Five American presidents
From left to right: Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas in 2013 (Official White House photo by Pete Souza in the public domain)

Yes­ter­day, in the lead-up to Pres­i­dents Day, two pro­fes­sors of polit­i­cal sci­ence unveiled the lat­est incar­na­tion of the Pres­i­den­tial Great­ness Expert Sur­vey, which is a com­pre­hen­sive effort to rank all of the pres­i­dents of the Unit­ed States.

Con­duct­ed online via Qualtrics from Novem­ber 15 to Decem­ber 31, 2023, the sur­vey, helmed by Bran­don Rot­ting­haus from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hous­ton and Justin S. Vaughn from Coastal Car­oli­na Uni­ver­si­ty, engaged 154 experts, includ­ing mem­bers of the Pres­i­dents & Exec­u­tive Pol­i­tics Sec­tion of the Amer­i­can Polit­i­cal Sci­ence Asso­ci­a­tion and schol­ars with recent pub­li­ca­tions in rel­e­vant aca­d­e­m­ic out­lets. With a response rate of 29.3%, the sur­vey offers insights into how experts assess the per­for­mance of U.S. pres­i­dents through­out history.

Par­tic­i­pants were tasked with rat­ing each pres­i­dent on a scale of 0 to 100, reflect­ing over­all great­ness, with 0 rep­re­sent­ing fail­ure, 50 indi­cat­ing aver­age per­for­mance, and 100 sig­ni­fy­ing great­ness. The orga­niz­ers then aver­aged the rat­ings for each pres­i­dent and ranked them from high­est aver­age to low­est. This is the third time the sur­vey has been orga­nized; the last one was in 2018.

Abra­ham Lin­coln once again emerged as the top-ranked pres­i­dent, with an aver­age rat­ing of 95.03, fol­lowed close­ly by Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt and George Wash­ing­ton. Notable changes include Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt’s ascent to the sec­ond posi­tion from last year’s third spot and Dwight Eisen­how­er’s decline to eighth place. Don­ald Trump appro­pri­ate­ly received the low­est rat­ing, with James Buchanan, Andrew John­son, Franklin Pierce, William Hen­ry Har­ri­son, and War­ren Hard­ing ranked just above him in the bot­tom tier of presidents.

Joe Biden, the coun­try’s cur­rent pres­i­dent, was includ­ed in the sur­vey and was ranked four­teenth over­all by the schol­ars who participated.

“Pro­po­nents of the Biden pres­i­den­cy have strong argu­ments in their arse­nal, but his high place­ment with­in the top 15 sug­gests a pow­er­ful anti-Trump fac­tor at work,” said Rot­ting­haus and Vaughn in a guest essay for the Los Ange­les Times. “So far, Biden’s record does not include the mil­i­tary vic­to­ries or insti­tu­tion­al expan­sion that have typ­i­cal­ly dri­ven high­er rank­ings, and a fam­i­ly scan­dal such as the one involv­ing his son Hunter nor­mal­ly dimin­ish­es a president’s ranking.

“Biden’s most impor­tant achieve­ments may be that he res­cued the pres­i­den­cy from Trump, resumed a more tra­di­tion­al style of pres­i­den­tial lead­er­ship and is gear­ing up to keep the office out of his predecessor’s hands this fall.”

There were more changes in the mid­dle than in the top or bot­tom tiers.

“What is most note­wor­thy about the remain­ing pres­i­dents con­cerns who has risen and fall­en over time,” said Rot­ting­haus and Vaughn in a statement.

“Since our ini­tial sur­vey, sev­er­al pres­i­dents have had sig­nif­i­cant changes in their rank­ings. Barack Oba­ma has risen 9 places (from #16 to #7), as has Ulysses S. Grant (from #26 to #17), while Andrew Jack­son has fall­en 12 places (from #9 to #21) and Calvin Coolidge has dropped 7 spots (from #27 to #34).”

Their full press release and rank­ings can be found below:

Pres­i­den­tial great­ness white paper

My commentary and rankings

I like the schol­ars’ cur­rent top four choic­es, and I also agree that Buchanan and Trump should rank at the bot­tom. As for the mid­dle, I’d order the pres­i­dents a bit dif­fer­ent­ly than the schol­ars did collectively.

