John F. Kennedy once said, “There is no experience you can get that can possibly prepare you adequately for the presidency.”
There’s no doubt that being U.S. president is a challenging and often thankless job. While some presidents have obtained near mythological status in American history, others have been swept into obscurity. Instead of ranking the best and worst U.S. presidents, InsideGov set out to find which presidents are historically the most underrated and overrated.
Using the results from 18 scholarly surveys, we found the average ranking of each U.S. president. We then determined which presidents are historically ranked too high, given their actual accomplishments, and which presidents are frequently overlooked. Note that being “underrated” doesn’t necessarily mean a president is good, and being “overrated” doesn’t mean a president is bad.
We’ll begin with the ten most underrated presidents and move on to the most overrated. Presidents are ordered chronologically.
#10. James Monroe
Average Rank: 14.2
As the last Founding Father to be president, Monroe often falls in the shadows of his better-known predecessors. But Monroe deserves credit for his foreign policy achievements, including the establishment of the landmark Monroe Doctrine and the purchase of Florida from Spain. Monroe also maintained a surprising degree of political harmony in the U.S. and even ran unopposed for re-election.
#9. James K. Polk
Average Rank: 11.7
In 2009, Newsweek referred to Polk as the “least known consequential president.” Domestically, Polk stabilized the U.S. banking system and lowered tariffs, but his most notable accomplishments occurred on the frontier. Polk successfully navigated the U.S.-Mexican War and added territory that now includes the states of California, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon.
#8. James Garfield
Average Rank: 29.6
James Garfield bucked a trend of political corruption in the White House when he became president. During his short tenure—he was assassinated four months into his presidency—Garfield accomplished a remarkable amount, fighting against the “spoils system” of political cronyism, reforming the Post Office’s notorious “star route” rings and appointing African Americans to positions of prominence.
#7. Chester A. Arthur
Average Rank: 26.4
Chester Arthur might be the least-known American president, but he deserves credit for his contributions to civil service reform. Despite his reputation as a machine politician, Arthur surprised the nation by passing the Pendleton Act, which banned government salary kickbacks and countered cronyism.
#6. Grover Cleveland
Average Rank: 16.5
Referred to as “His Obstinacy,” Grover Cleveland certainly had a reputation as a stubborn, strong-willed leader. Cleveland ruffled feathers during his first term when he fought against excessive federal spending and vetoed dozens of bills. When he returned to the White House after a four-year gap, Cleveland worked to stabilize the crashing economy.
#5. William McKinley
Average Rank: 16.9
Many of McKinley’s accomplishments fell under the large shadow of his successor Teddy Roosevelt. However, McKinley laid important groundwork for some of Roosevelt’s reform agenda and expanded America’s international presence. He also oversaw the Spanish-American War.
#4. Warren G. Harding
Average Rank: 37.8
Warren G. Harding is not one of America’s great presidents. He may not even be a particularly good one. But his dismal historical ranking seems somewhat unfair given his actual accomplishments.
Harding helped the American economy rebound from a sharp recession and was an outspoken advocate of civil rights. However, Harding’s administration was tarnished by several scandals, and Harding died before he could properly address the issues, resulting in his low scores.
#3. Lyndon B. Johnson
Average Rank: 13.3
Johnson’s decision to go to war in Vietnam led to his political undoing. Before his presidency became burdened by the war, however, Johnson pursued one of the most comprehensive domestic reform agendas of any president with his Great Society program and War on Poverty.
#2. Richard Nixon
Average Rank: 30.0
The Watergate scandal overshadows Nixon’s presidency, but before Nixon resigned in disgrace, he actually had some significant achievements.
In terms of foreign policy, Nixon participated in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with the Soviet Union, de-escalated the Vietnam War and was the first president to visit the People’s Republic of China. Nixon also transformed the country’s environmental policy, establishing the EPA and passing the Clean Water and Air Acts.
#1. George H. W. Bush
Average Rank: 21.4
Bush is perhaps best known for his leadership during the Persian Gulf War, but he also oversaw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Domestically, Bush faced criticism from Republicans for raising taxes, but his decision was a necessary step in balancing the budget.
