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Who Were the Best and Worst Presidents of the United States?

Updated on April 4, 2013
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The other day I was listening to talk radio and the host stated that he thought Barack Obama was the worst president we’ve ever had. The next caller disagreed with him, and said he thought George W. Bush was the worst ever. Obviously, emotion played a part in both men’s points of view. It’s probable both men had only seen about 9 to 12 presidents in their lives. Unless they were history experts, there is no way they would be qualified to know who was the worst of all time because they hadn’t seen them all. Nonetheless it got me thinking, who was the worst president, and who was the best? I quickly came to the conclusion that it was impossible to come up with choices everyone would agree with.

For one thing, comparing presidents from different eras is like comparing apples to oranges. Some Presidents like Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt were great because they rose to the challenge of trying times. Others, like George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan were great because they made their impression on the times they lived and made America into the country it is today.

Likewise, weak Presidents were a product of their times also. For example, Jimmy Carter was President of the United States from 1977 to 1981. In that short four years the economy was stagnant, gas prices skyrocketed, and the United States was embarrassed by Iran and the hostage crisis. To make matters worse, Carter got a reputation for being wimpy early in his administration, and never got rid of that impression. James K Polk, Millard Fillmore, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan were presidents of the United States between 1845 and 1860. At this time, the North and South were growing further apart. They may have attempted to avoid the ultimate calamity, but none of their efforts were successful. It was left to Abraham Lincoln to deal with the Civil War and keeping this union together. Were they incompetent to be president or were the times overwhelming to them? I believe it may have been a little of both.

How can you compare Jimmy Carter, to the five presidents who preceded Abraham Lincoln before the Civil War? You can’t. The times were remarkably different, and we were much different country in 1977 then we were in 1860.

Source
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt | Source
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln | Source
Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan | Source
Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter | Source

Another reason why it is so hard to get a consensus on who was the best and who was the worst is that people have differing and often emotional opinions. Franklin D Roosevelt is considered by many to be a great president who led us through hard times. Others object, saying that his socialist programs and policies did not fix the economy and that it took World War II to get us out of the Great Depression. Abraham Lincoln is credited with keeping this country together, but his election in 1860 was an impetus for the secession of the Southern states.

Many conservatives think that Ronald Reagan was the best president in modern times. But there are people who would strongly disagreed with this view. Living in Massachusetts at the time he was president, I got to see this firsthand.. I was in college at the time of his first election and many professors and students were visibly upset at the prospect of him being our leader for the next four years. About 20 years later I was at a Toastmasters meeting I was asked to do a short speech on Reagan . I made the mistake of saying that “everyone loved Reagan” when I should’ve said “many people” loved him . I was verbally accosted by a middle-aged woman who got in my face and scolded me saying she and everyone else she knew “loathed him”.

In my opinion it seems that the best presidents are natural leaders, rather than good politicians who were put in office by a strong political machine, or were elected simply because the last President or his party were perceived to be incompetent or weak by the majority of voters.

With the 24-hour cable news channels and the Internet it seems that the president is constantly being analyzed, second-guessed and criticized. It is much more common now than in previous years, when they were just newspapers and network news,. No matter what your political opinion, you can agree that over the past three Presidencies (Clinton, Bush and Obama) the opposition has been merciless and at times downright mean in its criticisms. In this environment, it would be hard but not impossible for the right person to rise up over the hatred, and criticism and become a great President. I pray that person comes soon. We need him or her.

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      Larry Wall 2 years ago

      It always amazes me that George Washington is not listed among the greatest presidents. He set the tone for the president. No royal trappings, setting tradition, that later became law of serving no more than two consecutive terms and warned against the formation political parties.

      He deserves more credit that he gets.

    • billd01603 profile image
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      billd01603 4 years ago from Worcester

      Interesting answer Thomas. Thanks

    • Thomas Swan profile image

      Thomas Swan 4 years ago from New Zealand

      The best President would be John Quincy Adams for me. A great diplomat and progressive.

    • billd01603 profile image
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      billd01603 4 years ago from Worcester

      Tanks for reading Thomas. I appreciate it. But I have a question. Who would be number one?

    • Thomas Swan profile image

      Thomas Swan 4 years ago from New Zealand

      A great topic that's getting a lot of interest on hubpages recently. Only a couple of weeks ago I wrote a hub about how Harry Truman may have been the worst President ever. That's my opinion on this topic, but I respect the opinions of others. Still, like you point out in your hub, people who claim it's Bush or Obama typically have very little historical knowledge. However, Bush would be very high on my list; possibly as high as 2nd.

    • billd01603 profile image
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      billd01603 4 years ago from Worcester

      Thanks for reading adh071185. I enjoyed reading your comments and I agree, we haven't had a leader since Reagan and I'm worried we won't find one soon

      Sahbam16, Thanks for reading, I appreciate it

    • sahbam16 profile image

      sahbam16 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      I thoroughly enjoyed reading the hub and love US politics in general so thank you very much!!

    • adh071185 profile image

      Aaron 4 years ago from Southern United States

      Excellent hub billd01603. There really is no right or wrong answer for a question so subjective.

      Being from the Southern US I have encountered many people who view presidents like Lincoln and other reconstruction presidents as butchers. Lincoln after all presided over 620,000 deaths. The most combat associated deaths on American soil in history. He was Commander in Chief during Sherman's march to the sea which was one of the most vile episodes of civilian attrition on record.

      On the other hand he was the author of the emancipation proclamation which resulted in the eventual abolition of slavery.

      Your premise that there are in essence two sides to every coin is 100% correct. I am of the opinion that we have not had a true "leader" in the purest form of the word since the Reagan administration.