Rank­ing all of the pres­i­dents is not a sim­ple exer­cise. To do it knowl­edge­ably, you’ve sim­ply got to know your Amer­i­can his­to­ry. But even if you do know your his­to­ry, there’s still a lot of con­sid­er­a­tions to weigh. Luck­i­ly, I had an expert I could eas­i­ly turn to for help mak­ing deci­sions. After con­sult­ing with my father, a retired teacher of Advanced Place­ment (AP) Amer­i­can his­to­ry, I came up with the fol­low­ing list. I may revise it in the future, but right now, I’m hap­py with it.

Here it is, for your enjoy­ment on this Pres­i­dents Day 2024.

The American Presidents ranked, from best to worst

Note that for each Pres­i­dent, I’ve pro­vid­ed a short com­men­tary focus­ing on what they did or did­n’t do in office. These com­men­taries focus on their tenures, rather than what they did before becom­ing Pres­i­dent or after leav­ing office. 

  1. Abra­ham Lin­coln — Eman­ci­pat­ed Black Amer­i­cans in bondage and saved the Union by defeat­ing the Con­fed­er­ate rebel­lion with a “Team of Rivals” cab­i­net that brought togeth­er Democ­rats and Republicans.
  2. Franklin D. Roo­sevelt — Res­cued the nation from the Great Depres­sion, cre­at­ed Social Secu­ri­ty, helped allies fight­ing fas­cism, and led Amer­i­ca to vic­to­ry through much of World War II in mul­ti­ple theaters.
  3. George Wash­ing­ton — Over­saw the suc­cess­ful devel­op­ment of the first pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tion in his­to­ry and set a long-fol­lowed two-term prece­dent while ably man­ag­ing the new coun­try’s for­eign relations.
  4. Theodore Roo­sevelt — Pro­tect­ed many majes­tic and wild places for future gen­er­a­tions, nego­ti­at­ed an end to Rus­so-Japan­ese war, broke up bad trusts, and sig­nif­i­cant­ly improved the safe­ty of food and medicine.
  5. Lyn­don B. John­son — Strength­ened Amer­i­ca with Medicare, the Civ­il Rights Act, Vot­ing Rights Act, and the Great Soci­ety, but sad­ly also deep­ened Amer­i­ca’s destruc­tive entan­gle­ment in Vietnam.
  6. Har­ry S. Tru­man — Led the coun­try out of World War II and worked to turn ene­mies into allies with the Mar­shall Plan, while also stand­ing up to com­mu­nism around the world with the Berlin Air­lift and defense of Korea.
  7. Thomas Jef­fer­son — Pro­hib­it­ed the slave trade, fought the Bar­bary pirates, peace­ful­ly acquired the Louisiana Ter­ri­to­ry and sent Lewis and Clark to explore it, but also imple­ment­ed the cost­ly Embar­go Act.
  8. John F. Kennedy — Estab­lished the Peace Corps and the suc­cess­ful Apol­lo moon land­ing pro­gram, avert­ed cat­a­stro­phe by peace­ful­ly resolv­ing the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis, signed the first nuclear weapons treaty.
  9. Dwight D. Eisen­how­er — Nego­ti­at­ed an armistice in Korea that remains in effect today, enforced court orders to inte­grate schools, devel­oped the Inter­state High­way sys­tem, but covert­ly orches­trat­ed sev­er­al coups abroad.
  10. Joe Biden — Over­saw Amer­i­ca’s recov­ery from COVID-19, worked with Con­gress to invest tril­lions of dol­lars into crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture, cli­mate action, and health­care; diver­si­fied the fed­er­al judiciary.
  11. Barack Oba­ma — Got Amer­i­ca back on its feet after the Great Reces­sion had knocked the coun­try down, signed the land­mark Patient Pro­tec­tion Act, nego­ti­at­ed New START treaty, Paris cli­mate accords, and JCPOA with Iran.
  12. William Howard Taft — Secured pas­sage of a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment to ensure the future of the fed­er­al income tax, set­tled dis­putes with France and the U.K. through arbi­tra­tion, con­tin­ued Roo­sevelt’s antitrust campaign.
