Monday, November 3, 2008

The Greatest US Presidents - The Times US presidential rankings,

The Greatest US Presidents - The Times US presidential rankings

Who is the greatest of them all? While Barack Obama and John McCain battle to become the 44th President of the United States, we asked a panel of experts from The Times to rank the previous Commanders-in-Chief in order of greatness.

1. Abraham Lincoln

1861-65 (Republican, National Union)

The No 1: our panel chose the radical Republican who kept the fledgling nation alive when it could have collapsed altogether.

The first Republican President, Lincoln led the defeat of the Confederate states in the American Civil War and freed around four million slaves by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. The formal abolition of slavery in the US was ratified soon after his death.

He succeeded in unifying the nation militarily as well as laying out a moral imperative for its governance in his Gettysburg address. During the final days of the civil war he was shot dead by John Wilkes Booth.

"Fought and won a just war, kept the United States united and created the ground for a country which could live up to its constitution." Camilla Cavendish, columnist.

"Had the coolest-sounding presidential name of all time."
Chris Ayres, Los Angeles correspondent.

2. George Washington

1789-97 (No party)

Washington led the army that vanquished the British during the American Revolutionary War before presiding over the drafting of the Constitution. When it came to elect the first US President he was chosen unanimously by electors representing the 11 states of the Union.

He was celebrated as the Father of the Nation after expanding the Union and overseeing the creation of a taxation system, a national bank and the first Supreme Court judges. His Farewell Address also became one of the cornerstones of American democracy but he still missed out on top spot in our rankings.

"Inspired generalship and making it all possible." Ben Macintyre, writer-at-large.

3. Franklin D. Roosevelt

1933-45 (Democratic)

The longest-serving of all the presidents, Roosevelt was in office for more than a decade until his death. He was re-elected four times during one of the most tumultuous periods of the 20th century.

His radical, big-government spending programme designed to kick-start the US economy became global consensus after the Second World War, but it was widely mistrusted before the conflict. FDR also ended US isolationism by leading America into battle in Europe.

"FDR is top for me, because he navigated America out of depression and through the Second World War." Tom Baldwin, Washington Bureau chief

4. Thomas Jefferson

1801-09 (Democratic-Republican)

A political philosopher and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence was narrowly elected as the third President in a disputed contest settled by the House of Representatives.

A proponent of small government, Jefferson succeeded in reducing the national debt, as well as the size of the army and navy. However, he almost doubled the size of the United States after the Louisiana Purchase, which annexed land now encompassing part of 15 states.

"The cleverest man ever to occupy the presidency." Ben Macintyre.

5. Theodore Roosevelt

1901-09 (Republican)

The youngest ever President, Roosevelt, 42, was a progressive Republican and tried to move the GOP into more radical territory. His "square deal" policies included greater regulation to protect consumers, attacks on corporate monopolies and conservationism to safeguard wildlife and the American wilderness.

In foreign policy, he oversaw a major expansion of the Navy, ordered the construction of the Panama Canal and won the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the Russo-Japanese War.

"Controversially reset America's compass for the 20th century." Gerard Baker, US editor.

6. Dwight Eisenhower

1953-61 (Republican)

The popular Second World War commander succeeded in bringing his military might to bear on US domestic reform.

Eisenhower continued most of the existing "new deal" and "fair deal" policies and introduced some radical reforms of his own. In the face of huge Southern opposition, he sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the desegregation of schools as well as ending segregation in the armed forces. He also created the interstate highway system.

7. Harry Truman

1945-53 (Democratic)

Truman entered the White House after just 82 days as Roosevelt's Vice President and with very little foreign experience. He was soon called upon to make some of the most significant international policy decisions in American history.

He sanctioned the use of atomic weapons over Japan, signed up to the United Nations and NATO as well as formulating the Truman Doctrine, which shaped America's anti-Communist policy for decades to come. Industrial disputes, scandals and the alleged harbouring of Soviet agents diminished Truman's reputation at home leaving him with a 22 per cent approval rating.

"Prevented a possible Third World War by containing the Soviet Union." Camilla Cavendish.

