United States Presidency Centre UK Survey of US Presidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt is first; George W. Bush in bottom ten; Barack Obama highly rated

Monday 17 January 2011

(London, January 17, 2011) – The United States Presidency Centre [USPC] of the Institute for the Study of the Americas (part of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study) has conducted the first ever UK scholarly survey of US presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush, with an interim assessment of Barack Obama.

In total, 47 UK specialists on US history and politics took part in the poll conducted in September/October 2010. They rated the performance of the forty presidents who held office from 1789 to 2009 (excepting William Henry Harrison and James Garfield, both of whom died shortly after taking office) in five categories: (i) vision/agenda-setting; (ii) domestic leadership; (iii) foreign policy leadership; (iv) moral authority; and (v) positive historical significance of their legacy.

Participants scored presidents in each equally-weighted category from one (“not effective”) to ten (“very effective”). Responses were tabulated by averaging all scores in a given category for each president. The total score for all categories was multiplied by ten for the president’s final score.

Results and analysis
For full rankings, see http://americas.sas.ac.uk/research/survey/ Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45) was placed first overall in the poll, with Abraham Lincoln (1861-65) second and George Washington (1789-97) third. Roosevelt came first in: vision/agenda-setting; domestic leadership; and foreign policy leadership; Washington came first for moral authority; and Lincoln did so for the positive significance of his legacy.

Only one president who has held office since 1960 – Ronald Reagan (1981-89) at No. 8 – made the overall top ten. Most of the recent presidents held middling positions: Jimmy Carter (1977-81) was at No 18, Bill Clinton (1993-2001) at No 19, George H. W. Bush (1989-93) at No 22, Richard Nixon (1969-74) at No 23, and Gerald Ford (1974-77) at No 24. However, George W. Bush (2001-09), at No 31, was in the bottom ten and was the lowest rated president of any who has held office since the scandal-hit Warren Harding (1921-23), placed at No 38. Other than Harding, the lowest ranking presidents held office just before and after the Civil War (1861-65), with the last placed being James Buchanan (1857-61) at No 40.

Significantly, Barack Obama (2009 - ) is held in high esteem. His interim assessment would have put him in 8th place overall had he been included in the poll. US presidential surveys habitually place Lincoln first because of his achievements as Civil War leader and often put Washington second for establishing the authority of the presidency. UK scholars, by contrast, elevated Franklin D Roosevelt in recognition of the breadth of the challenges he faced as president during the Great Depression and World War II, his inspirational leadership in both these crises, and the significance of his New Deal legacy.

Another notable US-UK difference concerns John F. Kennedy (1961-63), ranked as high as 6th in recent US polls but placed 15th in the UK survey. UK academics seemingly faulted JFK for the gap between his rhetoric and his substantive achievements as president.

At first sight, the UK poll apparently favours presidents who expanded the role of national government. Alongside FDR, Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09), Woodrow Wilson (1913-21), and Harry Truman (1945-53) were ranked 5th, 6th and 7th respectively and Lyndon Johnson (1963-69) made No 11. Nevertheless, our survey also rates some small-government advocates favourably: Thomas Jefferson (1801-09) at No 4, Ronald Reagan at No 8, and Andrew Jackson (1829-37) at No. 9.

With the exception of Ronald Reagan, none of the five presidents who held office from 1977 to 2009 (i.e. Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush) made the top 15. This contrasts with the first five US presidents (who held office from 1789 to 1825), two of whom (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) made the top five and the other three the top fifteen (John Adams at No 12, James Monroe at No 13, and James Madison at No 14). Arguably this is less a matter of superior early leadership than of the huge responsibilities, challenges, and obstacles that make the task of the modern presidency much more difficult than in the past.

Of course, complete objectivity in surveys of this kind is impossible. No less than their US counterparts, UK scholars are influenced by not only their own times but also their perceptions of how America’s leaders have represented that nation’s best values at home and abroad. Nevertheless, the survey testifies to the immense interest that UK historians and political scientists have in the US in general and the presidency in particular.

Notes for editors
For queries and further information about this survey, contact Professor Iwan Morgan, Director of the USPC on: (email) iwan.morgan@sas.ac.uk, or (tel.) 0207 862 8647/8871.

The United States Presidency Centre of the Institute for the Study of the Americas (School of Advanced Study, University of London) was founded in 2008 to promote and facilitate UK research on the US presidency and enhance understanding of this institution within the broader context of US politics beyond the scholarly community. Details of its conference, symposia, and lecture programme are available on www.americas.sas.ac.uk/research/USPC.html