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5 Most Underrated US Presidents

Updated on February 10, 2017

Five of the Most Underrated U.S. Presidents

Coming up with a list of the five most under or over rated U.S. Presidents that isn't politically motivated can be really difficult. There are plenty of stubborn people who always believe they're right no matter what the facts say, so die hard Republicans will hate every Democrat on this list and the same will be true vice-versa. Well fortuneately for you all, I don't mind ticking people off :) If you're fiercely poltically independent because you think about every single issue individually, then eventually you're going to tick someone off.

In choosing a list of the most underrated U.S. Presidents, it's also hard because it's a numbers game. Since only 43 men have served as President, and the current is too soon to tell, take a "top 5" and "bottom 5" and you already took out 25% of the possible names. And it makes sense that most would be average. Still, there are enough underrated Presidents to make a good list of the 5 most underrated Presidents, with an argument on the pros, and some possible or obvious cons, of each one and why I think they belong on the list.

And I'm all about long RESPECTFUL discussions, disagreements, and/or comments in the comments section. I enjoy individuals who can give strong, well thought out, and thought provoking arguments. Fall to profanity or "you're all idiots because I said so" and I'll delete the comment. Republican, Democrat, or Independent, we can argue about U.S. Presidents, but we all agree: no trolls welcome here!

Learn About LBJ!

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power; Means of Ascent; Master of the Senate; The Passage of Power
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power; Means of Ascent; Master of the Senate; The Passage of Power
Permanent thanks to my brother for pointing me in this direction. Johnson really was an incredibly in-depth, fascinating president who tends to get shuffled over. Much of what he accomplished is wrongly accredited to others, and the man was far from a saint - but it makes for great writing. If you're a history and a politics junkie, you're going to love this as much as I did.

LBJ: Most Underrated President Ever?

My brother was the first person who argued that Lyndon B. Johnson was not only a very good President, but arguably one of the best domestic Presidents that the United States has ever had. At first I was instantly incredulous, but after hearing his arguments and then reading a lot of books and records of his Presidency, the case has to be made that LBJ was potentially one of the greats, but that has to come with the same caveat that my brother added: LBJ's own quote (paraphrased for anguage) was dead on as to his Presidency: "Vietnam ruined me."

Johnson was a giant in two senses: he was an incredible domestic policy President who made more positve changes and a more permanent shaping of the United States at home than perhaps any President in history. He was also a colossal disaster and failure on foreign matters, and although he inherited the Vietnam conflict, he made it the shattering failure that destroyed hundreds of thousands of Americans' lives.

Domestically, LBJ started with an $11 billion tax cut and still found a way to push forward a domestic agenda that transformed America forever. Civil Rights kicked it off, which was immediately followed by Medicare/Medicaid, and created the entire Federal financial aid for college. If you or anyone in your family has ever received Federal financial aid to go to college, you can thank LBJ for that.

In addition to this, LBJ formed the first solid environmental protections (no more Mecury in your drinking water), consumer safety protections, the Freedom of Information Act, Head Start, public housing, immigration reform, and the War on Poverty, the first time a President decided it was not all right for over one quarter of the nation's people to be destitute to the point of malnorishment and poor health. Poverty levels fell from a staggering 24%+ down to less than 12%.

But all of that was overshadowed by the Civil Rights bill, and the enforcement of desegregation and equal rights to African Americans. He believed this was his greatest accomplishment, even though he even predicted that doing the right thing would result in the Democrats being all but permanantly run out of Texas and most of the South in favor of Republicans, which turned out to be prophetic.

A President who did the right thing at the cost of his party. Imagine that. So LBJ was an amazing domestic President, but as said before, then there was Vietnam. That's a pretty big asterisk, but maybe based on the rest the argument can definitely be made that at least domestically, LBJ is severely underrated as a U.S. President.

I Like Ike, Too!

Dwight D. "Ike" Esienhower, was popular even in his time, although his farewell speech did rile certain indivduals at the time, particularly within his own party. It's easy to forget about Ike since this thoughtful President slipped in after World War II and the fiery Truman and before JFK and the Vietnam fiasco that would define several presidencies, and ending with Nixon's disgrace. But although underspoken perhaps in the history books, Ike Esienhower deserves to be mentioned among the most underrated Presidents. A bullet point list of his accomplishments shows that Esienhower:

  • Saw over the ceasefire of the Korean War
  • Enacted the "Esienhower Doctrine" that stated that the U.S. would use military force to stop aggression by Communist nations, or internal Communist forces that were being funded to overthrow an elected government
  • Launched the space race
  • Expanded the Social Security Program to include more deserving workers
  • Put pressure on the Soviet Union, helped oversee NATO, and did so without forcing direct armed conflict with the USSR.
  • Developed the United States' Interstate system
  • Signed in the first civil rights legislation since the 1870s

This is an impressive list. The civil rights tends to be forgotten since those bills were far weaker than the ones that Kennedy and LBJ would push through, but he would not back down from this cause. When desegregation took place and the famous Little Rock Nine came up, President Esienhower put the Arkansas National Guard under military control, had federal troops escort the black students into a previously all white school.