8. Ronald Reagan

1981-89 (Republican)

Feted by many of the panel and implicated in the current financial crisis by others, Reagan's controversial reputation remains but his revolutionary zeal forced him into the top ten.

He was elected with a clear mandate for radical economic policy to tackle high inflation and unemployment rates. His tax cutting, budget slashing, laissez-faire strategy known as "Reaganomics" became extremely popular as the US economy recovered.

The former actor's foreign policy was more divisive and his administration was attacked for perceived bellicosity as well as embarrassments including the Iran-Contra affair. But even though he was seen as a hawk when he took office, Reagan managed to grasp the historic opportunity brought about by Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power in the Soviet Union to help bring an end to the Cold War.

"Revived American self-confidence at its lowest ebb." Gerard Baker.

9. James Polk

1845-49 (Democratic)

Polk was one of the greatest presidential advocates of the idea that expanding the Union from the Atlantic to the Pacific was "manifest destiny". Victory in the war with Mexico allowed the United States to acquire California, Nevada, and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

"Trounced the Mexicans and dramatically increased the size of the Union, all in one term." Chris Ayres.

10. Woodrow Wilson

1913-21 (Democratic)

Snuck into the top ten despite being unpopular with some of our panel who felt many of his goals were never realised. A radical first term included anti-trust legislation, tariff revision and the creation of the Federal Reserve. Wilson's reputation, however, was built on his destruction of America's cherished non-interventionist policy in his second term. He was reluctant to lead the US into the First World War, but was then instrumental in building a multi-lateral post-war consensus which included the League of Nations, even if Congress never allowed America to join it.

11. John F. Kennedy

1961-63 (Democratic)

Although Lyndon Johnson was the man to turn his words into law, JFK pipped him by a single place in our list.

Kennedy had a troubling and not entirely successful foreign policy record that included the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

His radical domestic reputation was built on intervention in Alabama to uphold desegregation, his civil rights speeches and rhetorical support for the space programme. He had actually passed very little in the way of funding or legislation when he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, leaving him just shy of our top ten.

"Restored the romance." Ben Macintyre.

12. Lyndon Johnson

1963-69 (Democratic)

Johnson proved remarkably adept at harnessing the surge of public emotion following JFK's assassination. He used it to convert his predecessor's rhetoric into law, including the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, which outlawed segregation, and the Medicare and Medicaid bills that allowed millions access to healthcare for the first time.

By the end of his presidency he was extremely unpopular, however, as he became bogged down in the Vietnam War, race riots convulsed urban centres and voters grew tired of his expensive "great society" programme.

"Deserves more credit for civil rights than Kennedy." Tom Baldwin, Washington bureau chief.

13. John Adams

1797-1801 (Federalist)

After serving as Vice President throughout George Washington's time in office, he lasted only one term as President. Adams succeeded in steering an outwardly peaceful course through the international conflict between Britain and France but his best-known domestic policies were the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts, which restricted the rights of government critics.

14. Andrew Jackson

1829-37 (Democratic)

A hero of the War of 1812, Jackson was a polarising frontier President responsible for the shaping of the modern Democratic Party. His populist attacks on the national bank alienated rich supporters, but he was one of the first Presidents to actively and successfully court the public vote, strengthening the standing of popular democracy in the US.

"As one American friend of mine put it, 'he was a baddass', he also practically invented populism." Chris Ayres.

15. James Madison

1809-17 (Democratic-Republican)

Madison wrote key sections of the Constitution as well as the Bill of Rights, particularly the sections which laid out his theory of checks and balances, but as President he was a far more controversial figure.

He led the US into the divisive and bloody War of 1812 against the British Empire. Despite very few material gains it has been argued that the war was a pivotal moment in the birth of a strong and independent America.

"Kudos for his pre-presidency Federalist Papers and a useful military disaster, which many believe united the country." Chris Ayres.

16. John Quincy Adams

1825-29 (Democratic-Republican)

Great intensions never fully realised meant he was destined to finish outside of the top ten. Adams attempted an ambitious modernisation of the country despite an extremely slender victory in the race to be President. His plans included an expanded network of roads and canals, a national university and an astronomical observatory but many of the reforms were never realised because of an uncooperative Congress.

