Column: Ranking presidents

  • Posted: Wednesday, July 16, 2014 12:01 a.m.

A Quinnipiac University poll published on July 2 ranking recent presidents raised eyebrows and provoked considerable controversy. Two of the poll’s questions generated headlines:

“Thinking about the United States presidents we have had since World War II … which one would you consider the best president?” asked Quinnipiac.

In rank order, the respondents answered Ronald Reagan (35 percent), Bill Clinton (18 percent) and John F. Kennedy (15 percent).

The second question asked the opposite: “Which of these twelve presidents we have had since World War II would you consider the worst president?”

The respondents answered Barack Obama (35 percent), George W. Bush (28 percent) and Richard Nixon (13 percent).

While such surveys should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt, the poll does provide three useful takeaways.

First, the poll reflects the country’s partisan divide. It’s no coincidence that the two-lowest ranked presidents are the most recent.

With decades-long feuds boiling, Democrats view the younger Bush with loathing and Republicans view Obama with disdain.

The headline grabbing 35 percent of those who think Obama is the worst president came from 63 percent of Republican respondents, 4 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of independents.

The 28 percent who ranked Bush in the cellar was a mirror image: 54 percent of Democrats, 5 percent of Republicans and 23 percent of independents.

Second, the poll shows that neither Republicans nor Democrats are particularly fond of their most recent presidents.

There’s little evidence that either Bush or Obama are fervently embraced by their own parties.

Consider the Democratic side. While 8 percent of the total number of respondents thought Obama the best president since World War II, only 18 percent of Democrats agreed.

Who do Democrats consider their best presidents? Thirty four percent picked Clinton and 18 percent Kennedy. Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter barely registered.

On the Republican side, a mere 1 percent thought the younger Bush was stellar. The GOP honors were overwhelmingly reserved for Reagan at 66 percent, the elder Bush at 6 percent and – in a rare bipartisan nod – Kennedy at 6 percent. Dwight Eisenhower, Nixon and Gerald Ford all placed in the lower brackets.

These results indicate that in 2016, Republicans will once again fight over “who most resembles Reagan” while continuing to distance themselves from the younger Bush. Jeb Bush, a potential third member of his family’s presidential dynasty, will take little comfort from these results.

For Democrats, these numbers are more ambiguous and nuanced.

While some candidates vying to succeed Obama may embrace him and his policies (after all, 18 percent of Democrats still think he’s tops), a majority of Democrats surveyed hearken back to Clinton and Kennedy.

Hillary Clinton will resonate more with the Clinton and Kennedy crowd, while Elizabeth Warren may hypothetically pass herself off as Obama’s legitimate successor.

Will the much hyped Clinton-Warren contest even materialize? Maybe, but don’t bet the farm on it.

The third take-away is that historical memory drives these rankings. With declining numbers of voters retaining first-hand memories of the pre-Vietnam War era, it’s no surprise that both the pro- and anti-ratings for Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy are fading.

The six presidents comprising the first half of the list (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford) have a combined “best president” score of 29 percent – largely driven by Kennedy. Their combined “worst president” score is a smaller 19 percent – mostly associated with Nixon.

Therefore, most of the fuss and fury is over the last six presidents (Carter, Reagan, the elder Bush, Clinton, the younger Bush and Obama). This is a shame, since the triumphs and tragedies of yesteryear continue to haunt America.

Instead, presidents from 40-plus years ago are either portrayed in caricature (Kennedy as a martyred angel and Nixon as a brooding devil) or they slip down the memory hole.

Of course, disappointing presidents are nothing new. Regarding President Ulysses S. Grant’s inept administration, historian Henry Adams sardonically wrote a century ago:

“That two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be called – and should actually and truly be – the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ridiculous … The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone enough to upset Darwin.”

If Adams could witness the ongoing decline, each president since Reagan worse than his predecessor, he’d recognize the trend. Some real stinkers have recently occupied the Oval Office.

That much the Quinnipiac poll got right.

Gary Bunker is a former Aiken County Councilman.

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