Cuban takeover; in fact there was no viable threat in that region at all. Then he picked the fight with Gaddafi in Libya, creating a new enemy for no good reason. Gaddafi was a tyrant, to be sure, but not nearly as bad as the Islamic jihadists whom Reagan zealously supported so that they would fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Out of that manipulative mess would step a very pissed-off Osama Bin Laden. For prosperity, his conservative fiscal image is a myth. Was more fiscally liberal than Carter and Clinton, and spent loads, not least on defense and his Star Wars program. Gave the largest tax cut in American history, but his tax cuts were fake since they weren’t accompanied by spending cuts. Tax cuts without spending reductions mean nothing, because either the taxes have to be raised at a later date (which they were), government borrowing has to increase, or the government has to print money to cause inflation. (Because of bracket creep and inflation, Reagan’s tax reductions ended up benefiting only the rich.) The ones responsible for ’80s prosperity were the heads of the Federal Reserve System — Paul Volcker under Carter, and Alan Greenspan under Reagan — who sucked inflation out of the system with tight-ass money policies. Greenspan was appointed by Reagan but didn’t follow his lead; he followed the tight policies of Volcker his predecessor. For liberty, the Iran-Contra scandal was as bad as Watergate. In return for the release of hostages, Reagan sold heavy weapons to Iran (a state sponsor of Islamic terrorism) and used the profits to fund the Contras in Nicaragua (in their war against the Marxist Sandinista government). First of all, this was in violation of the arms embargo against Iran and the Arms Export Control Act which carried criminal penalties. Second, only Congress can appropriate money for government activities; Reagan’s short-cut was as much a Constitutional violation as Nixon’s misuse of security agencies. Even worse than Nixon, Reagan escalated the war on drugs. Attempted to stack the Supreme Court with justices who were less committed to interpreting the Constitution than in legislating conservative mores from the bench. On the other hand, he also appointed Antonin Scalia, and as a result citizens retained the right to burn the American flag, not to mention other liberties. In sum, Reagan was an incompetent, leftist-hating, war-hungry failure, fiscally irresponsible, with pseudo concerns about liberty. And he was the first of a new dynasty of Republicans that began a long slide to where the GOP is today: in shambles.
16. George H.W. Bush. 41st President (1989-1993). Peace (3), Prosperity (1), Liberty (8); Total score = 12/60 = Bad.
— Colossally failed to return to a policy of military restraint when the opportunity presented itself (like Ford did considerably after Vietnam, and as Carter did especially after him). There was no great power to take the place of the communist threat (when the Berlin Wall fell in ’89 and the Soviet Union dissolved in ’91), yet Bush kept on with aggressive overseas policies. Invaded Panama for little reason. Went to war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, worried that Saddam might invade Saudi Arabia (and threaten the oil supply), even though there was no evidence indicating Saddam had such designs. After the Gulf War, left behind an unneeded military presence in the Persian Gulf, which infuriated Osama Bin Laden (on his return home to Saudi Arabia after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan). We are still today reaping the consequences of the elder Bush’s pointless excursions in the Middle-East. Presided over a terrible recession. Ballooned the federal budget deficit, and did nothing constructive to alleviate the problem. To his credit, signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. But on his watch the FBI covered up federal misconduct when residents were shot at the Ruby Ridge property in Idaho; the residents were acquitted of all crimes, and the FBI snipers had been given illegal shoot-to-kill orders, and yet of the shooters was promoted to the #2 job in the FBI hierarchy. Pardoned high-ranking officials who were involved in Reagan’s nefarious Iran-Contra scandal. Appointed the unqualified Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, one of the worst appointments in the cause of liberty, and clearly intended as a token African American to replace Thurgood Marshall. On the other hand, he appointed David Souter, who turned out to be one of the best justices of the post World-War II era.
