Discover more from PREVAIL by Greg Olear
Where Does Biden Rank Historically?
The 100 Days Extravaganza Double Episode (with Candidly Tiff & Joanie Vee and DAME Magazine’s Jennifer Reitman)
JOE BIDEN is already the best president of my lifetime. When I first made this proclamation a few weeks ago, it sounded like hyperbole. And my 16-year-old son, waiting just outside the door for me to finish the live show, seemed the voice of prudence when he gave his peak teenager retort: “No, he’s not.”
Upon further review, the ruling on the field stands.
In 2000, 2009, and most recently in 2017, C-SPAN asked a panel of 90-some-odd historians to rank all the presidents. Among the criteria used were public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, vision, and “performance within the context of the times,” which I guess is a way to evaluate the early presidents without factoring in slavery and genocide.
Historians recognize that that three greatest U.S. presidents were George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in some order. Teddy Roosevelt placed fourth each time the survey was done, with Thomas Jefferson joining Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S Truman in the second tier. So the lunatic who decided which busts to carve into the rock on Mount Rushmore chose wisely.
None of those presidents served in my lifetime. My parents were not even alive for FDR. Born in 1972, five months after the Watergate break-in, I missed JFK and LBJ, too. Even so, I somehow have ten Chief Executives to choose from, a perfect Late Night with David Letterman number. Here is how I rank them, from worst to first:
10/ Donald John Trump
The worst president in the history of the United States, bar none. James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson were Churchill and Pitt the Elder next to him.
Signature accomplishments: I mean, he did get people to the polls, right?
Biggest failures: Erosion of trust in government. Egregious corruption. Promotion of white supremacy and rape culture. Sabotage of pandemic response resulted in a big recession and over half a million unnecessary deaths.
C-SPAN ranking: N/A
9/ George W. Bush
While it’s cute to see him joking around with Michelle Obama at various events, let’s not forget that not that long ego, he was widely regarded as the worst U.S. president since the 1850s.
Signature accomplishments: In the days after 9/11, made a point to tell people not to blame all Muslims for the attack. Tossed a perfect strike when throwing out ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium when baseball resumed. Successfully dodged the shoe that angry Iraqi threw at him.
Biggest failures: Empowered Cheney and Rumsfeld. Didn’t heed the “Osama bin Laden planning an attack” warning. Responded to 9/11 by invading two countries halfway around the world, neither directly responsible for the attack, and then cut taxes instead of raising them to pay for the wars. Came this close to cratering the global economy.
C-SPAN ranking: 33
8/ Gerald Ford
He was the very model of a dull caretaker president.
Signature accomplishments: Chevy Chase played him brilliantly on Saturday Night Live.
Biggest failures: Pardoned Richard Nixon, continuing our long national shame of “turning the page” on America’s historical misdeeds.
C-SPAN ranking: 25
7/ Ronald Reagan
In terms of connecting with and persuading people, the Gipper was easily one of the best presidents of all time. But, like, I mean, the Serpent in the Garden had a similar skillset. That’s what Lucifer does, people! Six letters in RONALD, six letters in WILSON, six letters in REAGAN: not a coincidence.
Signature accomplishments: Scared the shit out of the Soviets. Outspent them to oblivion.
Biggest failures: Iran Contra, trickle-down tax cuts, mismanagement of AIDS crisis, catastrophic deregulation, perpetuating the myth of the welfare (Black) woman in the Cadillac and the notion that government is the problem. The insidious anti-intellectual strain of today’s GOP originated with Reagan.
C-SPAN ranking: 9 (which is WAY too fucking high)
6/ Jimmy Carter
As we are only now beginning to realize, this was a man way ahead of his time. Possibly the most exemplary human being to ever hold the office.
Signature accomplishments: Did more to topple the Soviet Union than he’s generally given credit for. Put Paul Volcker at the Fed to tackle the inflation problem, which ultimately worked. Paradigm of honor and decency, which matters.
