With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

My 10 Worst Presidents Of All-Time

In February 2016 I posted a list of the three worst Supreme Court Justices of all time. This is my list of the ten worst presidents in descending order. I leave out short term vice presidents like Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, and Gerald Ford who succeeded to the presidency when a president died or resigned and were only in office for a brief time and presidents who died in office before they had much of an impact like William Henry Harrison. Some of my choices may surprise you. Jimmy Carter, who is on my list, was an ineffectual president although he became a bright light for justice after leaving office. I considered including Woodrow Wilson because of his racism and William McKinley because of his role in promoting American imperialism in Asia and the Caribbean, but in the end they did not make my list. You probably already know who my #1 worst all-time president will be.

The Siena College Research Institute conducted a Presidential Expert Poll in 2010 where they polled 238 people identified as “presidential scholars.” Their top five presidents were Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, in my view, is over-rated. I am comfortable with the others. Their worst five were Andrew Johnson (43), James Buchanan (42), Warren G. Harding (41), Franklin Pierce (40), and George W. Bush (39). I don’t include Johnson on my list because he was a brief accident, and Franklin Pierce, because he was a place-filling non-entity during a period when the nation’s major political actors were in the House and Senate. My “worst” choices had to actually do something bad to qualify.

10. Warren G. Harding, Republican, 1921-1923 (Siena Poll #41): On this one, the Sienna experts and I agree. Harding was elected president in 1920 promising to return America to normalcy, which meant a country without immigrants, Catholics, Jews, unions, and political radicals. In one of his first actions as President, Harding called for a special session of Congress to pass immigration restriction quotas. During his time in office, taxes on corporations and the wealthy were reduced, setting the stage for increased economy inequality. New high tariffs were enacted to protect business, but that undermined international trade and cooperation. Harding is probably best remembered for corruption during his administration at the highest levels. In the Teapot Dome Scandal naval oil reserves were transferred from the Navy Department to the Interior Department and then leased to private companies that bribed the Secretary of the Interior. A one-word summary of the Harding presidency: Corrupt.

9. Calvin Coolidge, Republican, 1923-1929 (Siena #29): Calvin Coolidge first came to national attention in 1919 when, as governor of Massachusetts, he used the national guard to break efforts by the Boston police department to organize a labor union. This earned Coolidge the Republican Party nomination for vice president in 1920. Coolidge became president when Harding died in office and then was elected president in 1924 in his own right. He was nicknamed “Silent Cal” because he refused to talk in public. According to whitehouse.gov, Coolidge spent his time in office trying to “preserve the old moral and economic precepts of frugality.” During his administration immigration restrictions were further tightened. As president, he refused to stay the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti as evidence mounted that they were not guilty and he pressed for firmer enforcement of prohibition which contributed to the growth of organized crime in the United States. His main achievement in office, again according to whitehouse.gov, was his refusal “to use Federal economic power to... ameliorate the depressed condition of agriculture and certain industries.” Just before “Silent Cal” died in 1933, he confided to a friend, “I feel I no longer fit in with these times.” A one-word summary of the Coolidge presidency: Bewildered.

8. James Carter, Democrat, 1977-1981 (Siena #32): Jimmy Carter is one of my two favorite ex-presidents of all-time (the other is John Quincy Adams). Since leaving office Carter has been a Nobel Prize recipient; launched campaigns against debilitating disease in Third World countries; promoted democratic elections around the world (except, unfortunately, in the United States); personally helped build housing for the poor as part of Habitat for Humanity; and searched for ways to achieve a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But this great man was a terrible president, largely because he was so inept as a politician and leader. His list of negative accomplishments includes: a failed energy policy with long gas lines and his appeal to Americans to wear sweaters; no discernible economic policy during a period of high inflation and unemployment; admitting the dethroned Shah of Iran into the United States, contributing to a hostage crisis with Iran that he terribly mismanaged; and secretly arming Islamic Mujahideen forces in Afghanistan to fight against a Soviet-backed government, a group that evolved into the anti-west, anti-modernization Taliban when the Cold War ended. The biggest problem was that trained as an engineer, Jimmy Carter tinkered when bolder action was needed. A one-word summary of the Carter presidency: Inept.

7. Ronald Reagan, Republican, 1981-1989 (Siena #18): Republicans love him. If it were up to conservative commentators he would be ranked the greatest American president of all-time. Democrats and academics over-rate him in an effort to show they do not have ideological biases. I lived through the Reagan presidency. He was charming and he could deliver a good speech, even as he seems to have increasingly suffered from dementia, but his policies were simply terrible. Reagan’s voodoo economics and attacks on government and labor unions have become fundamental tenets of right-wing Republicanism. Meanwhile his tax cuts and increased military spending, often on fantasy projects like Star Wars, produced enormous federal deficits and, among other things, led to under-funding of Social Security and the current problems with the system. While Reagan was asleep at the wheel, his subordinates operated with limited oversight leading to Harding-era levels of corruption and illegal arms dealings, most notably the Iran-Contra Affair. When the world turned against the apartheid regime in South Africa and rallied against HIV/AIDS, Reagan opposed sanctions and money for research. A one-word summary of the Reagan presidency: Oblivious.