17. William McKinley

1897-1901 (Republican)

McKinley's period in office coincided with an upturn in the American economy, leaving the President free to pursue his energetic foreign policy. After a 100-day war with Spain, he was able to annex the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii and Puerto Rico as well as seizing temporary control of Cuba.

A year after being re-elected McKinley became the third President to be assassinated when he was shot dead by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist.

18. Ulysses S. Grant

1869-77 (Republican)

A controversial president. Grant was a successful general who had led the Union to victory in the American Civil War. He was elected President to oversee the radical Reconstruction of the southern states and succeeded in restricting the violence of the Ku Klux Klan, granting Freedmen voting rights and establishing a public school system.

His reputation was destroyed, however, by his administration's failure to deal with a lengthy economic depression and a string of scandals that affected his officials.

"Allowed the south to institutionailse racism after reconstruction, setting the scene for 100 years of oppression of the supposedly free." Camilla Cavendish.

19. Grover Cleveland

1885-89 and 1893-97 (Democratic)

Cleveland is the only man to have served two non-consecutive terms as President of the United States. He was also the only Democrat to be elected between the American Civil War and the 20th century. These feats allowed him to score highly on our list.

He used his presidential veto far more often than any previous Commander-in-Chief, most notably to stymie pension increases for veterans and a scheme to recompense Texan farmers after a devastating draught. His pragmatic approach was seen as honest but his reputation suffered during a second term dominated by economic hardship and strikes.

20. George H.W. Bush

1989-93 (Republican)

Reagan's economic legacy left President Bush facing an enormous national debt and, with the country in recession, he was pressurised by Democrats in Congress to raise taxes. The tax hike contradicted his manifesto pledge for no new taxes and cost him popularity among the electorate and the Republican Party.

Success in Iraq, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destruction of the Berlin Wall were not enough to restore his popularity.

"He was a tone deaf politician, hiking up taxes after that infamous 'read my lips' pledge." Chris Ayres.

21. James Monroe

1817-25 (Democratic-Republican)

Monroe led a non-partisan domestic agenda and a foreign policy with an isolationist approach to Europe. His measured approach made him the favourite president for one member of our panel but he failed to excite most of them.

Monroe argued that unless the colonial powers entered conflicts in the Americas he should not intervene in their affairs. He oversaw the expansion of the United States to include Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Maine and Missouri.

"My greatest president. . . he cannot boast a great cathartic moment, a spectacular military victory, a triumph of will. But Monroe's low-temperature presidency became known as the 'era of good feeling'. And that sounds just fine to me." Daniel Finkelstein, chief leader writer.

22. Chester Arthur

1881-85 (Republican)

A non-partisan President who attempted to improve the image of Washington officials by introducing an independent civil service commission, restricting political influence over official appointments and reducing tariff rates.

The Republicans repaid his lack of party loyalty by refusing to nominate him to run for a second term as President.

"His four years in office saw him turn widespread cynicism into grudging respect - the opposite of the usual Presidential experience." Camilla Cavendish.

23. Bill Clinton

1993-2001 (Democratic)

Clinton was one of the most controversial figures in our list with some of the panel rating him highly while others buried him at the foot of their rankings.

Clinton was the first Democrat to be re-elected President since Franklin Roosevelt. He successfully passed progressive legislation, including the right to take unpaid leave during pregnancy or illness and an increase in the minimum wage but he failed with other proposals such as his medical reforms.

His second term was dominated by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and attempted impeachment but he still left office with a 65 per cent approval rating.

"Promised so much, delivered so little and embarrassed everyone." Ben Macintyre.

24. Andrew Johnson

1865-69 (Democratic, National Union)

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, Johnson refused to implement the harsh recriminations against the defeated Confederate states that would have been popular with many Unionists. As a southerner and a Democrat, standing under the umbrella National Union ticket, he was particularly susceptible to criticism from the victorious northern states.

His gentle approach to southern leaders and veto of civil rights legislation lost him the support of the Republican Party in Congress and he spent much of his presidency battling two attempts to impeach him.

"Nearly blew Lincoln's success." Gerard Baker.