In addition to all of this, which is plenty impressive, Ike also saw Alaska and Hawaii into the Union. Esienhower saw the Interstate system as not only a military "just in case," but also as a building block for future economic growth. Esienhower was also believed in his "dynamic conservatism," which used compassion for the common American and used common sense. He ended the New Deal programs that weren't serving their functions, and kept the ones that did work.

Perhaps most important is what Esienhower didn't do: he explored the option of supporting the French in Vietnam, and after studying the situation and the numbers that would be required to wage such a war, and decided it was a terrible idea for America to get involved in Vietnam. Esienhower's famous quote warning against ever giving the governemnt and spending over to the military industrial complex, has turned out to be prophetic, as over 54% of the budget's actual spending in one form or another is to the military, and the U.S. is the number 1 in military in spending in the world, spending more than #2-16 combined, with 12 of those nations being allies.

That out of control spending and paranoia is exactly what President Esienhower warned about, and it's a shame no one listened.

Chester A. Arthur - Most Independent President Ever

There's a good case for Chester A. Arthur as one of the more underrated Presidents in United States history. There is no argument that he was the most independent. Although a Republican, Arthur thought his part just as corrupt as the Democrats of the time and decided that to truly serve the American people, he would have to go his own way. He did, and royally pissed off both parties, even failing to get his party's nomination for a second term.

But Arthur decided to serve the American people, and that's what he did. The Pendleton Act ended cronyism (although making a comeback, cronyism used to be far worse), declaring that any person nominated for an office had to *gasp* show some degree of competence before getting the job. What a concept! Arthur went on to establish specific rules and laws for civil servants to help eliminate much of the corruption and abuse of powers that used to take place on a far more massive scale. Many politicians talk about cleaning up corruption, but Arthur actually did it!

Both parties hated him for this, and he continued on to pass some of the first immigration laws that stated that if you were mentally insane or a criminal, you weren't allowed in. The basis was important, but he also signed some immigration laws that are considered classist or even racist by today's standards. Those bills weren't written by Arthur, but they were still approved.

Chester A. Arthur also hated pork barrel spending, and was adimant about not spending public funds frivilously. Arthur was a champion of reform, and had the courage to publicly state his displeasure at the Supreme Court when they ruled against several African Americans who sued for equal treatment.

On top of this, Arthur called for a conference which resulted in the modern world wide time zones that are still used today, as the International Meredian Conference established the Greenwhich Meridian and international standard time zones. And he did all this while afflicted, knowing he was dying.

The quotes about Arthur also say it all. Publisher Alexander McClure stated that no man had ever entered the Presidency so despised, and none had ever left it so respected. Even Samuel Clemens, who was notoriously sharp tongued about any politician, stated about Arthur: "I am but one in 55 million, still, in the opinion of this one-fifty-five-millionth of the country's population, it would be hard to better President Arthur's administration."

Very high praise from a man who was not known for giving it out.

Grover Cleveland - Just Not All at Once

Grover Cleveland was a popular President as often as he was unpopular, and remains the only President to ever serve two non-consecutive terms in office.  Regardless of whether there is agreement or disagreement over his policies, Cleveland is often described as perhaps the most honest and straight forward President ever. Cleveland was honest even when it might not have been to his political advantage.

Grover Cleveland was the only Democratic President during a 50 year run where the Republican party dominated the Presidency. In his first term the honesty came out immediately when Cleveland announced that he would not fire any Republican who was doing their job well, and he refused to reward jobs basedo on the crony-like "spoils system." 

Cleveland was adamant for smaller governemnt, and fired hundreds of federal workers who were basically drawing a salary for a cushy job because they had been with the right party, not because the position was actually needed.  Cleveland was also adamantly against subsidies of any kind and used his veto pen repeatedly.  In fact, President Cleveland vetoed more bills than all of his predecessors combined.

