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“First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of our countrymen”

There are any number of polls in the United States which, every so often, offer the views of this group or that on who was or was not the best President of all time. Richard Neustadt started the trend when he wrote in his 1960 book ”Presidential Power” “In the United States we like to “rate” a President. We measure him as “weak or strong”. And ever since then the polls proliferated.

However, and I must say I found this surprising in itself, there has never been a UK academic poll rating the performance of 40 US Presidents since Washington. Until now that is.

The United States Presidency Centre of the Institute for the study of the Americas (and part of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study) has risen to the challenge. You can find the whole thing here :


A simple click from here gives you a table of the results.

They chose only 40 presidents for the sample. For those who don’t follow this blog that closely it works like this. There have only been 43 Presidents including Washington and not 44 as Obama stated on Inauguration day because Grover Cleveland served in two non-sequential administrations. 44 offices to which a man might be President, and 43 men who served in them. OK? Obama isn’t counted, which takes us to 42, and the guys also excluded William Henry Harrison and James Garfield, who both died shortly after taking office.

The panel comprised 47 British academics who specialise in American history and politics, so a reasonably knowledgeable bunch. They rated on five categories: Vision and agenda setting, Domestic leadership, Foreign policy leadership, Moral authority, and Positive historical significance of their legacy. And they scored 1 low to 10 high and the results were averaged. How serious you feel all this might be depends on whether you think it was just a write up of a pub debate!

Of course there were differences from the norm found in American polls.

Top was Franklin D Roosevelt (1933-45) who was first in three categories: vision, domestic leadership and foreign policy leadership. They suggest that he wins through for the breadth of challenges he faced as leader in Depression and War. Perhaps though, and they don’t mention it, it was for the sheer longevity of his reign. Perhaps too because he was so well known through news-reel and radio. The first US President who knew how to properly manage the new media.  My mother, never normally a fan of things American, for instance recalled how his radio speeches which were rebroadcast in Britain, buoyed up the British as much as the Americans. Perhaps we felt we “knew” him in a way, that others hadn’t managed.

Lincoln, always an American odds-on favourite, came second overall. But surprisingly, John F Kennedy (1961-63) who comes out at sixth in US polls, flounders in at 15th. The academics faulted his failure to live up to the rhetoric, and the lack of anything substantive in his legacy. A family failing then?

Indeed, the only President since 1960 to make the top ten was Ronnie Reagan (1981-89) and George W.  Bush (2001-09) was way down at 31!

Bill Clinton at 19 (compared to 15 state-side) is set to slither further as his economic achievements are seen to be largely illusory.

OK, you might argue that it’s a lot of British academics talking here, that they are bound to be a bunch of wishy-washy, pinko-liberals, closet commies the lot of them – but small government advocates came out better than the US marked them. Jefferson (1801-09) came fourth, Reagan we saw at eighth, Jackson ninth.

I have no idea how useful this sort of thing is. Not very, is my initial reaction, but still a fascinating read and a great starter for a Friday night in the pub!

Copyright David Macadam 2011