Scholars Ranked The U.S Presidents By Popularity And Performance – And The Results May Surprise You

This list of presidents takes us from the absolute worst at number 40 to the very best at number one. It’s a far from random ranking – many experts have worked over the years to rate presidents according to their performances. We’ve chosen a 2017 exercise carried out for C-SPAN as being the most carefully compiled survey around. Read on to see if you agree – or strongly disagree – with the rankings below.

40. James Buchanan

President from 1857 to 1861, poor old James Buchanan earns the unenviable honor of being the very worst office-holder in our list. A couple of things make Buchanan stand out from the pack. One, he’s the only president not to marry; two, he’s the sole president to hail from Pennsylvania. But most importantly, Buchanan had the misfortune to be in office directly before the outbreak of the Civil War. That he completely failed to heal the fault-lines in the U.S. that led to the conflict goes a long way to explaining why he’s viewed as such a terrible leader.

39. Andrew Johnson

Vice President Johnson came to power 1865 because of the tragic murder of Abraham Lincoln, and there’s little to recommend him. In a 2019 article about presidents who faced impeachment, Time magazine baldly deemed Johnson to have been “racist.” That meant he was singularly ill-placed to help African-Americans in the South to take their rightful places in society after the recently ended Civil War. And Johnson was one of only three presidents ever to face impeachment, in his case for sacking government officials without authority. He escaped conviction on 11 counts by just one vote.

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38. Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce took office in 1853 to serve his single term as president. This was just eight years before America was riven by perhaps her greatest tragedy: the brutal schism of the Civil War. Yet Pierce acted to exacerbate the rifts in the U.S. that would lead to the conflict. He did this by expanding the nation to include more states in the South, where slavery was rife. In 2007 the U.S. News & World Report website quoted Theodore Roosevelt’s damning opinion of Pierce. Roosevelt said he was “a servile tool of men worse than himself… ever ready to do any work the slavery leaders set him.”

37. Warren G. Harding

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Harding came to power in 1921 with a pledge to return America to normal life after the disruption of World War One. But he earned an unfortunate reputation as a man who shied away from making difficult decisions. His term was also blighted by controversies involving the looting of the public purse by senior members of his administration. Harding evaded responsibility by the drastic expedient of dying suddenly in 1923.

36. John Tyler

John Tyler was the earliest vice president to assume the top post by virtue of the fact that the sitting president, in this case William Harrison, had passed away. Tyler was inaugurated as the tenth president in April 1841, and according to the White House website, cruel wits named him “His Accidency.” He had pro-slavery form, having previously stepped down as a congressman in protest when restrictions on the evil institution were mooted. And in office, Tyler so alienated his colleagues that he achieved the distinction of seeing his whole cabinet desert him. There were also moves to put him on trial and though they ultimately failed, he didn’t stand for a second term.

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35. William Henry Harrison

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William Henry Harrison has the dubious distinction of the briefest term of any president: just 32 days. This was due to his death in April 1841, a departure that made him the earliest president to pass away while still in the post. During the election Harrison had presented himself as a “simple frontier Indian fighter, living in a log cabin and drinking cider” according to the White House website. But the truth was that Harrison was a wealthy plantation owner from Virginia, though he was certainly responsible for the deaths of many Native Americans when he served in the military. He also swindled them out of much of their territory.

34. Herbert Hoover

When Herbert Hoover was inaugurated as the 31st president in 1929, his public reputation was sky-high. He’d earned admiration for the relief work he’d carried out in Europe following World War One, when many nations suffered great poverty and real hunger. But once in power, he proved incapable of remedying the dire impacts of the Great Depression that gripped America just as he came to office. This failure blighted both his good name and his popularity, and he was roundly defeated in the 1932 election.

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33. Chester A. Arthur

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Chester A. Arthur came to power in 1881 as the 21st president. He stepped up from the vice presidency because the incumbent, James Garfield, was shot just months after his inauguration and died some 11 weeks later. And it’s difficult to point out any particularly terrible thing that Arthur did during his single, truncated term in office. On the other hand, though, it’s hard to identify anything positive about his presidency. Dull mediocrity seems about the best we can say for the man. Some might fell that’s not such a bad thing…

32. George W. Bush

George W. Bush, the second presidential Bush after his father, won election to the highest office in 2000. It was a very tight race, with his Democrat opponent Al Gore ultimately losing by a handful of votes in Florida and a Supreme Court ruling. Bush then had the misfortune to be in charge when the devastating attacks of 9/11 shocked the nation. The brutal and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that ensued made Bush a divisive figure among the American public.

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31. Rutherford B. Hayes

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Coming to power in 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes was a single-term president at a time when the nation was just recovering from the wrenching trauma of the Civil War. And his election itself had been a traumatic affair, with numerous accusations of ballot forgeries. The contest was eventually decided by a specially formed Congressional committee. The Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War was more or less over. But that unfortunately left African-Americans in the South in a world of discrimination and racism. Hayes did nothing to improve that situation, though, allowing federal influence over the Southern states to be diminished, and he didn’t stand for re-election.

30. Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor is another of the presidents who didn’t manage to serve a full term because of his unfortunate demise. He passed away in the summer of 1850, a mere 16 months after moving into the White House. On the positive side, Taylor had been a successful general during the Mexican-American War and the 1812 conflict with Britain. A lot less positively, he was a slaveholder who defended the status quo in the Southern states. But, paradoxically, he was fervently opposed to secession. And the truth is that his premature death denied him the opportunity to make a significant impact on the nation he led for such a short time.

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29. James A. Garfield

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James Abram Garfield won the election of 1880, but his time in the White House was brief: a mere six months. That was because one Charles J. Guiteau, a mentally unbalanced U.S. national, shot the president in the back. The wound didn’t kill Garfield immediately and he lingered on in great discomfort for another 80 days, dying in September 1881. Obviously, the fact that he served so briefly makes an assessment of his presidency tricky. There were some promising signs, though. It seems that he was determined to revamp government bureaucracy and that he supported improved civil rights for African-Americans in the Southern states.

28. Richard M. Nixon

Richard Milhous Nixon came to power on the Republican ticket in 1969 and won re-election in 1972. During his five years in office, welfare benefits for the elderly and poor families were improved and what’s been dubbed the first affirmative action scheme was instituted. He also brought an end to American involvement in the Vietnam War in 1973. But the Watergate affair was Nixon’s nemesis. Men acting for his campaign burgled the Democratic HQ. In the fall-out from the ensuing scandal, Nixon was compelled to step down in 1974, the only president ever to do so.

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27. Calvin Coolidge

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Vice President Coolidge took his place in the Oval Office when President Warren G. Harding passed away in 1923, and he went on to win the presidential election of 1924. That meant Coolidge oversaw a period of prosperity for the U.S., the legendary “Roaring ’20s.” Jazz music was in the air, many Americans bought automobiles, and women finally had the right vote. Coolidge, known for his personal thrift, was a well-liked leader who was lucky enough to preside over the calm that came before the storm of the Great Depression.

26. James Carter

Always Jimmy rather than James, Carter’s presidency suffered an especially disastrous crisis. He took office in 1977 after a hard-fought election. As quoted on the Britannica website, Carter commented in typically self-deprecating style, “The only reason it was so close was that the candidate wasn’t good enough as a campaigner.” The event that blighted Carter’s presidency came when Iranian militants took 52 American Embassy employees in Tehran hostage late in 1979. They remained incarcerated until the start of 1981, only being released at the end of Carter’s single presidential term. By then, his reputation had plummeted thanks to this prolonged emergency.

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25. Gerald R. Ford

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Here’s a quiz: what did Ford’s “R.” stand for? The perhaps surprising answer is Rudolph. It seems a jaunty name for a president whom some thought boring. Yet there were those who saw this as a positive characteristic, since Ford came to power after the chaos of Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation. And Ford hadn’t been elected vice president, either, having taken the position when Spiro Agnew had also been forced to step down in 1973. Ford was unlucky enough to inherit a dire economic situation and faced severe criticisms from his Democratic opponents as well as his own Republican Party. Though he had a reputation as an honest man, he lost his 1976 bid for election.

