Presidential Ranking and the Politics of Memory


This past June, C-SPAN released an updated United States Presidential ranking. This was their 4th installment of the rankings. Beginning in 2000 and following each change of administration in 2009 and 2017.  While in no way a scientific study, there is much to be gleaned from such a practice. History is ever changing. New discoveries are made, new academic theories are introduced, and cultural influence always bears considerable weight in its effects on historical memory. This presidential ranking marks that final point with a bright yellow highlighter. 

With a relatively diverse advisory team, the C-Span presidential ranking sent surveys to hundreds of participants. These participants are all professional historians, though some may have less experience in the formal academic field. Presidential biographers and presidential librarians are included with the more traditional history professors. The 2021 survey received 142 responses. 

The participants were asked to score each president on a scale of 1 to 10 for 10 different categories: Public Persuasion, Crisis Leadership, Economic Management, Moral Authority, International Relations, Administrative Skills, Relations with Congress, Vision/Setting an Agenda, Pursued Equal Justice for All and Performance Within the Context of the Times. The C-SPAN site allows you to view the presidential ranking for each category as well as their overall score. Digging into the data and looking at these “qualities of presidential leadership” shows how today’s progressive culture is influencing history in real time. 

The presidents who fell the furthest all scored terribly in “Pursued Equal Justice for All” and “Moral Authority.” Andrew Jackson fell 9 spots, from 13 in 2000 to 22 this year. Woodrow Wilson has seen his 6th seat dwindled down to 13th. Rutherford B Hayes, who was already toward the back of the pack, also saw his stock drop 8 spots since 2000 down to 33. There is no surprise that after the growing success of the Black Lives Matter movement and the decades of right-wing scapegoating of immigrants that academics would begin to hold the guiltiest presidents more accountable. 

Cultural influence wasn’t the only determining factor in the notable changes to this year’s survey. Ulysses Grant gained 13 spots, from 33 to 20. His meteoric rise can primarily be attributed to the excellent progress made in studying Reconstruction. The Lost Cause historians of the past century had a successful strategy in painting Reconstruction as an oppressive tool to punish the former Confederate states. But recent scholarship has shown it was consistently crippled by Congress.  Some excellent recent biographies of Grant have been published in the past 5 years and they have no doubt influenced this ranking. (Grant biographies by Paul Kahan, Charles Calhoun, Ron Chernow, and Ronald White are all recommended readings)

The rating itself is little more than a fun experiment intended to rile up some internet clicks, but for the sake of such clicks I do have some predictions to make. I do think we will see Wilson drop further over the next few iterations of this ranking, but never drop out of the top 20. He may have been a racist but he’s also got a handful of slave owners in front of him. Andrew Jackson’s tumble will only get worse. Not only is there little answer for his flagrant racism and genocide but his economic policies have very little support as academic conservatives pursue other avenues.

I would assume you will see the continued strength of FDR through LBJ. Presidents who faced the toughest threats to the nation and not only held it together but saw it become the most powerful nation in the world. The entire 1800s coalition will surely continue their decline as modern presidents slowly work their way into the top 20-30. Sans Lincoln, Grant and the occasional Founding Father, I’m not convinced there’s a good leader among the lot and their major accomplishments will continue to seem minimal. 

The Future of Presidential Ranking

Finally, modern presidents won’t be ranked appropriately until after they’ve passed away, so we shouldn’t get too excited to see where Trump falls just yet. The COVID body count continues to rise and the after effects of his economic policies won’t be fully known for quite some time. W’s inconsistency will also continue. Sure he created two decades long wars, instituted international war crimes as policy, and saw the worst economic disaster since the Great depression, but two things will continue to work in his favor: Trump normalized his intellectual and moral weakness while Obama normalized his cruel international politics. It will be very hard to reconcile Obama as a top president while dropping W to the bottom. 

The full list can be found: