Was Trump the Worst American President? Not on this list
There’s a new edition of C-SPAN’s historic presidential rankings, with the title, I guess, that the experts involved – academic and popular historians, along with a few political scientists and a few others – rank Donald Trump 41st out of 44 presidents. (Joe Biden is not included; Grover Cleveland, the only president to have served non-consecutive terms, counts once in this fiscal year.) That’s higher than I would rank, although the bottom three in this survey , Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan are all legitimate contenders for the title of worst president in American history.
Beyond Trump, there is nothing of note in this particular investigation. John Kennedy, at # 8, continues to be ranked incredibly high. Ulysses Grant, # 16, continues to climb from where he was unfairly placed in the 20th century, and Woodrow Wilson continues to lose ground, in 13th place, as fewer and fewer experts consider him great. Gerald Ford (28) is underrated; Jimmy Carter (26) is overrated. The exercise, I must point out, is a moderately fun diversion at best that can inspire people to learn more about the history and workings of the U.S. government. At worst? It’s another way to reinforce an overly presidential-centric view of the history and government of the United States. No one should take it too seriously.
But that’s not a bad way to ask questions about the presidency. The C-SPAN version asks experts to assess presidents on 10 aspects of the job, including public persuasion, crisis management, administrative skills and moral authority. What strikes me about the categories, especially in light of the last presidents, is the importance of a category that they do not include: the management of the coalition of parties.
Some of them can be included in other categories; for example, especially in an era of partisan polarization, âcongressional relationsâ overlap with party leadership. But it really is something different.
One of the reasons it’s so important is that it has a lot to do with what happens after a president leaves office. In the last few years of a president in the White House, we talk a lot about the legacy in terms of the policies adopted, but the real legacy of a president is often about which groups have gained influence within the party and which ones. lost, and ruling personnel whose careers advanced during the presidency.
A failure in this direction can be seen, for example, in the presidency of Jimmy Carter, which left his party relatively unprepared to govern in the future, with catastrophic effects on Bill Clinton’s first years in office. Clinton actually went out of his way to avoid hiring people from Carter’s White House for his administration. But Barack Obama filled his Clinton staff administration, and Joe Biden did the same with Obama’s staff, allowing the two presidents to get underway.
It’s more than staff. Ronald Reagan strengthened the conservative movement, making subsequent Republican presidents, congresses, and state governments more aligned with conservative political preferences. Clinton and Obama empowered women and previously marginalized ethnic groups, helping to produce a more diverse party during Biden’s presidency. It also works the other way around; George HW Bush’s indifference to the party helped fuel the rise of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the tactical radicalism (and worse) that ultimately eclipsed political conservatism. Trump appears to have completed this job.
Of course, as with any other assessment of presidents, it’s important to remember that they are hardly all-powerful when it comes to party; parties constrain presidents at least as much as presidents rule their parties. And the overall political context matters too.
But a president who actively tries to influence the party has every capacity to do so, whether through personnel decisions or by directing resources to certain groups and diverting others. What if, and how, they do it can be one of the most important things a president does in office.
1. Rick Hasen at the crafty, redesigned and priceless Election Law blog on two major Supreme Court decisions due Thursday.
2. Alvin B. Tillery Jr. on Founders and Critical Race Theory.
3. Matt Grossmann speaks with Jon Kingzette and Jan Voelkel about partisan polarization and shared values.
4. Dana Rubinstein on Andrew Yang’s failed campaign for mayor of New York.
5. Spencer Ackerman on Donald Rumsfeld.
6. George Packer on Rumsfeld.
7. Julian Sanchez on reform of counterterrorism investigations under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
8. And Michelle Cottle to flatter Trump.
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