Ten Most Effective U.S. Presidents

American presidents can (and routinely are) ranked in vague categories such as “Best” and “Worst.” Of course, these terms are wholly dependent on your political philosophy, and so are poor choices for assessing value. They make for great arguments, but that’s about all. I’ve taken a different approach here.

In my view, a president arrives in Washington with an agenda, and is either successful or unsuccessful in implementing that agenda. Often, their agenda is expanded or modified by changing events in their times, and again, they are either successful or unsuccessful in responding to these dynamics. This Friday’s History List examines how effective presidents were in implementing their agendas: how much legislation they initiated, to what degree they set the tone for government policy, the extent to which they shaped their times.

Let the second-guessing begin:

10. Richard Nixon: Love him or hate him, the late 1960s and early 1970s were all about Richard Milhous Nixon. He entered office with the undeclared war in Southeast Asia as the nation’s albatross, and personally directed its prosecution. Without a mandate to do so, he escalated the conflict, and then shifted the emphasis from ground forces to air power, and eventually negotiated with the North Vietnamese. He successfully split the Soviets and the Chinese from Hanoi by playing the two superpowers off against each other, and then initiated the foreign policy objective of Détente to reduce tensions between the East and West. In doing so, Nixon laid the groundwork for much that was to follow. Domestically, he implemented new economic policies and rallied the “silent majority” to action, and was returned to office for a second term in a landslide of historic proportions. The only real threat to Richard Nixon was, in the end, himself. Were it not for his self-inflicted wounds, his presidency would have been seen as an unmitigated triumph.

9. Woodrow Wilson: Entering the White House as a progressive, Wilson is credited with a number of legislative landmarks, such as the Federal Reserve Act (which created a banking system that is largely unchanged in a century), the Federal Trade Commission, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Federal Farm Loan Act and America’s first-ever federal progressive income tax in the Revenue Act of 1913. Wilson lowered tariffs where others had failed to do so, and generally had his way with a like-minded Democratic Congress. (Before you write off his accomplishments because of his legislative majorities, remember the examples of the Clinton Administration in 1993 and the Obama Administration today. It’s not as automatic as you might think.) Wilson was also a wartime leader, mobilizing a nation completely unprepared for war in 1917, and eventually sending millions of troops to France in 1918, in what would be the death blow to Imperial Germany. He also raised the international profile of the United States at the Paris Peace Talks, making America one of the world’s major powers for the first time. Like Nixon, Wilson’s failure, his inability to get the Versailles Treaty ratified, was largely due to the quirks of his personality. A devastating stroke effectively ended his presidency in 1919.

8. Ronald Reagan: For eight years, Ronald Reagan was America’s chief cheerleader and its patron saint of conservative politics. Under his leadership, the Republican Party regained its prestige, and the nation enjoyed a period of economic prosperity fueled by lowered taxes and greatly increased spending, especially in the area of national defense. Entering office during a period of economic stagnation, with high unemployment, interest rates and a general feeling of cynicism about the nation’s future, Reagan, ever the professional actor, took center stage and personified America’s newfound optimism and vigor. His rapid recovery from an assassination attempt just a few weeks into his presidency cemented his image as a tough, unflappable leader. Democrats found that policy attacks, even when seeming to be successful, did little to Reagan’s approval ratings; this led to one one his many nicknames, “The Teflon President.” He was also known as “The Great Communicator” for his ability to share his vision of America as a land of prosperity and opportunity, and he easily won a second term. The Iran-Contra scandal tainted his image and his effectiveness in the waning months of his administration, but the American people stayed largely supportive of him. A testament to his influence can be seen even today in the way in which conservatives invoke his name to add gravitas to their ideas.

7.  James Knox Polk: Responsible for the second largest land acquisition in U.S. history, Polk came into office committed to Manifest Destiny and intent on extending the country’s borders north, south and west. Upon his election, Texas was immediately allowed to enter the union, pushing the U.S. border to the Rio Grande, which aggravated Mexico. He then moved aggressively to initiate war with Mexico in his second year, a war which was swiftly won, in spite of the Americans having a typically small professional army that would be compelled to invade and conquer its enemy. (Many observers, including Wellington himself, predicted disaster for Winfield Scott’s army as it marched on Mexico City.) In the peace treaty that followed, Polk confiscated what is now the Southwest United States, including California, from his defeated neighbor. He bluffed an intention to take the Oregon Country as far north as the 54th parallel, and then negotiated a treaty with Britain to split the territory at the 49th parallel. Domestically, he reduced tariffs, established an independent treasury system and the Department of the Interior. Having achieved everything he wanted in one term, Polk retired to Tennessee and exhausted, died a few months later.