25. Gerald Ford

1974-77 (Republican)

Ford became President after Nixon's post-Watergate resignation and his best-known executive act was to grant his predecessor a full pardon.

His period in office coincided with a US recession and inflation rates of up to seven per cent, which left him with a large budgetary deficit and little room for manoeuvre. He vetoed 39 appropriation bills passed by Congress in his first 14 months to try and keep the economy afloat but that was not enough to impress our judges.

26. Calvin Coolidge

1923-29 (Republican)

Coolidge was seen as a caretaker when he stepped up from Vice President after Warren Harding's death, but his laissez-faire economic policies were popular as the economy boomed.

He was re-elected with 54 per cent of the popular vote but support faltered as he refused to intervene on behalf of struggling farmers and was slow to react to the Great Mississippi Flood. In foreign affairs, he passed the largely ineffectual Kellogg-Briand Pact, which called for signatories to renounce war.

"Probably the most modest man ever to hold the office. Disliked for his small-minded isolationist tendencies but on balance, it's a shame there were not more like him." Camilla Cavendish.

27. Rutherford B. Hayes

1877-81 (Republican)

Hayes' election was the most controversial of all. He comfortably lost the popular vote but after months of bitter wrangling, he secured the electoral college by a single vote.

Once he had been sworn in during a secret ceremony, he finally brought an end to the period of post-civil war Reconstruction by abruptly withdrawing federal troops from the southern states and allowing the former Confederate states to rule themselves.

28. Zachary Taylor

1849-50 (Whig)

Taylor is another man to languish in the rankings due, at least in part, to a brief presidency.

A military man with no prior experience in public office, Taylor died after 16 months in the White House. Much of that short period in power was spent debating the future of slavery in the newly expanded United States. He was a Southern slave-owner but argued that slavery should not be allowed to spread.

29= William H. Taft

1909-13 (Republican)

Taft's Presidency was overshadowed by the imposing figure of Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy had anointed his friend as his successor before changing his mind after Taft's first term and making an acrimonious but failed challenge to his Republican nomination.

The President sits low on our list after managing to alienate all sides of the political spectrum with unpopular anti-trust and tariff legislation during his term in office. His bid for re-election was the least successful ever as he secured just eight electoral votes and finished third behind Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt, who was standing for the Progressive Party.

29= Benjamin Harrison

1889-93 (Republican)

Harrison implemented an unpopular, high tariff on goods imported into the US, raising prices while the American economy was suffering. At the same time, the President was signing substantial appropriation bills to increase spending on the navy, subsidised shipping and federal improvements. For the first time outside of war, Congress was allowed to spend a billion dollars, which was not welcomed by the impoverished electorate.

31. John Tyler

1841-45 (Whig)

Tyler assumed the presidency after a brief constitutional crisis following the sudden death of William Harrison. He had been the Vice President and from this moment, all VPs were a heartbeat away from the White House.

He struggled to assert his authority and his presidency was often referred to as "his accidency". He managed to survive the first ever attempt to impeach a President after an unpopular veto and went on to annex Texas and then bring Florida into the Union.

32. Jimmy Carter

1977-81 (Democratic)

Our panel only just left him out of the bottom ten, making him their 11th worst President.

The Carter administration was dominated by a series of foreign policy disappointments including the surrender of the Panama Canal, the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

In Washington, Carter instituted major civil service reform and restructured the health and education departments but he failed to excite the voting population and, with the economy struggling, he was comfortably voted out of office after a single term.

"Carter got just about everything wrong." Chris Ayres.

33. Millard Fillmore

1850-53 (Whig)

Fillmore crept into the bottom ten because of his abject failure in solving the slavery crisis.

His short Presidency began after the death of Zachary Taylor during intense negotiations over the future of the slave trade. The Compromise of 1850 eventually resulted in a complicated and contradictory approach to slavery. The trade was abolished in the District of Columbia and in California while, at the same time, the remaining slave holders' powers were strengthened. Both sides of the debate were left frustrated.

"Created a compromise on extending slavery that laid the ground for the US Civil War." Camilla Cavendish.

34= James Garfield

1881 (Republican)

The second shortest Presidency after William Harrison's 32 days but the panel still prefers him to Nixon. Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a disgruntled office-seeker who had been overlooked by the President just four months after his inauguration. He died two months after the shooting.