17. William McKinley. 25th President (1897-1901). Peace (0), Prosperity (9), Liberty (2); Total score = 11/60 = Bad.
— Laid the foundations for the modern presidency as we know it. His Spanish-American War began America’s quest for a trans-world empire, having huge and disastrous implications. Unlike Grant and Cleveland who had refused to become involved with Cuba, McKinley intervened in the Cuban struggle for independence, even though the conflict had no relevance to U.S. security. Perversely, the United States, which had once been a colonial possession, and which after obtaining its independence had wisely stayed out of most of the Old World’s disputes, now entered the race among British, Europeans, and Japanese for colonies abroad. After crushing the Spanish, America became a world military power for the first time — acquiring Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Hawaii. It’s impossible to overstate McKinley’s influence from this point on. The Spanish-American War set the precedent for military interventions in Latin America and the two world wars, and for the creation of a global empire during and after the Cold War. For this McKinley’s peace rating is zero. He followed the crackpot theory that capitalist economies produced more than they could consume and thus needed to open up overseas markets for their goods; if they couldn’t access foreign markets, their home economies would collapse, and under this logic McKinley began using its military to coerce the opening of foreign markets. For example, he sent the Marines to China as a supposed “relief mission” but in reality to suppress an indigenous movement that was interfering with the coerced trade with the west. Forced trade is unethical, and it’s not even cost-effective besides (given the cost of developing, operating, and maintaining a large military presence). Increased taxes, and used the government to help businesses. On the plus side, he put the nation on a gold standard which curbed inflation and gave an economic boom, which saves his score somewhat (keeping him out of the atrocious category with George W. Bush and Woodrow Wilson). As for as his liberty record, it’s appalling, as he trampled on the liberties of peoples abroad that he was trying to “liberate”, like in the Philippines. The tragedy of all this is that McKinley was a nice man loved by everyone; he even begged, on his own deathbed, the authorities to forgive his assassin. But his policies were pernicious and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and he changed the face of the nation so the founding fathers would hardly recognize it. America was now emulating the power it had revolted against.
18. Harry Truman. 33rd President (1945-1953). Peace (0), Prosperity (7), Liberty (3); Total score = 10/60 = Bad.
— Created the imperial presidency, which is still with us. Some argue that Truman is the worst U.S. president in history, and they have a case. The America that is hated around the globe was made permanent on Truman’s watch. This is when the U.S. became the world policeman. The foundations were laid by McKinley, and Wilson ran riot with it, but at least the U.S. returned to a policy of military restraint after World War I. Not so after World War II. Truman, the supposed “liberal Democrat”, started the Cold War, which led to the first large permanent peacetime military in U.S. history. He began the informal policies of armed interventions, alliances, foreign aid, and military bases as a response to the (perceived) Soviet threat. In reality the Soviets were not a threat; their economy was too poor and they were in no position to challenge America for world primacy. In 1947, aided Turkey and Greece in a battle against communist insurgents, and by doing so he was making a momentous change in foreign policy by meddling in European affairs during peacetime. Signed the National Security Act of 1947, which created the CIA, an organization that would go on to interfere in other nations’ internal politics, organize coups, perform assassinations, and install regimes of torture for several decades. Started the Korean War in 1950. Although the Vietnam War was messier, longer, and resulted in more American lives lost (58,000 vs. 37,000 in Korea), the Korean War was more historically important and fatal: it showed the U.S. was willing to commit large numbers of troops on the ground to wage war in unimportant backwater areas of the world. He started the Korean war, moreover, without consulting Congress, beginning the tradition of getting approval from the United Nations and then presenting Congress with it fait accompli — one of the worst things a president has ever done to expand executive power while stripping Congress’ check on him. Campaigned for the creation of the Jewish state in 1948. The Allies should have carved out a section of Germany (the nation responsible for the Holocaust) for