6. Lyndon Johnson: In his five years in office, LBJ accomplished almost everything that his predecessor, John Kennedy, could not. While Kennedy dreamed of a civil rights bill but was incapable of getting Congress to pass one, Johnson muscled and maneuvered legislation through Washington like it was his private playground.  With over twenty years on Capitol Hill, including six as Senate Majority Leader, Johnson was highly skilled in the delicate nuances that were necessary to get bills successfully to his desk. Johnson championed his vision of “The Great Society,” which he saw as a second New Deal, and was responsible for The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, aid to education, Medicaid, Medicare, urban renewal, conservation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other programs to funnel federal funds to economically depressed regions. Were it not for increasing American involvement in a war Johnson inherited, and the ugly public backlash that became associated with it, LBJ might be remembered as one of our greatest presidents. Like a doomed hero in a Greek tragedy, Johnson saw his future clearly but was powerless to change it: “I knew from the start if I left a woman I really loved — the Great Society — in order to fight that bitch of a war in Vietnam then I would lose everything at home. My hopes my dreams.”

5. Andrew Jackson: Old Hickory rolled into Washington with such force that an era is named after him. Ending years of what he (and many Americans) considered to be elitist government, Jackson threw open the doors of power to the people, and remade the executive branch in the process. Previous to Jackson, Presidents tended to work with Congress to shape the national agenda. Jackson determined that he would have his way in spite of Congress, or the courts for that matter. Jackson distrusted big government, and he hated debt. The two ideas combined as Jackson became the only American president to completely pay off the national debt. Jackson called for the abolishment of the Electoral College and encouraged the regular replacement of government bureaucrats with his loyalists, and punished those who were suspect. The “spoils system,” in many ways, lives on today.  Jackson came into office planning on ejecting all Indians living east of the Mississippi to what is today Oklahoma, resulting in the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which even the Supreme Court could not stop. Hundreds of millions of acres in the American South were soon free for development. Jackson also personally destroyed the Second National Bank of the United States, which he considered a bastion of privilege and corruption. When South Carolina, angered at tariffs that favored northern manufacturing,  began to speak openly of secession and nullification, Jackson made it policy that the state would remain loyal by force, if necessary. South Carolina opted to compromise instead. At the end of his second term, hating banks and paper money to the end, Jackson enacted his “specie circular” that forced all government lands to be purchased in coin, which he thought would end speculation and leave the land to common people. What it did instead was help to hasten an economic depression (but he would leave Martin Van Buren to wrestle with that). The sheer force of Jackson’s dynamic personality defined a generation and rippled across the American political landscape for decades to come.

4. George Washington: Washington ranks this high on my list because everything he did established a precedent, and almost everything he did is still practiced today, which in my view, is pretty strong evidence of effectiveness. To provide you with a sampling, Washington initially saw it as the president’s duty to take a prospective treaty to the Senate, and then work alongside the senators on the details of the treaty. This is how he read “advice and consent.” He only had to experience this once before he determined that he would never do it again. From that point forward, all presidents have executed treaties on their own, and then sent the finished product to the Senate for a ratification. Washington fought to have his executive officers (cabinet members) reporting not to Congress, but to him. Washington, in eschewing the trappings of a European head of state, forever established the position as one close to the people. By not seeking a third term, he established by custom that which is now a part of the constitution. By acting quickly to enforce federal taxing rights, he established the authority of the federal government to use force against its own people, if necessary. The Jay Treaty, while immensely  unpopular, was critical in keeping the then-fragile United States out of a potentially disastrous war with England.  Lastly, it must be noted that Washington, D.C. is aptly named, as it was George Washington who worked so hard to enshrine the capital within a day’s ride of Mount Vernon, on land he knew well and had surveyed often. When he had finished his second term, he (along with Alexander Hamilton) penned a farewell address, another presidential practice that continues today. Washington perhaps wasn’t the policy force of many other presidents, but then again, he was probably too busy creating the office of President of the United States to notice.