34= Warren Harding

1921-23 (Republican)

When Harding died suddenly after two years in office, he was a popular President. The economy had rebounded after the post-war lull and his low tax, small government attitude had many admirers as the US roared into the twenties.

After his death, however, the scandals emerged. Harding may not have profited directly but he seemed to have known that many of the friends he had appointed to the administration were up to no good. Court cases, suicide, bribes, fraud and lengthy jail sentences clouded his reputation in the years after his death.

"Headed one of the most corrupt administrations." Gerard Baker, US editor.

36. Herbert Hoover

1929-33 (Republican)

Terrible timing or massive mismanagement? Our panel goes for the later. Hoover came into office at the start of 1929 when the economy was apparently booming. Within months the Wall Street Crash meant he was doomed to years of struggling through the Great Depression.

Hoover's policy proposals included slum clearance, prison reform, pension increases and tax cuts for low-income families but he failed to enact any of them and was routed at the next election.

"Unwittingly turned the 1929 crash into a global depression which weakened democracies and prepared the ground for the Second World War." Camilla Cavendish.

37= George W. Bush

2001-2009 (Republican)

A dead heat between the unpopular Bush and the dastardly Richard Nixon.

The September 11 attacks, eight months into his presidency, created a central focus for the Bush administration that lasted into his second term. Bush responded by declaring a "war on terror" and leading military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as part of his doctrine of pre-emptive military action. The lengthy operations have plummeted in popularity throughout his time in office.

Domestically, he implemented tax cuts and the "no child left behind" education programme but has been criticised for his failure to deal with the impact of Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the US financial market.

"Bush Jr. invaded Iraq based on faulty intelligence and then catastrophically mismanaged the war, dragging America's name through the mud." Chris Ayres.

37= Richard Nixon

1969-74 (Republican)

Nixon's dramatic, if controversial, escalation and conclusion of the Vietnam War and successful diplomatic missions to China and the Soviet Union ensured that he won a landslide re-election after his first term - carrying 49 of the 50 states.

Just two years later, he was forced to resign in disgrace after White House tapes suggested he had covered up a break-in at the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Hotel.

"Cynical manipulation, bringinging the presidency into disrepute and changing the language to the extent that even a whiff of scandal merits the suffix '-gate'." Ben Macintyre.

39. William Harrison

1841 (Whig)

Harrison only lasted 32 days as President so our panel struggled to push him very far up the table. He had unsuccessfully stood as the Whig candidate for the White House in both of the previous elections and was eventually sworn in, aged 68, as the oldest President until Ronald Reagan.

40. Martin Van Buren

1837-41 (Democratic)

Served as Andrew Jackson's Vice President and made it clear he wanted a continuation of many of his predecessor's policies, including the expulsion of Native Americans from their homelands. The draconian Indian Removal Act was passed by Jackson but brutally enforced under Van Buren.

"I found it hard to place high up on the list those who sanctioned the slaughter of Native Americans." Tom Baldwin, Washington bureau chief.

41. Franklin Pierce

1853-57 (Democratic)

Pierce was one of the few presidents to be abandoned by his own party after a single term. Pierce became hated for signing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was designed as a compromise between northern and southern states but was seen as kowtowing to slave power. Furious opposition to the act spawned the Republican Party.

His credibility was further diminished by the Ostend Manifesto, which advocated the annexation of Cuba, prompting domestic and international scorn when it was leaked.

42. James Buchanan

1857-61 (Democratic)

A poll of American historians recently selected Buchanan's failure to prevent the American Civil War as the greatest single mistake made by any president and our panel agree that he was the worst ever President.

Despite being a northern man, Buchanan had strongly southern principles and he struggled to maintain the fragile peace as the southern states agitated for more freedom. He denied the legal right of states to secede from the Union but at the same time he insisted that the federal government was not legally able to prevent them.

By the time he left the White House his Democratic Party had split in two, seven slave states had rebelled and formed the Confederacy and the country was embroiled in the American Civil War.

"Failed to prevent the near disintegration of the nation." Gerard Baker.

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