24. William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft was inaugurated as the 27th U.S. president in 1909 for his single term in office. His attempt to win a second term in 1912 ended in embarrassing failure, when he garnered only eight electoral college votes. Taft had come to power with the full support of his Republican predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt. But he soon lost Roosevelt’s backing and divided the Republican Party into the bargain. According to the Britannica website, Taft often claimed that “politics makes me sick.” His overwhelming defeat in 1912 probably did little to change that opinion.

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23. Grover Cleveland

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Grover Cleveland was a unique president in American history, being the only man to serve two terms, but not consecutively. In 1884, he was the first Democrat to win an election in the aftermath of the Civil War. But when the 1888 presidential contest came round, he wasn’t re-elected, largely because of his opposition to import tariffs. Then in 1893 he stood again, this time successfully. This second term was marked by a punishing economic downturn, though, and turned out to be no bed of roses. His own party later refused to nominate him as candidate for the 1902 election, the only time this has ever happened to an incumbent president.

22. Ulysses S. Grant

Grant served two terms in the White House from 1869. He had been the leader of the victorious Unionist armies in the Civil War and was regarded by many as a great hero. He was just 46 when he became president and brought little prior experience of high office to the Oval Office. But his enduring popularity was reflected in his 1872 re-election bid, a contest he won emphatically. His years in office were mainly concerned with rebuilding a fractured nation after the horrors of the Civil War. And the “S.” in Grant’s name stood for… nothing. It was simply the result of a clerical mistake.

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21. John Quincy Adams

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Along with the Bushes, the Adams family had the distinction of producing two presidents, who were likewise father and son. John Quincy Adams was the son of President John Adams. The younger Adams won the election of 1825 but his single term as president was marred by political infighting with the faction known as the Jacksonians. Their leader was Andrew Jackson, who went on to defeat Adams in the bitterly contested 1829 election. Adams had made a variety of ambitious proposals during his presidency, but was stymied by an indifferent Congress.

20. George H. W. Bush

George Herbert Walker Bush was the first of the Bush clan to occupy the Oval Office. After two terms as vice president, the Republican won the election of 1988 to take the top position. Famously, as the White House website points out, Bush came to office promising to create “a kinder and gentler nation.” He led America as the Soviet Union collapsed and Eastern Europe was liberated from communist autocracy. The president also went on to oversee the military mission that evicted Saddam Hussein’s invading Iraqi army from Kuwait. A worsening economy put paid to his bid to be re-elected in 1992.

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19. John Adams

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John Adams became the second U.S. president in 1797, having already served as the first vice president with George Washington. His time in office saw armed hostilities with the French, particularly at sea. Thanks to Adams’ diplomatic efforts, the conflict was brought to a peaceful conclusion. But peace with France was unpopular with the American public and cost him much support. And in November 1800 he became the first president to move into the almost completed White House. He didn’t stay there for long, though, since later that month he lost his bid for a second term.

18. Andrew Jackson

Elected in 1828, Andrew Jackson was the seventh U.S. President and had one of the most memorable presidential nicknames: “Old Hickory.” He earned the moniker because of his toughness as a military leader and his readiness to share hardships with his men. His particular brand of popular politics also had its own title, “Jacksonian Democracy,” and he’s credited with founding the Democratic Party. Jackson proved his popularity with the people by winning a resounding victory in the 1832 election to serve a second term.

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17. James Madison

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James Madison, one of the Founding Fathers, came to office in 1809 having heavily defeated someone largely lost to history: Charles C. Pinckney. Apologies if you’re a descendant. The White House website describes him as he took office in terms that hardly flatter: “a small, wizened man, [who] appeared old and worn.” He still served for two terms, though. The main event during Madison’s presidency was war with Britain in 1812. The British took the opportunity to torch the White House, but the U.S. managed to repel the invaders. This led to a rise in patriotism as well as praise for Madison.

