I would say “Happy President’s Day”, except the presidency right now isn’t cause for joy. No matter, we’ll celebrate in a special look-back. Even the worst presidents are saints compared to Donald Trump.
In this post I rank the presidents who served during my lifetime according to their record. That’s eight presidents — from Nixon to Obama — and when I say “according to their record”, I mean for what they did for causes of peace, fiscal security, and a free society, not on the basis of their charisma or reputation. In Recarving Rushmore Ivan Eland has criticized the bizarre logic that leads historians to favor charismatic heroes who give great speeches and/or happen to serve in times of crisis, even when not for the better. He scores each president, from George Washington to Barack Obama, on a 60-point system as follows:
53-60 = Excellent
43-52 = Good
35-42 = Average
25-34 = Poor
9-24 = Bad
1-8 = Atrocious
To see his rankings of all the presidents since Washington, see my earlier post. These are my revised rankings of Eland for the last eight presidents:
1. Jimmy Carter (Good) — Peace (17), Prosperity (18), Liberty (14); Total score = 49
2. Bill Clinton (Average) — Peace (14), Prosperity (17), Liberty (11); Total score = 42
3. Gerald Ford (Average) — Peace (15), Prosperity (11), Liberty (12); Total score = 38
4. Richard Nixon (Poor) — Peace (8), Prosperity (14), Liberty (6); Total score = 28
5. Barack Obama (Bad) — Peace (4), Prosperity (10), Liberty (6); Total score = 20
6. Ronald Reagan (Bad) — Peace (4), Prosperity (5), Liberty (6); Total score = 15
7. George H.W. Bush (Bad) — Peace (3), Prosperity (2), Liberty (7); Total score = 12
8. George W. Bush (Atrocious) — Peace (0), Prosperity (1), Liberty (3); Total score = 4
I agree with Eland that Carter was the best (and only good) president in my lifetime and George W. the worst. My surprise came with Nixon. An examination of his record doesn’t show him to be quite as bad as I’d always thought. Eland has George H.W. above Obama and Reagan, whereas I rank him the worst of the “Bad’s”. Otherwise our hierarchies are the same. My individual scores are either the same or close to Eland’s, the two exceptions being the “prosperity” categories for Nixon and Obama, which I award much higher. I explain everything in the commentaries below.
Peace (8/20): Nixon was a beast in Southeast Asia. He 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. Even as he winded down in Vietnam, he escalated the war in other ways — by bombing Cambodia and supporting a Vietnamese invasion of Laos, each without Congressional approval. On the plus side, Nixon 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. Also, he agreed to destroy U.S. biological and chemical weapons.
Prosperity (14/20): Eland gives Nixon only 4 points in this category, but as a fiscal moderate I see the good as much as the bad, and so jack him up 10 points. He’s known as the “last liberal president” (until Obama), despite his conservative image, for his spending on social programs. He 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. He 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.
Liberty (6/20): Watergate has defined Nixon and that’s not unfair. Spying on his enemies (or perceived enemies) was a serious offense because it undermined American liberty through the use of illegal tricks, misuse of security agencies, and obstruction of justice in trying to cover up crimes. But even worse than Watergate, in my view, is the war that Nixon launched on drugs. It’s still with us today, and obscenely 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. Eland gives Nixon only 4 points in the liberty category, and that is just, but I have to bump him up 2 extra points for his treatment of Native American Indians. He endorsed a self-determination plan for the Indian tribes, and because of his activism Congress passed laws including the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act. More than any modern president, Nixon changed the course that had driven vast numbers of Indians into poverty. It’s worth bearing in mind that as Nixon was being kicked out of the White House, the Native Americans were singing his praises.
Peace (15/20): Ford had one of the most commendably restrained foreign policies of any modern president. He engaged militarily overseas only a few times in minor ways, and for the most part resisted the counsel of his hawkish advisors — Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Kissinger, all of whom would later advise George W. Bush, who unlike Ford would follow their atrocious advice. He maintained Nixon’s detente policy with China and the Soviet Union, and he 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.
Prosperity (11/20): Ford inherited the mess of the Vietnam War which had dragged for eternity. Like all wars it caused inflation since it was funded by taxes, borrowing money, and printing money, and Ford did about as much good as harm in trying to alleviate the bad economy. He created government jobs to help the unemployment problem, arguably for better and worse. He 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.
Liberty (12/20): Eland gives Ford only 8 points in this category, docking him a monster 12 solely on the basis of his pardon of Nixon. That’s too harsh. Many historians actually commend Ford for pardoning Nixon in the interest of American morale, and you can make a case for the lesson cutting both ways. I see no reason to dock Ford more than 8 points in the liberty category, and so I score him 12.