Cleveland was famous for his quote that government wasn't there to ease suffering, and this may have cost him the election, but he also believed the government shouldn't engage in policies that would needlessly cause suffering.  He opposed the silver standard and higher tariffs, vetoing both in his first term.  He also vetoed dozens of bills offering pensions to Civil War Veterans, stating that if they were turned down by the Pension office, there was no reason to override the decision, and refusing to pay for injuries to Civil War vets who were injured after the war in an unrelated way.

Cleveland lost the election, then came back four years later to inherit a recession that was bodering on a depression.  He intervened and broke up the railroad strike to keep the rails moving, and after repealing the silver standard and higher tariffs that Harrison had passed while office the economy returned to normal, vindicating Grover Cleveland all along.  He was even asked to run for a third term, but declined.

Cleveland would be a hero for advocates of small government and cutting out the waste. He might not be one of the greats, but he might be one of the most underrated Presidents the United States has had.

James K Polk - Well He Was Effective

Polk was a one term President who is as often reviled as he is lauded.  The biggest way Polk makes the list as an underrated President is if you are a firm believer in "the ends justify the means."  If you do believe the ends justify any means, then Polk is probably your man.

Polk firmly believed in Manifest Destiny and saw the second largest territorial expansion in history.  He won the Mexican American War and annexed Texas, bought more Western territory from Mexico, and forced the handing over of the Oregon Territory by Great Britain.  Some consider this great, some terrible.

But Polk did clearly outline only four goals for his one term in office:

  1. The re-establishment of an independent treasury system
  2. Reduction of tariffs
  3. Acquiring some, or all, of Oregon Territory
  4. The acquisition of California & New Mexico from Mexico

Say what you will about the methods (which in some cases were very much questionable at best and illegal at worst) but he did accomplish all four goals as he promised and expanded the continental United States to its modern size. 

So depending on how you feel about "ends justify the means," Polk could be considered very much underrated.

William Henry Harrison (He Died In 30 Days)

This is kind of the bonus #6 pick for most underrated President.  Usually a choice for more sarcastic or disillusioned individuals, the argument for William Henry Harrison being an underrated individual is simple, though a little dark: he died too soon to do any major damage.

It is somewhat a flippant answer, but when you consider how many Presidents have done a lot of damage to the budget, the country, the economy, the people, then the idea of a President who didn't damage anything could qualify as definitely being underrated.

Esienhower Warns Against Military Industrial Complex

Chester A. Arthur, the "Dude" President

What Makes a President Underrated?

What makes a U.S. President Underrated?  This is a question that is hard to answer.  Everyone has different criteria and puts a different level of importance on each topic, and there are always the far lefties or far righties whose lists of best Presidents ever will only have one letter (R or D) by them, and then the list of the worst will have the other letter only.  I don't expect this list to make everyone happy.  I'm independent because I can think.  Therefore when it comes to politics I probably piss off about everybody.

Still, my general criteria for being underrated are this:

1) The name almost never comes up in discussions of "one of the best ever."  So right away throw out Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln, Teddy R, FDR, JFK, Clinton, and Reagan.  And don't send an angry e-mail about "overrated."  There's at least two on this list who I would label as such, one from each party.  Since some groups lift these guys up, they can't be underrated.

Andrew Jackson is also out.  C'mon, he's on the $20 bill.

2) The individual President has accomplishments to his name that most people would recognize, but don't realize belongs to that individual.  For example, a LOT of what LBJ did is incorrectly attributed to JFK. 

3) It helps for rankings if the President did not have a world crisis going on.  It's easy to look huge when you're guiding a country from the beginning or through a Civil War.  Try making great accomplishments when there's really nothing big going on, or when it's over a hot button domestic issue with two sides equally split.

4) Would at least some of what these guys did be seen as a generally positive good thing or influence on where this country has gone.

These are a little hazy and give room to negotiate, but the Presidents in question also can't have an overly egregious running.  There's a weird ultra right wing push to declare Harding a great President.  Bribery, corruption, and scandals shoot that out permanantly, and it's odd that the same people who condemn President Clinton for an affair that apparently overrules everything positive he did now support a historical figure who had a nearly two decade affair and drank alcohol during Prohibition.  Just saying.

The one last obvious bit: the Presidents on this list had to have done something.  Otherwise being average or forgotten just makes sense.  I hope you enjoyed my discussion on the 5 Most Underrated Presidents and please feel free to add any agreements, disagreements, etc in the comments, but keep it respectful.  No swearing or "you're an idiot cause I say so" crap bashing other posters or I'll deleter the comments.  It's okay to disagree, but be civil.

