How Do the Presidents Rank?

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Presidential surveys on the web

by Ann-Marie Imbornoni
Presidential Rankings

Five Best Presidents

  1. Abraham Lincoln
  2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
  3. George Washington
  4. Theodore Roosevelt
  5. Harry S. Truman

Five Worst Presidents

  1. James Buchanan
  2. Andrew Johnson
  3. Franklin Pierce
  4. Warren G. Harding
  5. William Henry Harrison


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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.
PresidentHighest RatingLowest Rating
Harry Truman87%23%
Dwight Eisenhower79%48%
John F. Kennedy83%56%
Lyndon Johnson79%35%
Richard Nixon67%24%
Gerald Ford71%37%
Jimmy Carter75%28%
Ronald Reagan68%35%
George H.W. Bush89%29%
Bill Clinton73%37%
George W. Bush90%29%
Barack Obama 76% 39%

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."

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