the Jews, instead of uprooting Arabs for sake of a religiously inspired “Promised Land”. Many Jews hadn’t lived in Palestine for two millennia, and they certainly didn’t have a rightful claim on it after all this time. Islamists are worse than Zionists, but Zionism is still unacceptable in the modern age; Truman has much to answer for the ongoing mess in Middle East. As if all this weren’t bad enough, one of his first acts as president was to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945), killing 250,000 Japanese, 90% of them civilians, many of whom took months or years to die from radiation sickness and cancer. It can be argued that an extreme measure like this is necessary when fighting a war against a deadly power. The problem is that the Japanese had made overtures to surrender to the Soviet Union, three full weeks before Truman’s decision. His dropping of the bombs went against the advice of his military leaders, and is unquestionably one of America’s worst war crimes. Eland rates Truman in the atrocious category of presidents, with an overall score of 3 (0/1/2), but I think he fudges on the prosperity score. Truman cut back government spending considerably after World War II, which avoided a post-war recession and saw a rise in incomes, standards of living, and levels of education. True, he should have cut back further to the interwar levels instead of continuing with some of FDR’s problematic New Deal enterprises, but he deserves more than a 1 for prosperity. As for liberty, domestic surveillance became even worse than under FDR during WWII, now applied to sniffing out “commie-lovers”. Instituted an invasive loyalty program for government employees, which his advisors later admitted were for purely political reasons and not security ones. It was Truman and the Democrats — not McCarthy and the Republicans — who began the witch hunts of alleged communists. To his singular credit, he gave a powerful speech for civil rights, but that hardly atones for the damage he did, during his term and the decades to come, as people suffered and died across the world because of his policies.
19. George W. Bush. 43rd President (2001-2009). Peace (0), Prosperity (1), Liberty (3); Total score = 4/60 = Atrocious.
— Invaded Iraq for no legitimate reason at all, and bogged America down in a new Vietnam. Scholars are in wide agreement that the Iraq War was one of the hugest foreign policy disasters in U.S. history. Not only was it a distraction from the critical task of focusing on the 9/11 attackers, it was based purely on Bush’s need to settle old scores with Saddam, and justified by manufactured evidence. He demanded that his advisors come up with proof that Saddam and al Qaeda were linked in cause, and that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — neither of which was remotely true — and when they couldn’t, he sent them back to the drawing board, saying “Wrong answer.” The biggest anti-war protests in history broke out across the globe. Eland’s indictment of George W. is a zinger: “If Bush had been president when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the U.S., he probably would have gone to war against Argentina instead of Japan or Germany.” By removing Saddam, moreover, Bush empowered Islamists and jihadists to fill the power void, who are far worse than Saddam. (In Saddam’s Iraq you were at least mostly safe if you stayed out of politics and played by Saddam’s rules.) His economic and spending policies were hideous and the cause of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Like Reagan he gave fake tax cuts while letting federal spending spiral out of control. He used the 9/11 attacks to dramatically escalate the defense budget, and most of this money didn’t even go towards fighting terrorism. On top of that, he used a bailout which made the economy even worse in the longer run. Tried expanding the powers of the presidency in the mold of Caesar presidents like Lincoln, McKinley, Wilson, and Truman. He (and Dick Cheney) disdained Congressional checks on his authority, believing that as war commander in chief he was not subject to the constraints of the Constitution’s separation of powers. Like Lincoln (and no other president), Bush claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer. Also like Lincoln, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. According to the Constitution only Congress can suspend this right, and only in times of invasion or rebellion. For the first time in U.S. history, Bush declared that the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war don’t apply to terror suspects, and it took years for the Supreme Court to overrule him on this. Most notoriously, he and Cheney sanctioned the use of torture in overseas detention centers. Meanwhile on the domestic front, Bush signed three bills that restricted abortions. An atrocious president in every way.