  13. Woodrow Wil­son — Signed Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion and Clay­ton Antitrust Act; reluc­tant­ly led Amer­i­ca into World War I on the side of the vic­to­ri­ous Allies, but failed to per­suade Con­gress to join League of Nations.
  14. Bill Clin­ton — Advanced peace in North­ern Ire­land and the Mid­dle East, signed Brady Bill, and expand­ed EITC, but unwise­ly tri­an­gu­lat­ed on many issues, includ­ing trade, crime, LGBTQ+ rights, and finan­cial deregulation.
  15. John Adams — Known for being the first to peace­ful­ly trans­fer pow­er after los­ing the pres­i­den­cy, he signed the Alien and Sedi­tion Acts, fought an unde­clared war with France, and worked to build a strong U.S. Navy.
  16. Jim­my Carter — Cham­pi­oned con­ser­va­tion and solar ener­gy, advanced peace through the Camp David Accords, and returned the Pana­ma Canal, but strug­gled to con­front “stagfla­tion” and end the Iran hostage crisis.
  17. James Madi­son — Took the Unit­ed States into an unnec­es­sary war with the Unit­ed King­dom (the War of 1812) but did pre­side over a very effec­tive post­war peri­od of leg­is­lat­ing in coop­er­a­tion with the 14th Congress.
  18. James Mon­roe — Per­haps best known for the Mon­roe Doc­trine, he acquired Flori­da, pur­sued the demil­i­ta­riza­tion of the U.S.-Canadian bor­der, nego­ti­at­ed the Rus­so-Amer­i­can treaty of 1924, and dealt with a panic.
  19. Ulysses S. Grant — He effec­tive­ly defend­ed the civ­il rights of freed Black Amer­i­cans dur­ing Recon­struc­tion, sign­ing a bill cre­at­ing the Jus­tice Depart­ment and fight­ing the Ku Klux Klan, but strug­gled with corruption.
  20. Grover Cleve­land — The only Amer­i­can so far to serve non-con­sec­u­tive terms as Pres­i­dent, he fos­tered Navy mod­ern­iza­tion while butting heads with Con­gress and fail­ing to pro­tect work­ers dur­ing a time of labor strife.
  21. William McKin­ley — A pro­po­nent of the gold stan­dard and a busi­ness sym­pa­thiz­er, he took Amer­i­ca into a short war with Spain and pro­mot­ed tar­iffs to pro­tect domes­tic man­u­fac­tur­ing pri­or to his assassination.
  22. James K. Polk — Known for doing what he said he’d do, he took the coun­try in and out of war with Mex­i­co, cre­at­ed the Depart­ment of the Inte­ri­or, and nego­ti­at­ed a set­tle­ment over Ore­gon coun­try with the U.K.
  23. Chester A. Arthur — Signed the Chi­nese Exclu­sion Act after veto­ing its ini­tial incar­na­tion, but also cham­pi­oned civ­il ser­vice reform through the Pendle­ton Civ­il Ser­vice Reform Act of 1883 and the rebirth of the Navy.
  24. Ben­jamin Har­ri­son — Presided over the admis­sion of six west­ern states, includ­ing Wash­ing­ton, signed the Sher­man Antitrust Act, and imple­ment­ed the McKin­ley Tar­iff, but strug­gled to empow­er Black Americans.
  25. John Quin­cy Adams — Elect­ed by the U.S. House after the Elec­toral Col­lege dead­locked, he could­n’t get much done dur­ing his sin­gle term, but he sup­port­ed wom­en’s and indige­nous rights and opposed slavery.
  26. Ger­ald R. Ford — Unwise­ly par­doned Richard Nixon and inef­fec­tive­ly tried to com­bat ris­ing infla­tion with gim­micks instead of good poli­cies, but he did sup­port the Equal Rights Amend­ment and advance arms con­trol dialogue.
  27. George H.W. Bush — Pro­vid­ed steady lead­er­ship when the Berlin Wall fell and signed the Amer­i­cans With Dis­abil­i­ties Act, but also invad­ed Pana­ma, inter­vened in the Gulf War, and strug­gled to address a recession.
  28. James A. Garfield — Purged cor­rup­tion in the Post Office and pro­posed major civ­il ser­vice reforms that Con­gress adopt­ed in 1883 but failed to address ris­ing eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty and inequity before his assassination.
  29. Ruther­ford B. Hayes — End­ed Recon­struc­tion as a con­di­tion of a deal that made him Pres­i­dent and deployed the U.S Army to break a rail­road strike while also harm­ing trib­al nations with forced assim­i­la­tion policies.
