Rating U. S. Presidents is always fraught with difficulties. Any person evaluating a President is invariably going to bring their biases and point of view to the process. A President who pursues an agenda believed to be “conservative” is never going to be rated very high by and evaluator who has a “liberal” bias, and vice versa. Most of the 43 men who have served in the office have been mediocre. The few who have risen above or below mediocrity have done so in the face of some kind of crisis, or the process of a sea-change in the social, cultural, or economic fabric of the nation. The only meaningful way to evaluate a President is to consider his objectives and handling of crises, and evaluate the degree of success or failure in that regard.
Historically, the most severe crisis United States has faced was the attempted dissolution which precipitated the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln was totally successful in preventing the political dissolution by force of arms. He incidentally ended chattel slavery, and saved free-market capitalism as the Nation’s economic system. To my mind, this qualifies him unquestionably as our greatest President. George Washington faced a less dramatic, although not any less critical, situation in shepherding a brand-new government, the only one of its kind that had ever been tried in the world, through its formative years. In doing so Washington set critical precedents in the constitutionally unstated powers and means of action for not only the presidency, but the entire executive department, and to a large degree the role of Congress. He has to be number two.
James K. Polk faced two crises, and dealt with them not only successfully, but in the way he intended to, and with the results intended. The first was the boundary dispute with Great Britain with regard to the Oregon territory. This was solved by diplomacy, although not without some saber rattling, in a manner advantageous to the United States. The other was the acquisition of nearly a third of the present-day United States from Mexico, and the confirmation of the boundary between Texas and Mexico. The war with Mexico that acquired the territory and settle the dispute was not without risks, or criticism, both then up until even now. But there’s no question Polk was effective, and what he accomplished was of long-term benefit to the Nation. Polk is number three.
The next most effective president was Andrew Jackson. He was the first president that could possibly lay claim to status as a lowercase “d” democrat, or, if you will populist. He was also the most successful of our Presidents who was a high-ranking military commander. He set out to destroy the Second Bank of the United States, as he viewed it to be an instrument of economic oppression of farmers and small businessmen, especially those in the South and West, and did so. He also dealt firmly and effectively with the Nullification Crisis precipitated by South Carolina’s attempt to abrogate the tariff within its borders, principally the Port of Charleston. He also removed the Indians remaining in Georgia, and parts of North Carolina and Tennessee the West. The most lasting accomplishment of Jackson’s, though, was the Democratic Party, which persists as a dominant political force to this very day. These are Jackson the status of number four.
I rate Franklin D Roosevelt somewhat lower than most other raters. He was effective during his first two terms in getting his way with Congress, but the main crisis he was elected to solve was not accomplished by those measures. They did, however, succeed in changing the role of the federal government in its day-to-day presence in ordinary Americans’ lives. Roosevelt’s main contribution was his leadership role in World War II. His pragmatic partnership with the Imperial Great Britain, and the totalitarian Soviet Union, effectively doomed Hitler’s Nazis and Japan’s militarists to the “dustbin of history”. His death, early into an unprecedented fourth term, perhaps saved his historical legacy, as once the war ended, everything else seemed to go wrong, at least for a while. Nevertheless, FDR is number five.
Number six and seven, not necessarily in that order, are Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Number eight is Thomas Jefferson. Prior to 1945, I can think of no others. Since FDR, I hesitate to rate any of the Presidents. Their terms in power are too close to the present day and, I believe the historical consensus has not yet jelled. And anyway, foreign affairs, constitutionally and practically the primary leadership role of the President, has been one long crisis since the end of World War II. Every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama has had to face one or more serious eruptions. Some have fared better than others in that regard. Most have competently handle the situations, with perhaps one notable exception. As for the present occupant of the White House, the jury is still out in any regard.