      How to account for this decline in leadership is a matter of debate. I believe it is a direct result of the extreme polarization of our domestic politics.

      While presidents since Reagan have shown sparks of this same charisma none have managed to appeal to the majority of voters with the same consistency.

      This is a shame because a United America is responsible for the fall of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, Soviet Union Expansionism, and many other instances where the very fate of the world was in our hands and we prevailed to the benefit of all.

      We put men on the moon, connected the East and West coast of North America with roads and railway, and single handedly joined the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Panama Canal. We were an unforeseen and unprecedented force for good.

      Compare that to modern times when we are disrespected and generally ridiculed and reviled by other nations. Our authority and purpose has been assumed by the mantle of an ineffective United Nations with neither the ability or inclination to fight evil abroad.

      Swift and decisive action has been replaced by committees and pointless resolutions in a vain attempt to defeat tyranny with words instead of an iron fist.

      If we ever wish to regain what has been lost we need true leadership once more. While I don't believe that President Obama is an evil man by any measure his is a failed presidency. He has pandered to his base to the point where he will never be able to effectively lead this nation.

      Polarization among the political parties has robbed us of a chance to restore our country for another 8 years. This is a huge disservice to every American living and our children as well. They'll have to learn about America through history books because if we continue on this self destructive coarse we will be "The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave" in name only.

    • billd01603 profile image
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      billd01603 4 years ago from Worcester

      wba108 Thanks for reading. I agree with everything you said

    • wba108@yahoo.com profile image

      wba108@yahoo.com 4 years ago from upstate, NY

      I suppose you would have to have a somewhat common criteria from which to judge a presidents preformance. In my book, following the Constitution and defending Christian values would be on the top of my list. No doubt personal charisma and an ability to connect with the people are also important attributes for a president.

      Since WW2 I believe Reagan and JFK to be the two best presidents. The worst is a toss up, Carter has to be on that list and then maybe LBJ and Obama. In some ways I believe Obama to be worse than Carter, such as his unconstitutional expansion of government through Obamacare and the takeover of much of the private sector through bailouts. He's also ceeded legislative power to administrative czars under his direct control and he's attacked Christianity on foreign soil saying America is no longer a Christian nation. I could keep going but I won't!

    • billd01603 profile image
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      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      Thanks for your response William Young. I believe FDR thought he was doing the right thing, but it really didn't bring us out of the depression. BO is doing similar things. It didn't work in the 30s and he is foolish if he thinks its going to work now.

    • William Young profile image

      William Young 5 years ago from Eaglle Grove, Iowa

      Excellent hub! One of the things I've always thought was misguided with Barack Obama is the constant comparison between him and Franklin Roosevelt. And like you say in your article, comparing two presidents from different times and even different centuries is like comparing apples to oranges. Yes, Roosevelt used the federal government to bring relief to the American People during the depression. But I've always believed that Roosevelt did it because he felt that the depression so severe that Government had to do something. Roosevelt wasn't an enemy of the free market system and he didn't have the animosity toward our free market system that Obama has, that's the biggest difference between them, I think.

    • billd01603 profile image
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      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      Thanks Unknown Spy, glad you enjoyed it!

    • unknown spy profile image

      IAmForbidden 5 years ago from Neverland - where children never grow up.

      Wow! what a great idea for a hub Bill! Wonderful! thumbs up

    • billd01603 profile image
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      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      Hi Tom K. I really don't have a favorite. Each good president existed in a different time and had to deal with different things. Thanks for reading!

    • billd01603 profile image
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      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      dazkittlez69 Thanks for reading. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    • billd01603 profile image
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      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      Hi Justsylvie, good point I think the country is so divided and the media so vast we could get the best President ever and the cry drom the oppisition would be very loud. Thanks for reading.

    • billd01603 profile image
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      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      Hey Kathleen, Thanks a lot for the "fair and balanced " compliment. I'm conservative by nature and I'm glad it did not show in the Hub. Thanks for reading!

    • Tom Koecke profile image

      Tom Koecke 5 years ago from Tacoma, Washington

      I enjoyed your hub, bill. I hear the same thing about Obama and Bush, and wonder if people who claim they are the worst or best are capable of thinking past a political ad. I've heard people say Bush's election in 2000 was the most controversial in American history, apparently not giving much thought to the elections of JQ Adams or Rutherford Hayes.

      After giving so much insight into this topic, though, you did not give your opinion on who you think is the greatest and worst Presidents.

    • daskittlez69 profile image

      daskittlez69 5 years ago from midwest

      Thanks for the Hub. I have to agree about Carter, but he was great after his Presidency.

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      Justsilvie 5 years ago

      Excellent Hub! In this day and age I am not sure why anyone would really want that office. It really is a thankless job, and you are damned if you do and damned if you don't.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      If ever there was a "fair and balanced" hub on this subject - this hub is it. Well written and good points.

      My father was deep into the inner workings of the defense industry during the Carter and Reagan years and has said many times that Reagan got the credit for much that Carter actually was responsible for. People forget thost administrations came on the heels of Watergate and Nixon and the times very much affected the knee-jerk reaction America made in electing both of those presidents who followed Nixon.

      I would suggest we are seeing the same reaction to Obama following the drama of the George W. Bush years/wars/economic scares/etc. It will be interesting to see if the country reacts the same way with his run for reelection.

      History is the great leveler to the country's mood swings. We probably won't live long enough to get an accurate view of who was really good and who was really bad.

      How has this hub not been read a thousand times already? Sharing

    • billd01603 profile image
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      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      Thanks Alex. I enjoyed writing it

    • Alex Jose profile image

      Alex Jose 5 years ago from Cleveland, Ohio

      Lovely idea of writing a hub on this certain topic. Enjoyed reading this article and voted up as awesome.