3. Theodore Roosevelt: Roosevelt entered the White House unexpectedly, after the death of William McKinley. TR never would have been elected in his own right, because no party machine in its right mind would have set such a wild and independent spirit at the controls of government. Roosevelt was a 180° change from the low-activity standpatters who had preceded him. Not beholden to party politics, and determined to make a difference, TR sued mega-conglomerates or trusts, dissolving them into smaller, less threatening companies that were no longer monopolies. For this he earned the epithet of “Trustbuster.” Roosevelt also got legislative approval for stricter food and drug laws, and his “Square Deal” economic program focused on helping average Americans at a time when 95% of the nation’s wealth was controlled by the top 1% of the population. Theodore Roosevelt was a great lover of nature, and as president, he set aside hundreds of millions of acres of federal land, created wildlife preserves where none had ever existed before, and restricted federal land sales in protected areas. TR was a committed expansionist, and he worked hard to build up the U.S. Navy; at the end of his second term he sent much of it around the world on a goodwill cruise to display American power and reach. Roosevelt’s greatest display of presidential power may have been in the creation of the Panama Canal. When Colombia, which controlled the Isthmus at the time, refused to let Teddy construct his canal, TR interjected the U.S. into a Panamanian rebellion against Colombia, and then negotiated with the people he had helped into power the rights to build and control the canal. While Congress debated his excesses, the Canal was completed in record time and under budget.  And, during his spare time, he helped negotiate the end of the Russo-Japanese War, earning himself a Nobel Prize. By the time he was done, Roosevelt had turned the office of the President into a “bully pulpit,” and remade American conceptions of presidential power forever.

2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: No one has been president for so long (12 years) or faced quite so much hardship in his time of office (the Great Depression and World War II). Four times elected president, FDR became the personification of American power and perseverance, and projected it while carrying two ten-pound metal braces on his legs so that he wouldn’t fall down. Elected with a mandate to rescue the nation from its worst economic crisis ever, Franklin Roosevelt exuded hope to a people accustomed to despondency. Acting immediately, in his fabled first hundred days in office, FDR enacted much of the framework of his “New Deal” economic program, intent on getting Americans working again, even if it cost the government a fortune to do it. Roosevelt recognized that being employed was key to a person’s sense of dignity, and he created agency after agency in an attempt to put people to work. Some programs worked; others failed. As the years went by, Roosevelt kept getting legislation passed, much of it regulatory in nature, hoping to reign in the excesses of free market capitalism that he blamed for the crisis, such as the establishment of the  Securities and Exchange Commission and the FDIC. Roosevelt also looked to protect Americans at risk of impoverishment by establishing federal programs to support individuals financially with programs like Social Security and the establishment of a national minimum wage; Roosevelt protected unions with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act. And after briefly skimming over his domestic agenda, then there’s the whole “world war” thing. While FDR was trying to spend America out of the depression, Europe and Japan were coming under the influence of militaristic and expansionist governments. By 1939, the world was once again at war. Roosevelt, for his part, professed neutrality while quietly helping England to stay afloat. Two years later, Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor settled the matter, and FDR became a wartime leader. As always, the United States had no peacetime military to speak of, so the early months were about calming fears and revving up the war machine. Roosevelt became part the Allied triumvirate that included Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin. For the next three years, FDR, his health fading, led America through its greatest military challenge. In 1945, with the war winding down in Europe and the atomic bomb almost completed in the deserts of New Mexico, Roosevelt began a historic fourth term.  By April he was dead of a cerebral hemorrhage, having endured what was probably too much for any man.

1. Abraham Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln entered office in the worst possible way. Half of the nation that had elected him was so outraged that they had rebelled rather than submit to his authority, a sizable portion of those who stayed loyal thought little of him personally, and the politicians with whom he would have to work thought even less of him. He was threatened with assassination before he had even taken office. The leadership of his own republican party, almost to a man, thought that they would make a better president than he, and some secretly plotted to take the nomination from him in 1864. Once forced into a war he did not want, he was compelled to create an army he did not have, spending money that did not exist. Before Fort Sumter, the regular United States Army numbered 17,000 men, fewer than those who fell in one day at Antietam a year and a half later.  Complicating the matter even further, there was no great moral imperative at the war’s outset, no grievous outrage to avenge. Men were being asked to die to restore a political arrangement between local governments, but die they did, in numbers that were incomprehensible to Lincoln’s constituents. Once it became clear that the Union as it had been could not be restored, Lincoln chose to create a new nation from his own vision, no matter that most people in 1862 disagreed with that vision. His Emancipation Proclamation was to be the single most unpopular act of his administration; his top generals, far more popular than was he, referred to him as “the original gorilla.” His party lost seats in the Congressional midterms and sought to replace him as candidate for president. None of this changed Lincoln’s singular purpose and his ability to focus on the task at hand. He worked eighteen hours days, even as his eleven-year old son lie dying of fever in the White House.  With a patchwork army, precarious financing and shrewed political maneuvering, Lincoln stayed the course and saw the war through to its completion. When it was over, he had expunged America’s original sin of slavery, realigned the balance of power in the federal government and given the nation “a new birth of freedom.”

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