Thanks for reading!

Which President Do You Like?

Which of these Presidents do you think is most underrated and should get more positive attention?

See results

Comments on My List of the 5 Most Underrated Presidents?

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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Perhaps someone already made this clarification. Chester A Arthur was NEVER nominated by the Republican Party (or any other) for POTUS. In fact, Chester A Arthur is one of the few presidents (perhaps the only?) who rose to the highest office of the land without ever having been popularly elected to any public office of any kind. Arthur served only the remainder of Garfield's term.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      8 years ago from the PNW

      I might add Bush 41 to that list. I know it was only 1 term, but he was very effective despite a sluggish economy at the time.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Clinton and Reagan are the ones who you think are overrated, I assume. Not a fan of Reagan myself, he kinda smooshed the economy. Clinton, I don't know much about.

    • sahbam16 profile image


      8 years ago from United Kingdom

      Very interesting hub! I'd agree with you that LBJ certainly pressed forward with domestic policy namely his tax cut, 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Office of Economic Opportunity unfortunately his entire ministry is tainted by failures in Vietnam.

    • Ugly Honest profile image

      Ugly Honest 

      9 years ago from Within the New York/DC Megalopolis

      As an official Presidential Trivia Geek I must Thank You for this Hub .... of course for my tastes LBJ wouldn't make any lists in a positive light but I enjoyed your coverage nonetheless. I have a special place in my heart for Cleveland, "uglyhonest" was one of his nicknames .... it's my user-name in all social media .. as well as the title of my website .... Definitely agree on Arthur, Polk, Eisenhower and even Harrison .... This was very ambitious ... You covered it like a true reporter... Terrific Job !! ... up, useful, interesting Godspeed !!

    • Carneades-Georgia profile image


      9 years ago from Augusta, Georgia

      LBJ ranks higher than Reagan and JFK and Ike domestically! Clinton and Obama rank high of course!

    • profile image

      10 years ago

      Check out Rutherford Hayes

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      This is a very interesting list, and I would like to add that I think James Monroe,James Madison, and John Adams are pretty underrated too, thoughI do agree with Polk and LBJ. It is interesting that you say Chester A. Arthur, because I've studied Presidents who I thought were great, and not necessarily other ones, and I think that it is hard to put him on an underrrated list based mainly on the fact that he signed the Pendleton Act. It is also interesting that you put Cleveland on this list despite his using the United States military to quash a rebellion in I believe it was upstate New York. Cool list though, gets you thinking.

    • Jerry G2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerry G2 

      12 years ago from Cedar Rapids, IA

      Thanks for the comments, all. I think it's always interesting to see everyone's opinions. Everyone has an opinion on overrated presidents, figuring out the underrated ones is hard. Depending on what groups you hang out with, opinions change on presidents. I agree on Reagan being overrated. It's been strange in my life time watching him being considered mediocre to donning a Super Man suit a single handedly defeating communism and somehow causing the economic boom of the Clinton years a decade later. Out of the underrated ones, I have to say my favorite is probably Esienhower. Shame he couldn't have had a third term. Thanks for the comments!

    • ocbill profile image


      12 years ago from hopefully somewhere peaceful and nice

      It felt like I am back in some of my favorite courses, history. Great stuff. Although, I don't think LBJ is as under-rated as you say. Reagan is over-rated. I know we'll hear from some die-hard GOP's with their 2 cents.

    • Wanderlust profile image


      12 years ago from New York City

      Very interesting information, thank you. I am not sure about underrated Presidents, but from my personal opinion, Clinton is totally overrated, not to mention the current one!

    • Storytellersrus profile image


      12 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      Okay here is my 50cents, as the dollar is devalued so maybe 50cents today equals about 2cents when the saying was popular.  I haven't done the math.  Don't quote me.

      I grew up during Vietnam and hated Nixon.  I thought he was the biggest jerk in the universe even.  Two weeks ago I went to his home in Yorba Linda where his Presidential Library is housed and I learned something.  In fact, I learned a lot about the man and his legacy.  The visit was inspired by Frost/Nixon which does not paint a glorious image of the man.  That combined with my own experience gave me new insight into the Biblical phrase, "Judge not."

      Thanks for highlighting underrated Presidents.  Perhaps there is even something good to be said about the other Johnson.  Here's one thing: his Secretary of State, Seward bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867, before gold and oil were discovered.


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