11 Greatest American Presidents
There have been many bad presidents, but, fortunately, a number of good ones too
It’s difficult to judge the performance of America’s presidents, as each was president during a unique period in American history, so the author needs to be as objective as possible. Also keep in mind that every president on this list was elected to office for at least one term. Moreover, the text doesn’t mention scandals regarding extramarital affairs, since the American public seems to have great tolerance for such issues.
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11. Jimmy Carter
When Jimmy Carter took office the economy was marked by stagnation, inflation and high fuel prices, the latter problem exacerbated by the infamous Iran Hostage Crisis, in which 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. A rescue mission was launched but failed miserably. Perhaps if the hostages had been rescued, Carter would have been a more popular president and won a second term in office.
In 1980, Carter also had the bad luck to run against the Republican juggernaut Ronald Reagan, the so-called Great Communicator who crushed Carter 489 to 49 in the Electoral College. Simply put, it was Reagan’s time to shine, not Carter’s. At any rate, one-term presidents are not necessarily losers.
In 2002, Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize; he’s also written numerous books and provided inspiration and help in many political and humanitarian causes. In fact, Carter may be the most successful ex-president of all time. Now in his nineties, Carter continues to amaze people with his great character, ceaseless energy, boundless optimism and indomitable spirit. Has any greater person ever been president?
10. Calvin Coolidge
The only president born on the Fourth of July, Calvin Coolidge was another vice president who became president after the acting president, Warren G. Harding, in this case, died suddenly in 1923. Nicknamed “Silent Cal,” Coolidge had plenty of political experience, including being elected Governor of Massachusetts in 1918, then he was elected to the presidency in 1924. Known as a Progressive Republican, Coolidge advocated free trade, reduced taxation, laissez-faire ideology, women’s rights, civil rights for African-Americans and was against child labor and unfair labor practices.
Moreover, Coolidge espoused laws to end lynching in the South, but Southern Democrats thwarted any such legislation. He also favored citizenship for American Indians, signing into law the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. President during the Roaring Twenties, Coolidge has often been given credit for those prosperous times, which ended with the Crash of 1929, that is. Interestingly, for 88 years, Coolidge was the only president to visit Cuba until President Barrack Obama went there in 2016.
9. Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman was still another “Veep” who became president once the president in office passed. Taking over for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died in April 1945, Truman became Commander in Chief during the waning months of WWII. In fact, Truman helped end this war by approving the use of nuclear weapons to defeat Imperial Japan. (Interestingly, Harry Truman was the last president who didn’t earn a college degree. For this and other reasons, he was seen as just another working stiff or average Joe.)
Winning even though he was behind in the polls, Truman was elected president in 1948. Among Truman’s many achievements, he helped found the United Nations in 1945; issued the Truman Doctrine in 1947; helped enact the Marshall Plan; submitted executive orders to integrate the military and federal agencies; and sent troops to fight in the Korean War in 1950. Interestingly, while president, Truman had a sign on his desk reading: “The Buck Stops Here.” And a slogan for Truman supporters was: “Give ‘em hell, Harry!”
8. Ronald Reagan
Ronald Wilson Reagan was governor of California from 1967 to 1975, a time during which he became a major spokesman for the conservative cause in the Republican Party, a position which propelled him to the presidency in 1980. Becoming known as the so-called cowboy president, because he liked wearing western garb, Reagan implemented economic changes known as Reaganomics, which emphasized reducing taxation, regulation and government spending.
Moreover, during Reagan’s eight years in office, the Reagan administration reduced inflation, increased the annual growth of real GDP by 3.4 per cent and escalated the War on Drugs, among other achievements. Perhaps Regan’s greatest claim to fame was that he greatly increased military spending, which may have brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union three years after he left office, essentially ending the Cold War. Interestingly, when Reagan departed the presidency, his approval rating was 68 per cent, one of the highest in the modern era.
7. Theodore Roosevelt Jr.
Seen as a rugged outdoorsman, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, was Vice President of the US when President McKinley was assassinated in September 1901. After becoming president, Roosevelt advocated Progressive policies, essentially anti-corruption in nature, from which sprang his “Square Deal,” which involved conservation of natural resources, control of corporations and consumer protection. Following up, Roosevelt established numerous national parks, forests and monuments.
Then Roosevelt was elected to the presidency in 1904, but Congress blocked much of his proposed legislation. Interestingly, Roosevelt's efforts to end the Russo-Japanese war helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. Growing dissatisfied with the party politics of the era, which weakened the Republican Party, among other things, Roosevelt formed the so-called Bull Moose Party of 1912, a third party entity named when Roosevelt remarked at the time that he felt as “fit as a bull moose.”
Incredibly, while campaigning for the presidency in 1912, Roosevelt, while giving a speech, was shot in the chest by a saloonkeeper named John Schrank. As Schrank was apprehended, Roosevelt checked his wound and, realizing his lungs hadn’t been punctured, continued speaking for another 90 minutes while his shirt filled with blood, and then he finally let them take him to the hospital. Can anybody imagine this happening in the present day? Teddy Roosevelt was truly fit as a bull moose!