16. William McKinley

William McKinley took office in 1897 as the 25th president. During his term, the Spanish-American War broke out. The conflict started in the fall of 1898 and ended in U.S. victory after 100 days. The upshot of the conflict was Cuban independence plus American annexation of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. America suddenly had an empire. But McKinley’s term ended prematurely when he was assassinated. He was shot by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz at a public event in Buffalo, New York, late in 1901 and died eight days later.

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15. William J. Clinton

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Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush in the 1992 presidential election, denying him a second term in office. Clinton’s two terms were characterized by high employment and prosperity but were beset by various scandals. It was the president’s ill-judged peccadillo with 24-year-old intern Monica Lewinsky that almost cooked his goose. Clinton’s denials that there had been any sexual impropriety included lying under oath. Yet DNA evidence contradicted his assertions and he was impeached for obstruction of justice and perjury. Clinton was acquitted by the Senate in 1999. And despite all the scandals, he remained a largely popular president.

14. James K. Polk

James Knox Polk’s time in office – one term from 1845 – saw a massive expansion of U.S. territory. Around a million square miles were added to the Republic, stretching over no fewer than 11 modern-day states including California, Arizona and Nevada. Polk was a firm believer in the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” which proclaimed that the U.S. had a God-given right to expand over North America. Polk scarificed his own health to the rigors of office, and within a few months of vacating the White House he was dead.

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13. James Monroe

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Early in James Munro’s time in office, which began in 1817, a newspaper coined the phrase “The Era of Good Feelings.” And it was a name that stuck. The economy was strong and growing, plus there was little political rancor in the nation since the opposition party of the day, the Federalists, was a spent force. Monroe is best remembered for the foreign policy he created, which later became known as the Monroe Doctrine. In a famous 1823 speech, the president told Europeans to forget about any plans to seize territory in the Western Hemisphere.

12. Barack Obama

Barack Obama is the only African-American ever to hold America’s highest office, serving two terms from 2009. He came to power at a difficult time when the American economy was weak following the financial shocks of 2008. American soldiers were also still fighting in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But the new president succeeded in turning the economy round and most U.S. troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan while he was in power. In 2011 Obama announced that American operatives had shot dead the man credited with masterminding the 9/11 attacks: Osama bin Laden. The electorate soon endorsed Obama, voting him in for a second term in 2012.

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11. Woodrow Wilson

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Woodrow Wilson served two terms in the White House from 1913. That meant he was in power when the world was convulsed by the first major cataclysmic conflict of the 20th century: World War I. During his initial term, Wilson reformed America’s national finances and reined in unaccountable corporate power. In his second term, he took the U.S. into the Great War. American troops and resources hastened the end of the conflict. After the war, he won the Nobel Prize for Peace because of his work in setting up the League of Nations. This institution was intended to end wars. Sadly, though, it was ultimately unsuccessful.

10. Lyndon B. Johnson

Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Texan often known simply as “LBJ,” was elevated from vice president to president in 1963 after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He won an extension to his presidency with an overwhelming triumph in the 1964 election. His greatest achievement was to oversee the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which paved the way for a better life for many, especially African Americans. On a much less positive note, under Johnson’s stewardship the number of troops involved in the Vietnam War rose greatly. Johnson then elected not to stand for a second term in 1968, announcing that he wanted to focus all his attention in ending the Vietnam War.

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9. Ronald Reagan

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Ronald Regan spent the first part of his life as a successful actor and presenter on radio, TV and the big screeen. He won the election of 1980 and brought to the Oval Office what the Britannica website describes as his “appealing personal style, characterized by a jaunty affability and folksy charm.” His presidency was marked by a period of prosperity for Americans and he easily won a second term with 525 electoral college votes to his opponent’s 13. Reagan has been credited with playing an important part through his foreign policy in the collapse of the Soviet Union and its communist-ruled satellites.