Peace (17/20): Carter believed that America shouldn’t police the globe, showing rare wisdom for a president in the post World-War II era. He avoided war in the Horn of Africa. He refused to support Somali aggression against the Soviets, thus avoiding confrontation with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. He got Congress to ratify an end to the neocolonial U.S. occupation of the Canal Zone in Panama. He criticized both sides in the Nicaraguan civil war and stopped U.S. aid to the right-wing dictatorship. He scaled back involvement in this region (unlike Reagan who would zealously support a covert war favoring the right-wingers against the left). He 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.
Prosperity (18/20): 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. In fact, Carter was a monetary tight-ass in a climate of concern. He 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. In this sense he was a lot like the tenth U.S. president John Tyler, a Whig who stood courageously alone against his fellow Whigs and lost support. Carter also created the Department of Education, for which Eland downgrades him (for governmental expansion and intrusion), but which I strongly endorse and thus award Carter 3 extra prosperity points for a total of 18.
Liberty (14/20): For the most part Carter has a good liberty record. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which aimed to ensure that women were treated equally in society (though the amendment failed). He pardoned protesters who avoided the draft. He avoided the tendency of post World War II presidents to support communist-hating dictatorships that committed human rights violations. But sometimes Carter’s criticisms of other nations did harm. For example, his blasting of South Africa’s racist policies caused its white supremacists to persecute blacks even more, and their fury at Carter is precisely what caused the election of Prime Minister John Vorster, who believed in apartheid. If Carter showed military and economic restraint, he didn’t always show restraint as a spokesman.
Peace (2/20): Eland’s chapter on Reagan should be required reading for those who treat him like a demigod. He was a terrible president. His anti-Soviet policies and massive defense buildup reversed Nixon’s friendly detente policy with the Soviets, and raised the specter of nuclear war. For all his swaggering anticommunist rhetoric, Reagan didn’t even win the Cold War. 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. He sent forces to Lebanon. He invaded Grenada. He 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. In sum, Reagan was an incompetent, leftist-hating, war-hungry failure. And he was the first of a new dynasty of Republicans that began a long slide to where the GOP is today: in shambles.
Prosperity (5/20): Reagan’s conservative fiscal image is a myth, and one that I once believed. He was more fiscally liberal than Carter and Clinton, and spent loads, not least on defense and his ridiculous Star Wars program. He gave the largest tax cut in American history, but his tax cuts were fake since they weren’t accompanied by spending cuts. As Eland points out time and again, 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.) Reagan was not responsible for ’80s prosperity in any case. The ones responsible 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. The prosperity of the Reagan years came not from Reagan himself but despite Reagan and his heavy spending and fake tax cuts, and this is lost on devotees who actually believe he was a fiscal conservative.
Liberty (6/20): 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. The one good thing he did has been swept under the rug by his fans: signing the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to almost 3 million illegal aliens — the largest amnesty ever granted to hard working immigrants.
Peace (3/20): Bush’s colossal failure was that he didn’t 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), but Bush kept on with aggressive overseas policies. He invaded Panama for little reason. He 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 he 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. Herein lies the biggest misperception of the elder Bush: he had the reputation of being wimp, but he was actually even more aggressive in using the military than Reagan, and he landed consequences more calamitous. His war against Iraq was an overnight success but a long-term disaster; because of it Osama bin Laden turned the jihad onto America; this in turn led to a second (and even more outrageous) war in Iraq by Bush’s son; and because of all that, Al-Qaeda morphed into the even worse Islamic State. As Eland notes, “Historians always give presidents credit for winning wars but never ask if the conflicts could have been avoided, or whether a long line of horrible consequences is worth the mesmerizing short-term military triumph.”
Prosperity (2/20): Because of Reagan’s unruly spending as a percentage of GDP, federal budget deficits ballooned to ungodly levels that would be superseded only under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It was left to the elder Bush to clean up Reagan’s mess, which he did not do, and ended up presiding over the recession of 1990-91. Setting a horrible precedent for both his son and Obama, he approved the largest federal bailout in American history, costing the government $300 billion over ten years. He should have followed the free market approach, at least to a degree, of letting savings and loans banks to go broke and allowing the economy to right itself as a matter of course.
Liberty (7/20): To Bush’s credit, he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, and had commendable views on immigration. But his sins outweigh these causes. He pardoned high-ranking officials who were involved in Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal. He escalated the war on drugs, demanding more prisons and jails and prosecutors, while of course maintaining the legal disparities that made African Americans over ten times as likely to be incarcerated as white drug users. He did nothing to help against the spread of AIDS, regarding it mostly as a contemptible issue. And on his watch the FBI covered up federal misconduct when residents were shot at the Ruby Ridge property in Idaho: the FBI snipers had been given illegal shoot-to-kill orders; the residents were acquitted of all crimes; and yet one of the shooters was promoted to the #2 job in the FBI hierarchy.