20. Woodrow Wilson. 28th President (1913-1921). Peace (0), Prosperity (1), Liberty (1); Total score = 2/60 = Atrocious.
— Ruined the 20th century and beyond. Believed that the president should act like a prime minister and propose legislation to Congress. Prior to Wilson, presidents shunned such pretensions because of the way they resembled king’s speeches before parliament and eroded the constitutional separation of powers. Invented the presidential press conference, which inflated the president’s bully pulpit. Intervened in World War I, and thus altered its likely peaceful outcome. Had the U.S. stayed out of the war, the French and British would have been forced to take the settlement offered by the Germans in 1916. American involvement in the war resulted in disaster for the world, bringing to power the monstrous dictatorships of Hitler, and Lenin/Stalin. After the war, Wilson pushed for the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, removing a major obstacle to Hitler, who fed off the economic crisis and humiliation of the German peoples. He also triggered the Russian Revolution, because the Russian army sympathized with the Bolsheviks — the only party that wanted to withdraw from the war. If Wilson had not bribed the Provisionals to staying in the war, that government would have survived and Lenin and Stalin would have been nobodies. Because of Wilson, Europe was torn apart in a needless war, the Nazis replaced a fairly democratic system under the German kaisers, and the American-hating communists seized power in Russia, which paved the way to the Cold War. This catastrophic intervention in World War I was his worst but not only offense: Wilson was the most interventionist president in U.S. history. For example, he turned a minor incident with Mexico into a needless hissy-fit that exploded into warfare. This happened because the Mexicans had made a natural mistake in arresting a group of American sailors; they quickly released them and apologized for it, but Wilson (unbelievably) would settle for nothing less than a formal apology and a twenty-one gun salute to the U.S. Navy. He was a proud, vain ass who had no business sitting the Oval Office. On top of this, he was a virulent white supremacist, and tried to get Congress to pass legislation to restrict the civil liberties of African Americans. Put whites in jobs that his Republican predecessors had given to blacks. Thanks to the tone of his presidency, lynchings and race riots spiked, and the second KKK emerged. Arrested women suffragists, though later, under their pressure, campaigned for the Nineteenth Amendment which gave women the right to vote in 1920. If not for that single act, his liberty rating would be zero. In all of American history, World War I and its aftermath were the worst times for the assault on civil liberties. Conscription was resurrected from the Civil War: the Selective Service Act of 1917 authorized Wilson to draft men against their will. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 were the worst attacks on liberty since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 in the days of John Adams. Wilson ordered the War Department to censor all telegraph notes and telephone calls. Arrested, convicted, and imprisoned thousands of socialists under the Espionage Act. Had Robert Goldstein sentenced to ten years in prison for making a film on the American Revolution, which portrayed Britain in the appropriate bad light, but which incensed Wilson as the British were now his allies. Had people sentenced to prison for 10-20 years for simply criticizing the war. It is obscene that Wilson is often ranked among the best presidents, when he is in fact the very worst, not only of the 20th century presidents, but of the modern and pre-modern combined. His only positive achievements were his tariff reduction (for prosperity) and his (very reluctant) support for women’s suffrage (for liberty). Those achievements utterly pale in comparison to the pain and horror and poverty and fury and loss of freedom he inflicted on Americans and the rest of the world.
* Donald Trump. 45th President (2017-?). Total score = (Less than 9?) = Atrocious (Predicted).