  30. Andrew Jack­son — Unjust­ly dis­placed thou­sands of Native Amer­i­cans from their ances­tral homes and trig­gered a pan­ic by killing the Bank of the Unit­ed States while facil­i­tat­ing the enfran­chise­ment of “the com­mon man.”
  31. Mar­tin Van Buren — Strug­gled to address the Pan­ic of 1837 that was caused by his pre­de­ces­sor’s poli­cies and con­tin­ued oppress­ing Native Amer­i­cans through con­flicts like the Sec­ond Semi­nole War.
  32. Zachary Tay­lor — Died in office hav­ing failed to com­plete a sin­gle term or achieve any major progress for the coun­try, though he did secure rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Clay­ton-Bul­w­er Treaty with the Unit­ed Kingdom.
  33. John Tyler — Though he alien­at­ed his par­ty and became polit­i­cal­ly home­less after tak­ing over from William Hen­ry Har­ri­son, he worked to stop ocean­ic African slave traf­fick­ing under the Web­ster-Ash­bur­ton Treaty.
  34. Ronald Rea­gan — Respon­si­ble for Iran-con­tra scan­dal, imple­ment­ed harm­ful eco­nom­ic dereg­u­la­tion, inef­fec­tive­ly respond­ed to AIDS epi­dem­ic, but did even­tu­al­ly find an arms con­trol part­ner in Mikhail Gorbachev.
  35. William Hen­ry Har­ri­son — He hard­ly did any­thing because he was only Pres­i­dent for a few weeks, so some schol­ars might argue he should­n’t be ranked at all, but includ­ing him for com­plete­ness makes sense.
  36. Calvin Coolidge — Sup­port­ed wom­en’s suf­frage and racial equal­i­ty, but his harm­ful “lais­sez-faire” eco­nom­ic poli­cies set the stage for one of the worst eco­nom­ic calamites in mod­ern times: the Great Depression.
  37. Her­bert Hoover — Coolidge’s suc­ces­sor, deserved­ly known for an inef­fec­tive, uncar­ing response to the Depres­sion, includ­ing the refusal to pro­vide ear­ly cash redemp­tion of vet­er­ans’ ser­vice bonus certificates.
  38. Andrew John­son — Lin­col­n’s suc­ces­sor botched Recon­struc­tion and end­ed up feud­ing with his own par­ty in Con­gress, becom­ing the first pres­i­dent to find him­self impeached by the House of Representatives.
  39. Mil­lard Fill­more — Sup­port­ed the dis­as­trous Com­pro­mise of 1850, includ­ing the Fugi­tive Slave Act, and empha­sized anti-immi­gra­tion and anti-Catholic poli­cies after tak­ing over from Zachary Taylor.
  40. War­ren G. Hard­ing — Made bad per­son­nel deci­sions that result­ed in cor­rup­tion and scan­dals like Teapot Dome, refused to join the League of Nations, and imple­ment­ed an inef­fec­tive dis­ar­ma­ment agreement.
  41. Richard Nixon — Sev­er­al very pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy achieve­ments for a Repub­li­can pres­i­dent, but he per­pe­trat­ed atroc­i­ties abroad with Kissinger in South­east Asia and dam­aged the pres­i­den­cy with scan­dals like Watergate.
  42. George W. Bush — Ignored intel­li­gence sug­gest­ing al Qae­da would strike the U.S., launched unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, cut tax­es for the wealthy, and did not effec­tive­ly respond when the Great Reces­sion hit.
  43. Franklin Pierce — Opposed the abo­li­tion­ist move­ment, nixed the Mis­souri Com­pro­mise through the Kansas-Nebras­ka Act, enforced the immoral Fugi­tive Slave Act, and lost so much sup­port that he was­n’t renominated.
  44. James Buchanan — Backed the Supreme Court’s hor­rif­ic Dred Scott deci­sion as well as South­ern schem­ing to admit Kansas into the Union as a slave state and failed to con­front the Con­fed­er­ate insurrection.
  45. Don­ald Trump — Failed to effec­tive­ly respond to the onset of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, ran a hor­rif­i­cal­ly cor­rupt regime that flout­ed ethics laws and vio­lat­ed polit­i­cal norms, and irre­spon­si­bly cut tax­es for the wealthy.

The schol­ars were just a lit­tle too char­i­ta­ble to Richard Nixon and way too char­i­ta­ble to George W. Bush, and I don’t think either Har­ri­son deserves to be ranked below Hard­ing, Fill­more, Hoover, Coolidge, or Nixon. But for the most part, their rank­ings are quite defen­si­ble. These sorts of eval­u­a­tions are inher­ent­ly opin­ion­at­ed, but this sur­vey pro­vides an oppor­tu­ni­ty for build­ing consensus.

Amer­i­ca has had a lot of what I con­sid­er to be mediocre pres­i­dents, which in my esti­ma­tion out­num­ber both the real­ly good and real­ly bad ones.

Our cur­rent pres­i­dent, Joe Biden, gets a lot of neg­a­tive and unflat­ter­ing media cov­er­age, and faces an oppo­si­tion (espe­cial­ly a Repub­li­can Par­ty no longer com­mit­ted to repub­li­can­ism) that is less loy­al to democ­ra­cy than any oth­er in mod­ern Amer­i­can his­to­ry, but he has nev­er­the­less achieved a lot. His pres­i­den­cy is still ongo­ing, so a prop­er appraisal of his lega­cy is not yet possible.

If Biden can pre­vent Trump’s return and con­tin­ue strength­en­ing the coun­try despite all that he faces, future his­to­ri­ans may rank him as one of the great­est pres­i­dents, along­side Lin­coln, FDR, Wash­ing­ton, and Ted­dy Roosevelt.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

Adjacent posts

4 replies on “Presidential Greatness Project’s 2024 survey finds Lincoln is the best, Trump is the worst”

  1. I sim­ply don’t under­stand what has hap­pened to the mod­ern Repuli­can Par­ty and is loyalty/fealty to an absolute nut case. I’ve always con­sid­ered myself a Dole Republican/Paneta Demo­c­rat, and am a big believ­er in account­abil­i­ty. It’s as if Putin has the entire Repub­li­can Par­ty com­pro­mised. Now I do not have star­ry ‑yed view of Amer­i­can Excep­tion­al­ism and we’ve had enor­mous issues with com­pro­mis­ing in the past, but what a com­plete clown show we are cur­rent­ly experiencing. 

    The only excuse I can hon­est­ly come up with giv­en the sad num­ber of Repub­li­can quis­lings is the enor­mous influ­ence of the Inter­net and its over-sized impact on at least 13 rd of the Coun­try. The incred­i­ble igno­rance of cur­rent Amer­i­can polit­i­cal thought cou­pled with sev­er­al inter­na­tion­al con­flicts will even­tu­al­ly lead to WW III with Amer­i­ca on the side­lines think­ing the ocean bar­ri­ers will save us. 

    More than any­time since WW II, we need extra­or­di­nary lead­er­ship to see us through a time peri­od that makes the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis a Sun­day Pic­nic. With what Biden’s accom­plished so far, I’d feel a whole lot bet­ter if he pulled a Gen­er­al Wash­ing­ton and stepped down.the ulti­mate sac­ri­fice. He will be 82 per­form­ing a job that is tough for any man in his fifties. 

    Though based on Biden’s per­for­mance, he would still get my vote. Trump will nev­er earn my vote based on his four years of one dis­as­ter after anoth­er. The only oth­er pres­i­dent I can com­pare trump to is Andrew Jack­son, a rabid racist who left the coun­try an eco­nom­ic bas­ket case after eight years.

  2. Is there some way of reverse-engi­neer­ing the results of the sur­vey to deter­mine the break­down of respon­dents by par­ty affil­i­a­tion? I haven’t found this infor­ma­tion any­where, even on the sur­vey, itself. It would be good to know it was­n’t 150 Democ­rats, 2 Repub­li­cans, and 1 independent.

  3. I am inter­est­ed in the question(s) they answered. I want to under­stand that this was an unbi­ased sur­vey so I can share it iwth oth­ers and can rep­re­sent it as unbi­ased. Was there a body of ques­tions a wide range of ques­tions or just one score?

    1. Was able to find this when the arti­cle debuted. 

      Hope it helps those who are asking. 

      55–57% were iden­ti­fied as Demo­c­rat Voters.
      21–25% were iden­ti­fied republican
      11–17% iden­ti­fied as independent
      And 3% were non disclosure

Comments are closed.