Peace (14/20): Clinton usually kept military efforts under control and was reluctant to use ground troops after the deaths of American soldiers in Somalia. In the case of Somalia (Clinton’s first overseas involvement), Eland calls it the one legitimately humanitarian U.S. military intervention in the last century, and he’s probably right. Clinton also intervened in Bosnia, and while that was partly on humanitarian grounds there were political reasons too, as there were for the subsequent bombing of Serbia and Kosovo. Clinton got somewhat lucky with Kosovo, when Serbian forces were withdrawn because the Russians suddenly stopped supporting Serbia. Clinton also got lucky with North Korea, when he threatened war against Kim Il Sung. Fortunately Jimmy Carter had been invited by Kim to North Korea, and the former president was able to smooth things over and get Kim to freeze his nuclear program. When al Qaeda bombed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Clinton replied with cruise missiles, pounding 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).
Prosperity (17/20): Clinton 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. He 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. He cut per capita federal spending, turned a budget deficit from the Reagan/Bush era into surplus; if this trend of budget surpluses had continued, all national debt would have been liquidated by 2013; (the Bush and Obama administrations killed this streak with their nation-building wars in the Middle-East). Like Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight Eisenhower, Clinton spurred a decade of economic growth with a policy of governmental austerity, which confounded the Keynesian advocates. Keynesian strategies of governmental spending (used later by Bush and Obama) are always artificial and yield short-term prosperity at best. Clinton worked with Republicans to curb welfare and converted a permanent underclass into temporary aid recipients who had to work while getting assistance. He 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. Unemployment was the lowest in thirty years. He created the World Trade Organization which on whole increased world trade flows. He created AmeriCorps, a domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps involving young people in community service across the nation.
Liberty (11/20): Clinton 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. Strangely, he wanted to give the tobacco industry some immunity from class action lawsuits in exchange for more strict anti-smoking regulation. That’s backwards: smoking is an individual decision (though a stupid one), and thus the government should minimize regulating it. Tobacco companies, on the other hand, are businesses which should face liability for the damage their product does to people. Overall, Clinton’s liberty record is fair.
Peace (0/20): George W. was not only the worst president in my lifetime, he was one of the worst in history. If I were put in charge of building an “anti-Mount Rushmore”, I would carve his face on it, next to those of Jackson, Lincoln, and Wilson. Bush 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. 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.) 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.” He earns a goose-egg in the peace category.
Prosperity (1/20): Bush’s 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 killed the economy worse in the longer run.
Liberty (3/20): Bush tried expanding the powers of the presidency in ways that make the Caesar-presidents of the 20th century (esp. McKinley and Wilson) look benign. 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 Abraham 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.
Peace (4/20): Eland calls Obama a “slightly improved version of George W. Bush”, and that’s pretty much right. 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 Libya. 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 outrageously 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 normalcy. 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 score of 4 over Bush’s rotten goose-egg.
Prosperity (10/20): Eland gives Obama a score of 3, but I disagree for the same reasons I hold Nixon in higher esteem. As a left-libertarian I don’t share Eland’s hyper-hostility to government spending, and certainly not towards universal health care reform. So first I have to multiply Eland’s score by four to a score of 12, since I consider the Affordable Health Care Act a huge positive achievement. Then I have to downgrade Obama 4 points (and that’s being charitable) for his complete failure over two terms to address the plight of the middle class (for which reason we now have Donald Trump). That brings the score to 8. I add another 2 points though, because while Obama’s stimulus package was a fiscal monster, it did reduce unemployment and prevent a significant increase in poverty, at least in the short term. (George W., on the other hand, receives no positive adjustments from me for his liberal bailout program, since the recession was triggered by his own disastrous policies. You don’t get points for trashy bailout emergencies when you’re fixing your own mess.) So I say 10 prosperity points for Obama, though I admit that’s rather generous.
Liberty (6/20): Obama didn’t fulfill his promise to close Guantanamo, but Congress is to blame for that. On the other hand, Obama can’t blame anyone but himself for continuing Bush’s policies of indefinite detentions without trial, and watered-down kangaroo military commissions. He has been 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 did however stop the use of torture and overseas detention centers run by the CIA. On the domestic front, he 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. In view of his progress on torture and gay rights — and that he at least tried to close Guantanamo — Eland’s liberty score of 4 seems rather stingy. I’d be more inclined to say 9, except that I have to apply an automatic -3 penalty for a cause not mentioned by Eland: the drug war. It’s beyond reprehensible that an African American president did nothing for the drug war, given that (1) African Americans are the ones who suffer most from this obscene policy, and (2) increasing numbers of American citizens have been vocally demanding that drugs be legalized. My liberty score for Obama is thus a 6.