— Trump’s peace record so far isn’t encouraging. Engaged in brinksmanship with China, by allowing his secretary of State nominee to pledge that America would block China’s access to its disputed islands in the South China Sea. If the promise were kept, it would mean war. Continues to campaign for building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, to the detriment of relations between the two countries. Launched a missile strike against the Assad regime, to the cheers of ISIS, as Trump (like Bush and Obama before him) shows himself willing to act as the jihadis’ air force. Also like Bush and Obama, is committed to stay in Afghanistan, which was a misadventure from the start. The Taliban will never give up, and there was never a chance that Afghanistan could become a stable secular republic granting equality of rights to women and non-Muslims. Numerous American troops have been murdered by their Afghan “allies” whom they were trying to train, and there is no way to distinguish Afghan forces who are actually on the side of Americans from jihadist infiltrators. Until recently, Trump showed more promise than Bush and Obama on this point, but now he has decided to increase our commitment which will only destroy more lives and waste more money. He should be pulling out our troops and working on a strategy of containment against the jihadis. His prosperity record is even worse. Appointed heads of departments whose agendas oppose those departments — the Labor Department is run by a serial violator of labor law; the Education Department by a woman with contempt for the public education sector; the Environment Protection Agency by a climate change denier; the Energy Department by a man who had called for its abolition. Supported a health-care bill that would have thrown 24 million Americans under the bus, cut Medicaid by $880 billion, and dramatically increased the cost of health care for older low-income people. (Despite his campaign promise to pass a new health care law that would “cover everyone”, leave Medicaid’s funding untouched, and offer relief to the “forgotten men and women” of middle America.) Allowed his budget director to argue that cutting funding to Meals on Wheels is an act of compassion. Threatened to sabotage America’s insurance markets as a means of coercing Democrats into voting for his plan to finance a large tax cut for the rich by throwing millions off Medicaid. Undermined international cooperation on climate change, which has jeopardized America’s credibility. His liberty record is appalling. Regularly complains about protestors and media journalists whose acts of free speech are “unfair”. Drafted countless of executive orders during his early weeks in office, making Obama’s executive activism look tame by comparison. Ordered the Department of Homeland Security to issue a weekly list of crimes allegedly committed by undocumented immigrants in sanctuary cities, which serves no purpose other than to incite fear of minority groups. Used his authority over border control to keep out thousands of Muslim immigrants. His moratoriums (“bans”) were hardly justifiable in the interest of security, and they did not even target the countries where most jihadis come from (most notably Saudia Arabia). All Trump did was thoughtlessly lift a template from the executive order signed by Obama against those seven particular countries two years before. Launched the war on objective reality with “alternative facts”. Praised cable-newsman Bill O’Reilly after he was fired for sexual harassment. Claimed there was equivalent blame on both sides of a demonstration in Charlottesville, where a neo-Nazi plowed a car into a crowd of anti-racist protestors. Probably colluded with Russia in the 2016 presidential election. It hasn’t been proven yet, but it is likely. Fired FBI Director James Comey for personal disloyalty. (Before Trump, the president’s authority to fire an FBI director had only been exercised once, by Bill Clinton, because the director had been found guilty of ethical violations.) Asked the director of National Intelligence and the director of the CIA to undermine the FBI’s investigation into Russia.
If this track record persists, I can’t see Trump acquiring the minimal 9 points out of 60 to keep him out of the atrocious category. I predict with confidence that he will join Dubya and Wilson as disgraces to the nation.
Here are my rankings compared to Eland’s in Recarving Rushmore.
|1. Jimmy Carter
2. Warren Harding
3. Dwight Eisenhower
4. Calvin Coolidge
5. Bill Clinton
6. Gerald Ford
7. John F. Kennedy
8. Herbert Hoover
9. Theodore Roosevelt
10. William Taft
11. Richard Nixon
12. Lyndon Johnson
13. Barack Obama
14. Franklin D. Roosevelt
15. Ronald Reagan
16. George H.W. Bush
17. William McKinley
18. Harry Truman
19. George W. Bush
20. Woodrow Wilson
|1. Warren Harding
2. Jimmy Carter
3. Dwight Eisenhower
4. Calvin Coolidge
5. Bill Clinton
6. Gerald Ford
7. Herbert Hoover
8. William Taft
9. Theodore Roosevelt
10. Richard Nixon
11. Franklin D. Roosevelt
12. Lyndon Johnson
13. George H.W. Bush
14. Barack Obama
15. Ronald Reagan
16. John F. Kennedy
17. George W. Bush
18. William McKinley
19. Harry Truman
20. Woodrow Wilson