8. John F. Kennedy

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was another whose term of office ended in tragedy when he became the fourth U.S. president to be assassinated. He’d won the election of 1960 at the age of 43, the youngest ever to do so. The world was in the depths of the Cold War between the West and the communist powers during Kennedy’s time in the White House. But he still managed to neutralize two extremely dangerous confrontations, in Berlin and in Castro’s Cuba. Kennedy also launched the ultimately successful mission to land a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. The brutal assassination of this highly popular president in 1963 shook Americans to their very core.

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7. Thomas Jefferson

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Not only was Thomas Jefferson a Founding Father, but he was also the main writer of the American Constitution. He took office as the nation’s third president in 1801. Jefferson’s notable achievements included deep cuts in military spending, the highly popular move of abolishing levies on whiskey, and cutting U.S. government debt by more than 30 percent. He was also responsible for what’s known as the Louisiana Purchase. In 1803, he bought the territory from the French, vastly increasing the size of the U.S. He easily won a second term in 1804 by 162 to 14 electoral college votes.

6. Harry S. Truman

Vice President Harry S. Truman was thrust into a cauldron of red-hot international issues in 1945 when Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April just weeks after his inauguration for an unprecedented fourth term. Truman hadn’t even been briefed on the brewing conflict against the U.S.S.R. or the A-bomb project. But he still saw the U.S. through to the end of WWII. After that came the Korean crisis, when Chinese- and Russian-backed communists invaded the south of the peninsula. Truman sent in American forces to oppose the attempted annexation. His anti-communist credentials, and his defense of labor against restrictive laws passed by his Republican opponents, saw him win the election of 1948 by a wide margin.

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5. Dwight D. Eisenhower

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Eisenhower, widely known as “Ike,” had been in charge of the Allied military efforts that crushed the Nazis in Europe. And this meant he was highly popular with the American public. That was evident when he turned to politics and entered the 1952 presidential race, winning by a large margin with the motto “I like Ike.” Much of his presidency was taken up by delicate negotiations with the Soviets to avoid nuclear catastrophe, and he also brought an end to the conflict in Korea. His status as a national hero ensured him a second landslide victory in the 1956 election.

4. Theodore Roosevelt

Although John F. Kennedy was the youngest ever candidate to win a presidential election, at 42 “Teddy” Roosevelt was the youngest to move into the White House. He came to office because he was vice president when President McKinley was killed in 1901. Roosevelt went on to win the election of 1904 with votes to spare. On the domestic front, he had a reputation for standing up for the little guy against big business. And when it came to foreign affairs, he led America to an increasingly prominent position on the world stage. Roosevelt was even awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1906 for his successful efforts to conclude a war between Russia and Japan that’d broken out two years earlier.

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3. Franklin D. Roosevelt

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt, often known as “FDR,” was the second president with that surname, although he and Theodore Roosevelt were only distant cousins. FDR took office in 1933, not a great time to become president since America was mired in the hardships of the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s New Deal helped to alleviate the worst deprivations of the economic chaos. But then an even more catastrophic event hit: World War Two. Roosevelt turned out to be an excellent wartime leader, steering his country to victory both in Europe and the Pacific. He passed away just a few months before the end of the conflict at a time when U.S. ascendancy was already clear.

2. George Washington

The very first president of the United States, George Washington took the oath of office in April 1789. He came to power by the unanimous choice of the electoral college that’d been established by the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Since he was the man who’d led the Continental Army to victory over the British, he must’ve seemed like a natural choice. As president, Washington worked to strengthen the structure of the new republic, which he recognized as “certainly tottering.” More than two centuries later, after much trouble and strife, it seems that he ultimately succeeded in his goal.

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1. Abraham Lincoln

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We’ve now reached the pinnacle of our list of presidents as rated by experts. Abraham Lincoln is the man who’s deemed to have been the best leader that the U.S. has ever been lucky enough to have. When he took office in 1861, the Civil War had already started. Three years into the bloody conflict he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, stating that all slaves were liberated. And then he led the Union to victory over the secessionists in 1865. After that traumatic conflict a new United States emerged, and African-Americans were freed from the shackles of bondage – in theory, at least.

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