#10. George Washington
Average Rank: 2.7
As the first president and commander of American troops during the Revolutionary War, Washington looms large in U.S. history. While he is certainly one of America’s great presidents, Washington’s average rank of 2.7 might overestimate his actual accomplishments as president.
As president, Washington dealt with the insurrection of frontier farmers and the formation of two rival political parties in the U.S.
#9. Thomas Jefferson
Average Rank: 4.6
Like Washington, many of Jefferson’s most significant contributions to the U.S. came before his presidency, although his work with the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the U.S., was a major foreign policy success.
As president, Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807 had disastrous effects on the U.S. economy and resulted in many American traders resorting to smuggling goods. However, Jefferson’s most questionable policies involved his actions toward Native Americans. Jefferson supported the removal and relocation of Native Americans who refused to assimilate and laid the groundwork for Andrew Jackson’s more aggressive displacement policies.
#8. John Quincy Adams
Average Rank: 17.9
The younger Adams had great success as Madison’s secretary of state. As president, though, Adams struggled to relieve high tensions in the politically divided U.S. After a contentious first term, President Adams failed to win re-election, partially due to his support of the “Tariff of Abominations.”
#7. Andrew Jackson
Average Rank: 9.6
Few U.S. presidents are as polarizing as Andrew Jackson. “Old Hickory” was at the head of several controversies including the sudden dismissal of his cabinet members, his war against the federal bank and the Indian Removal Act. Jackson even disobeyed the Supreme Court and ordered the relocation of Cherokees to Oklahoma in what became known as the Trail of Tears.
Given Jackson’s mixed reputation, it’s surprising to see him consistently ranked as one of the top ten U.S. presidents. In fact, many leaders in the Democratic party are currently distancing themselves from Jackson (and Jefferson for that matter) due to their records on social rights.
#6. Martin Van Buren
Average Rank: 23.7
Much of Van Buren’s presidency was spent dealing with a sharp economic downturn and rising tensions with Britain. Critics of Van Buren pointed to his indecisiveness as a contributing factor to both issues. Moreover, Van Buren’s harsh stance on Native American land issues led to a violent rebellion from the Seminoles.
#5. William Howard Taft
Average Rank: 21.1
Taft’s placement near the top 20 presidents is somewhat surprising given his turbulent presidency. Following Teddy Roosevelt, Taft struggled to continue the reform and conservation agenda of his predecessor. In fact, Roosevelt was so displeased that he abandoned the Republicans, forming his own third party and paving the road for Woodrow Wilson to take the White House.
#4. Woodrow Wilson
Average Rank: 7.2
Wilson deserves credit for his leadership during WWI. The cornerstone of Wilson’s post-war foreign policy agenda was the formation of the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles. However, Wilson failed to get support from the U.S. in joining the organization and the measures put in place by the Treaty of Versailles helped lead to WWII.
Domestically, Wilson pursued many progressive reforms but his stance on race, which included his open support for segregation, was decidedly regressive.
#3. Franklin D. Roosevelt
Average Rank: 2.1
Outside of Abraham Lincoln, FDR is the highest-ranked U.S. president. While he was unquestionably one of the most influential figures in American history, Roosevelt also made some serious missteps as president that are frequently overlooked.
Some of FDR’s New Deal policies prolonged the depression, and the president was unable to curb conflict with the Soviet Union following WWII’s conclusion. Perhaps most troubling was Roosevelt’s decision to forcefully relocate thousands of Japanese-Americans to isolated internment camps.
#2. John F. Kennedy
Average Rank: 12.1
There’s no doubting JFK’s ambition and personal charisma. Kennedy is one of the most celebrated figures in American history. While he deserves recognition for his civil rights agenda, Kennedy’s accomplishments as president are somewhat limited. Moreover, the Bay of Pigs fiasco was a major foreign policy blunder that severely hurt Kennedy’s popularity.
#1. Ronald Reagan
Average Rank: 14.6
While Reagan had several important economic and foreign policy successes, he was not a perfect president. The Iran-Contra affair was a major black mark on Reagan’s presidency. Moreover, Reagan failed to curb the rising federal budget deficit.
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