6. Barrack Obama
Barrack Hussein Obama II, graduate of Harvard Law School, started his political career by being elected to the Illinois Senate from 1997 to 2004 and thereafter was elected to the US Senate in 2004. Then in 2008, Obama won a close primary race against Hillary Clinton, eventually winning the presidency in 2008, thereby becoming the first president of African-American ancestry (his father was black and his mother white.) Obama became president during the Great Recession, for which he enacted many programs designed to help economic recovery, including the Affordable Care Act, the Budget Control Act of 2011, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
Moreover, Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Also, Obama advocated gun control legislation after the numerous mass shootings during his presidency, as well as legislation designed to fight climate change. Overall, Obama’s eight-year presidency was a successful one, especially as this relates to the economy: employment creased, wages increased and job creation was high.
5. John F. Kennedy (JFK)
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, scion of the illustrious Kennedy family, was elected president in 1960, becoming the first president born in the twentieth century. Perhaps Kennedy’s greatest achievement was his pivotal role in the Cuban Missile Crises, when nuclear war nearly erupted in Oct. 1962. Anybody alive in those days will probably recall Kennedy’s speech to the Soviet Union, warning its leaders if they didn’t remove their ballistic missiles from Cuba, war would certainly result. JFK, as he was often called, was also a great proponent of the Space Race, as well as a strong supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, both of which also generated great speeches from him. But JFK wasn’t perfect; he ordered an invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, which failed ignominiously.
Then JFK’s presidency was cut short when Lee Harvey Oswald shot him dead in Dallas, Texas in November 1963. Interestingly, Kennedy’s average approval rating was 70 per cent, the highest for any president!
4. Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR)
In spite of contracting polio in 1921 at the age of 39, FDR became Governor of New York from 1929 to 1933. Then he was elected to the presidency by defeating incumbent Herbert Hoover. Once in office, Roosevelt instituted the New Deal, which included executive orders, policies and legislation designed to help the country deal with the Great Depression. Some of his programs in this regard were the Wagner Act, the Emergency Banking Act, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Security and Exchange Commission, Works Progress Administration, Federal Deposit and Insurance Corporation, Social Security, and countless others.
Then the US was plunged into world war with the Axis Powers in December 1941. This involvement ended 25 per cent unemployment, fortunately, but the survival of the US as a sovereign entity was not a certainty. Of course, FDR successfully guided the country through the war years - along the way winning his fourth term of the presidency - but didn’t survive his final years in office, dying in 1945.
3. Thomas Jefferson
Founding Father of the US and an author of the Declaration of Independence - a true renaissance man as well - Thomas Jefferson served in many different offices: Vice President (under President John Adams), Secretary of State, Minister to France and Governor of Virginia. Jefferson was elected to the presidency in 1800, winning a second term as well. One of Jefferson’s great achievements was arranging the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which included a cancellation of debts, a total deal worth a quarter billion in 2016 US dollars. This purchase doubled the size of the US and included some of the finest farmland on the planet.
Jefferson also arranged the famous Louis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806), which explored the vast lands of the Purchase. Jefferson also wrote Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), often considered the most important American book written before 1800. Interestingly, Jefferson died at 83, 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Also, in terms of intellect, Jefferson may have been the greatest president.
2. George Washington
The first President of the US, George Washington was elected president so long ago that he wasn’t affiliated with any political party! Elected for two terms (1788-1796), Washington never liked being president. Perhaps he preferred military leadership, as he was the first in a long line of generals who became president. Anyway, Washington’s first act as president was to establish a Supreme Court with the passage of the Judiciary Act of 1789. Then he created executive offices such as Secretary of State, Secretary of War and Attorney General. Regarding monetary matters, Washington chose financial wizard Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury (Hamilton was the inspiration for the Broadway play, Hamilton.)
Pertaining to the slavery issue, since Washington wanted a gradual emancipation, not an abrupt one, he signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. And during the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington was one of only two presidents to lead a militia into battle, thereby enforcing the power of the federal government.
1. Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln, essentially a self-educated man, and having been elected to the House of Representatives in 1846, ran for the office of the presidency in 1860. Running as a conservative Republican and abolitionist, Lincoln won easily in the north and west and also captured the popular vote, but the South rejected him, setting the stage for the secession of the South. But Lincoln did what he could to keep the South in the union, including guaranteeing the continuance of slavery for years, yet nothing worked. Then the Civil War erupted and eventually Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, freeing all enslaved people in the South once they escaped the Confederate States. Moreover, Commander in Chief like all presidents, Lincoln had trouble finding capable generals but finally found Ulysses S. Grant, who helped turn the tide against the South. Interestingly, many political scholars think the presidency of Abraham Lincoln was the main reason the union survived.
Perhaps the only rebuke Lincoln may have deserved was his choice of Southern Democrat Andrew Johnson as running mate for the 1864 presidential election. After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson advocated legislation designed to defeat Reconstruction and also keep recently freed slaves from attaining equality with whites. It seems politics does indeed make strange bedfellows!
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© 2016 Kelley Marks