Throughout American history, citizens have debated the pros and cons of every president, from their leadership abilities to their accomplishments; their foreign policy to their economic progress.
Naturally, it’s impossible to capture the many nuances of each Commander in Chief. How can you account for all the subtle reforms? The timeless speeches? And that’s not to mention the uglier side of the office, with administration scandals, nasty campaigns, and social injustices.
For today, however, we’re focusing on six simple, quantifiable factors for every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. This list isn’t meant to be definitive, but it can give you a general idea of which modern presidents were more successful than others in these specific areas. These factors, ordered from most weight to least weight, are:
- Average approval rating throughout the presidency
- Average margin of victory by popular vote (includes both elections for presidents who sought a second term, whether or not he went on to win)
- Change in unemployment rate from start to finish of presidency
- Change in deficit as a percentage of GDP from start to finish of presidency
- Change in federal debt as a percentage of GDP from start to finish of presidency
- Congressional seats won or lost by the president’s party during his administration, normalized for length of term
Notably missing? Foreign policy. For this list, we’ve avoided scoring presidents on international affairs, given how difficult these accomplishments are to quantify.
Without further ado, here are the 13 presidents since the time of FDR, ranked from last to first.
President Jimmy Carter – Profile | InsideGov
Carter’s presidency was actually about average in terms of unemployment, debt and the deficit. Instead, his biggest problem was winning over the American people. Both his average approval rating and average margin of victory in elections were among the lowest for modern heads of state.
Explore approval ratings, budget, debt and more with interactive profiles on each of these slides. You can find the data sources listed under each chart.
George W. Bush
President George W. Bush – Profile | InsideGov
President Bush’s numbers are below average in most categories, but he takes a notable hit on unemployment. As the economic crises continued to worsen in the president’s final six months in office, unemployment soared, enough to knock Bush into second-to-last.
President Gerald Ford – Profile | InsideGov
Ford’s ascent to the presidency came quickly and surprisingly—a series of events overshadowed by the unfolding Watergate scandal. Two short years later, Ford’s term ended. More than anything, Ford ranks low because he didn’t have much time to accomplish anything of substance.
Correction: a previous version of this page stated that Ford did not seek reelection, which is incorrect.
President Barack Obama – Profile | InsideGov
While Obama has a bit more time to shape his legacy, we ran his numbers to the present day to see where he would rank. The current Commander in Chief has overseen a significant drop in unemployment and done well with the deficit, but his approval ratings remain stubbornly low and the federal debt has increased significantly.
George H.W. Bush
President George H. W. Bush – Profile | InsideGov
In the afterglow of the Reagan administration, President Bush rode a high approval rating through the first three years of his presidency. Unfortunately, his decision to raise taxes—an action that broke his famous “no new taxes” pledge—tanked his ratings and promptly lost him the 1992 election.
President Richard Nixon – Profile | InsideGov
Strictly by the numbers, President Nixon had an average presidency, with some small reductions in the federal debt and a minor uptick in unemployment. Naturally, the Watergate Scandal went on to tarnish his reputation and leave a black mark on the administration, but for this particular ranking, he remains in the middle of the pack.
President Bill Clinton – Profile | InsideGov
Clinton tends to receive high marks in today’s public opinion polls, but the raw numbers don’t speak quite as highly of the Commander in Chief. Yes, his economic numbers ranged from decent to good, but his party consistently lost seats throughout his presidency. To Clinton’s credit, he was able to work with a Republican-controlled Congress, but the fact that he lost so many seats at all speaks to an underlying flaw in the president.
Harry S. Truman
President Harry S. Truman – Profile | InsideGov
Truman leads the pack across three categories: seats won, deficit and debt…a capable leader transitioning from war to peacetime. Still, his approval ratings don’t come close to several of the more popular presidents from the 20th century.
John F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy – Profile | InsideGov
Another opinion poll favorite, JFK suffers slightly from Gerald Ford syndrome—he just wasn’t in office long enough to achieve his full potential. Even so, JFK sports the highest average approval rating of any modern president.
President Ronald Reagan – Profile | InsideGov
The Gipper has strong marks almost across the board, from approval rating to the deficit to unemployment. Incidentally, his only spot of weakness (at least in this methodology) is the federal debt, where he ranks among the bottom three for modern presidents (only better than Obama and FDR).
Dwight D. Eisenhower
President Dwight D. Eisenhower – Profile | InsideGov
Eisenhower boasted solid economic numbers throughout his presidency, but his most impressive feat may have been maintaining such a high approval rating over eight full years. Throughout 96 months, he only dipped below 50% once.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
President Franklin D. Roosevelt – Profile | InsideGov
Considered by many to be a top five all-time president, FDR earns our 2nd spot, with historically large improvements in unemployment following the Great Depression, and consistently high approval ratings over four terms. That said, FDR suffers just a bit in our rankings due to a gigantic increase in federal debt. Here, our methodology’s lack of foreign policy indicators rears its head, as FDR naturally pushed the country into debt in order to finance World War II.
Lyndon B. Johnson
President Lyndon B. Johnson – Profile | InsideGov
LBJ tends to get some respect in public opinion polls, but we’re higher on him than most. It’s tough to follow FDR on just about anything, but LBJ’s numbers speak volumes: he won over the American people early, boasting high approval ratings and the largest average margin of victory on our list. He reduced unemployment by over two full percentage points, kept the national debt under control, and helped the country move on from a global conflict. By our numbers, he’s the best president of the modern era.