6. Herbert Hoover, Republican, 1929-1933 (Siena #36): Herbert Hoover and James Buchanan make this list because they refused to act in the face of the two greatest crises that threatened the United States, the Great Depression starting in 1929 and the secession crisis that led to the American Civil War. No coincidentally, their successors, FDR and Abraham Lincoln, who took forcible action, are rated amongst the great presidents in U.S. history. Hoover should have been a good president; he was certainly a good person and well prepared. As a young man in China he personally rescued children caught up in the Boxer Rebellion. During World War I and the immediate post-war period he organized a massive relief program to help feed European victims of the war. But as president, Hoover’s fundamental belief that the economic system was self-correcting prevented him from taking steps to fix it and instituting relief programs when the stock market crash of 1929 produced the worst economic downturn in United States history. He rejected significant reform and aid to a suffering people as a path to socialism. Herbert Hoover suffered from one of the same problems Jimmy Carter did 50 years later. Trained as an engineer, Hoover tinkered when bold action was required. A one-word summary of the Hoover presidency: Thoughtless.

5. James Buchanan, Democrat, 1857-1861(Siena #42): Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States in November 1860 but would not take office until March 1861. For over four months James Buchanan remained in office as a lame-duck president. During that time seven Southern states passed resolutions seceding from the United States. Buchanan took no action giving them time to organize a government and arm for a civil war that lasted four years and resulted in over 600,000 deaths. A one-word summary of the Buchanan presidency: Irresponsible.

4. Richard Nixon, Republican, 1969-1974 (Siena #30): Richard Nixon was a reprehensible character long before he became president. He was elected to Congress from California in 1946 and the Senate in 1950 by red-baiting his opponents and while in Congress he gained notoriety for his role in slandering New Deal Democrats and liberals as fellow-travelers and communist sympathizers. Nixon used similar tactics to get elected president in 1968. His campaign’s Southern Strategy used veiled racism, attacking his opponents as soft on Black crime, to win Southern and White working class support. In both his 1968 and 1972 campaigns he presented himself as a candidate committed to a peaceful resolution of the war in Vietnam while planning to escalate United States involvement. Nixon’s downfall was paranoia that led to criminal behavior. His campaign committee staged an illegal break-in of Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. When the perpetrators were caught Nixon impeded the inquiry, hiding evidence and firing investigators. Facing impeachment and removal from office, Nixon resigned in August 1974. A one-word summary of the Nixon presidency: Criminal.

3. Andrew Jackson, Democrat, 1829-1837 (Siena #14): Andrew Jackson, like Ronald Reagan, is another president who is vastly over-ranked, although lately he has been held to closer scrutiny and is scheduled to have his image replaced on the front of the $20 bill. Much of Jackson’s reputation rests on his identification with the “common man” and the expansion of voting rights in the early national period, although it is not clear what he actually did to gain credit. Jackson was a gambler, a wealthy slaveholder, and a racist Indian fighter who murdered an opponent in a duel. For much of his life, including his time as president, Andrew Jackson callously broke the law. In campaigns to steal Creek and Cherokee land in Georgia and Alabama he allegedly ordered his forces to massacre women and children. Jackson illegally declared martial law in New Orleans during the War of 1812, invaded Spanish Florida without authorization; executed British citizens who resisted his authority; removed federal deposits from the Bank of the United States precipitating a major depression; and refused to obey a Supreme Court ruling favoring Native Americans in Worcester v. Georgia. Jackson’s two most lasting “achievements” as President were his veto of a law renewing the charter for a national bank, causing economic disruption for a decade, and the 1830 Indian Removal Act, driving indigenous people off of their lands east of the Mississippi River. A one-word summary of the Jackson presidency: Contemptible.

2. George W. Bush, Republican, 2001-2009 (Siena #39): By the time he left office most observers, both academic and ordinary citizens, thought George W. Bush was the worst president, at least in their memory. He ignored intelligence warnings before the 9/11 attack, allowed underlings to lie to Congress, the United Nations, and the American people about “weapons of mass destruction,” went to war without a plan to build peace, broke the economy, and mishandled natural disasters. A part-time president at best, one of his top advisors said he governed by instinct. A one-word summary of the Bush presidency: Ignorant.

1. Donald Trump, Republican, 2017- (Siena, Unranked): In four months in office, Donald Trump manages to echo the worst of all previous presidents except maybe Buchanan (let’s hope another civil war is not in the future) – and it is only four months so far. His economic policy: cut taxes, regulation, and social services, boost tariffs and military spending, à la Herbert Hoover’s response to the Great Depression and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. On the military front he belligerently threatens new wars or to escalate old ones to distract from domestic disasters, now echoing Reagan (Grenada) and George W. Bush. His advisors, like Warren G. Harding’s, are busy using Trump’s presidency to pad their own pockets. Like Jimmy Carter and Calvin Coolidge, he presents no meaningful solutions to the nation’s problems. Like Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon he viciously lashes out at every perceived enemy and they would be proud of his contempt for law and the Constitution. Trump’s disdain for allies and disregard for the threat of climate change to human civilization are unprecedented. His America First pronouncements are a recipe for global disaster. A one-word summary of the Trump presidency so far: Unhinged.

Read entire article at Huffington Post