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Presidential Ratings Are Flawed. Which Makes It Hard To Assess Trump.

Donald Trump is the worst president? Ever? In the entirety of U.S. history? Throughout all time and space? After only one year?

Yes, said 170 presidential scholars who were asked last month to rate the performance of all Oval Office-holders as part of a survey published by two political scientists, Brandon Rottinghaus and Justin Vaughn.1

Which presidents do scholars put in history’s bottom bin?

Average presidential rating given by 170 members of the American Political Science Association in a survey from Dec. 22 to Jan. 16.

President Rating (out of 100)
Trump 12.3
Buchanan 15.1
W.H. Harrison 19.0
Pierce 23.3
A. Johnson 24.9
Harding 25.3
Fillmore 27.7
Tyler 31.5
Hoover 33.3
Taylor 33.3
Garfield 36.6
Nixon 37.2
B. Harrison 37.6
Arthur 39.9
G.W. Bush 40.4
Hayes 41.5
Coolidge 42.2
VanBuren 44.3
Carter 45.0
Ford 47.3
Cleveland 51.0
J.Q. Adams 51.9
Taft 52.0
Grant 52.9
Polk 54.1
McKinley 55.5
Monroe 60.7
G.H.W. Bush 60.9
Kennedy 61.9
Jackson 62.2
Adams 63.2
Clinton 64.3
Madison 64.5
Wilson 67.4
L.B. Johnson 69.1
Reagan 69.2
Obama 71.1
Eisenhower 74.0
Truman 75.2
Jefferson 79.5
T. Roosevelt 81.4
FDR 89.1
Washington 92.6
Lincoln 95.0

Source: Rottinghaus and Vaughn

These results, which placed President Trump below2 notable presidential failures like James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson, drew some criticism for being premature, including from FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver.

There’s certainly an argument that it’s not valid to compare Trump after his first year to, say, Barack Obama’s full eight years in office. Presidencies change, and unexpected events can alter their courses dramatically. We also don’t know what the lasting impact of Trump’s words and actions will be — or really, those of any recent president. For earlier ones, we have more evidence about the effects of their decisions, but of course, with more evidence comes more debate.

So it’s not really clear that history gives presidential evaluators a better perspective. After all, the further removed we are from a particular historical crisis, the easier it is to lose sight of its complexity. That distance allows us to forget that presidents don’t line up evenly at the starting line but rather have bigger or smaller distances to travel depending on the type of crises they face when entering office. In addition, historic acts of racism — even extreme cases — are often overlooked. And evidence shows that experts consistently see presidents through a political and often partisan lens.

In other words, historical overview doesn’t necessarily provide more rigor or objectivity to a process that arguably lacks both. As such, these ratings might tell us as more about our own political era than about the presidents they survey.

It’s always political

The president is by definition a political position, so it’s not surprising that these surveys are riddled by accusations — and evidence — that they are affected by the partisan leanings of those filling them out.

The classic survey started by historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and continued by his son, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., invited complaints about its Democratic bias, and focused research on presidential rankings suggests that political preferences play a role in just about any expert rankings. Perhaps the most systematic analysis of partisanship in presidential rankings to date was done by Joseph Uscinski and Arthur Simon. They found that expert rankings of Democratic presidents are consistently higher — and those of Republicans lower — than the determinations of the general public.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how you could strip the political content out of expert surveys on … the most powerful politician in the country. Or that you would want to; as much as we might hope that experts would be more objective, studies instead show that the more attention someone pays to politics, the more entrenched and polarized their views.

The ratings are very forgiving of historic racism

Although some rankings feature categories like “pursued equal justice for all,” significant acts of racism don’t seem to hurt many previous presidents. Woodrow Wilson is a good example of this. He tends to be ranked toward the top (11th in the recent survey), and in many ways, Wilson was an important architect of the modern presidency. But he also re-segregated the executive branch and screened the violently racist film The Birth of a Nation at the White House.

Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt receives high marks across the political spectrum despite his decision to place Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II. And slave ownership doesn’t seem to get any consideration: Two of the consistent “greats,” Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, owned human beings.

While the Founding Fathers seem to get a pass here, the policies of recent presidents are receiving more attention with regards to race. A recent study evaluates presidential performance on civil rights by looking at editorials in the black press; perhaps this even explains some of what drove the recent respondents to come down so hard on Trump despite his brief record. As we’ve observed several times on this site, one of the consistent features of Trump as a political figure has been his appeals to a certain kind of identity politics. Trump’s approach to many issues, from immigration to NFL protests, has drawn criticism for being harmful and divisive. This seems like a likely candidate for what’s pushing down his early reviews.

Not all presidents face the same challenges

One thing that makes presidential comparisons a lot more complicated is that presidents don’t face the same circumstances upon entering the White House. Buchanan gets low marks because his presidency led up to the onset of the Civil War, and Herbert Hoover tends to get hammered for his handling of the Great Depression. But these crises didn’t arise out of nowhere.

James K. Polk — number 20 in the recent survey, and even higher in some others — expanded the nation’s territory in ways that eventually heightened tensions over slavery. (And, of course, the Founders failed to address it in the Constitution.) Calvin Coolidge shaped the economic policies of the 1920s that made the country vulnerable to a prolonged economic depression.

Furthermore, the way we rate presidents gives an edge to those who came in during a time of crisis and were able to steer the country in a new direction. What about leaders who took office under less dramatic conditions? While some presidents do a better job than others at solving problems, not all come into office with the same problems to solve.

It’s true that historical perspective should offer a lot of advantages for evaluating presidents. We can trace the impact of presidential decisions and judge their overall effect on the country. But it’s not clear that the ratings game is really much improved for having input from the longer view of history, even when those rating are done by experts. We tend to let leaders of the past off the hook for attitudes and actions that would be considered abhorrent now, and it’s difficult to structure rankings in ways that acknowledge all the work — often across party lines — that goes into a true governing crisis. The easier route is to blame the president who inherits the mess.

In other words, presidential raters gain perspective with time but also lose it. Even when rating presidents from previous centuries, it remains a subjective process — one that may reveal more about the priorities and blind spots of the raters than about the leadership skills of those they assess.

CLARIFICATION (March 5, 2018, 12:23 p.m.): This article has been updated to make clear that the long-running survey of scholars’ presidential ratings we reference was started by historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and continued by his son, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.


  1. The list of those surveyed was based on membership in the Presidents and Executive Politics section of the American Political Science Association. I am a member of the section but didn’t respond to the 2018 survey, though I participated in 2014.

  2. The authors asked respondents to rate the presidents, and then ranked all of them based on those numerical ratings.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”