How Do the Presidents Rank?
Presidential surveys on the web
by Ann-Marie Imbornoni
Five Best Presidents
Five Worst Presidents
Over the years various surveys have tried to determine the best and the worst of the American presidents. It all began in 1948 when the eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., asked 55 of his fellow historians to rate each president according to one of five categories: great, near great, average, below average, or failure. Not surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt scored as great presidents, while Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding fell into the failure category.
Rankings Over Time
In recent years surveys of presidential greatness have become more common and more complex. Nevertheless, the top- and bottom-ranked presidents have remained a fairly stable group, with the rest moving up or down in rank in the middle. Presidents who appear to have moved up include Eisenhower and Reagan, while Kennedy has moved down in some surveys.
Do Surveys Reflect the Truth?
Critics of the surveys are quick to note that such rankings are biased, depending on who is doing the ranking. And how exactly is greatness defined? Presidents who served during a time of war or acute economic crisis would have a certain advantage over those whose terms were relatively peaceful and prosperous. Also, the passage of time can have an effect on how a president is ranked, given that new information or analysis can change the way we view a particular chief executive.
Still, the survey results can be a fun and interesting departure point for learning more about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the presidents. Here is a sampling of some surveys that can be viewed on the web.
Presidential Approval Ratings, Since 1950
|Below are the highest and lowest approval ratings ever received by a president in a national opinion poll throughout his presidency.|
|President||Highest Rating||Lowest Rating|
|John F. Kennedy||83%||56%|
|George H.W. Bush||89%||29%|
|George W. Bush||90%||29%|
Source: Can West News Service; CNN; "The Ups and Downs of Presidential Popularity," Ron Faucheux, Campaigns and Elections magazine; Roper Center, Public Opinion Archives: "Presidential Approval Highs and Lows."
- C-SPAN Survey of Presidential Leadership
C-SPAN is a private, non-profit information service, providing televised coverage of the proceedings of the U.S. Congress and other public affairs programming 24 hours a day. The survey, however, just covers past presidents, not the current one.
- The Roper Center's Presidential Job Approval Ratings
Located at the University of Connecticut, the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research is a major repository of public opinion data. This survey includes the current president, George W. Bush.
- Federalist Society—Wall Street Journal Survey on Presidents
- The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies is an organization of conservatives and libertarians seeking to promote the ideals of individual liberty, limited government, and rule of law within the legal system.
- The Siena Research Institute of Siena College, Loudonville, NY, conducts regional, statewide, and national surveys on a variety of issues. The surveys include expert and public opinion polls.
- Zogby International Presidential Greatness Poll
Zogby Analytics conducts public opinion polls and marketing research worldwide.