Biggest failures: Malaise.
C-SPAN ranking: 26
5/ Richard Nixon
The hardest guy to rank. Tricky Dick was a total asshole, leaned too heavily on Henry Kissinger—whose fat fingerprints are on every foreign policy fuck-up of the last 50 years—and turned out to be the crook he insisted he wasn’t. Before he left in disgrace, however, he managed to get a shit-ton of important stuff done.
Signature accomplishments: Established the EPA, opened relations with China, signed landmark arms treaties with the Soviet Union, signed Title IX, pushed for the voting age to be lowered to 18 from 21 (today’s GOP would be appalled!), ended the military draft, and picked some Supreme Court justices who wound up being pretty awesome.
Biggest failures: Vietnam and Watergate. And those are both biggies.
C-SPAN ranking: 28
4/ Bill Clinton
His impeachment, brought on by his own lies about his lascivious behavior, hamstrung what should have been a more successful presidency. Hillary would have been so much better.
Signature accomplishments: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Biggest failures: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.”
C-SPAN ranking: 15
3/ George H.W. Bush
There is no way to prove this, of course, but I’d argue that the country would be in a much better place had Poppy Bush beat out Reagan in 1980. He correctly pegged trickle-down as “voodoo economics,” and knew that, to be fiscally responsible, he’d have to raise taxes to finance the Gulf War—even if that meant repudiating his “read my lips” campaign promise.
Signature accomplishments: When the rapacious, criminal, psychopathic strongman upset the world order by invading an ally of the United States—purely to line his own pockets—Bush 41 forged an international coalition to throw his thieving ass out. We didn’t just let him annex the Crimea….er, Kuwait. The more distance we have from the first Gulf War, in fact, the smarter it looks, with respect to planning, execution, and fulfillment of war objectives. (The sequel is, of course, another story).
Biggest failures: Not particularly likeable, incapable of connecting with ordinary Americans, and, yikes, Bill Barr.
C-SPAN ranking: 20
2/ Barack Obama
I love him as a human being. He’s brilliant, empathic, funny, and cool. The fact that he was the first Black president is hugely significant historically. By almost any metric, the first seven years of his presidency were superb. But the failures of that eighth year almost brought about the end of the American experiment—and, sorry, we have to deduct points for that.
Signature accomplishments: Passed the Affordable Care Act, saved General Motors, literally killed Osama bin Laden the same night he figuratively killed Trump at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, got the country out of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Biggest failures: “Turned the page” on Bush/Cheney. “Reset” with Russia. Allowed Mitch McConnell to stall on Merrick Garland. Allowed Mitch McConnell to convince him to keep quiet about Trump’s Russia ties. After Trump won, did not immediately name a Special Prosecutor. After Trump was inaugurated, with half the nation in full-blown panic mode, went windsurfing in the South Pacific.
C-SPAN ranking: 12
1/ Joe Biden
In a first 100 days for the ages, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris—the nation’s first Madam Vice President!—immediately stabilized a nation on the brink of descending into autocracy. Further, as discussed in this week’s “100 Days” podcast double episode, he is, simply, the right man for the moment. He’s made mistakes and will continue to make them—all presidents, even the greatest ones, do—but so far, much to the annoyance of the Beltway press corps, there’s not much to complain about.
Signature accomplishments: Vaccine rollout, economic growth, American Rescue Act, personal empathy and decency, and the systematic un-fucking (or “un-Trumping,” if the curse word offends you) of the country.
Biggest failures: Justice is taking longer than we’d like. And take Joe Manchin to the woodshed already!
I’ll let the historian Heather Cox Richardson—not one of the professors consulted by C-SPAN, incidentally, an omission I hope they correct next time—take it from here:
In any normal era, the big story right now would be the country’s dramatic economic recovery from the recession sparked by the coronavirus. In the first three months of 2021, the economy grew by 1.6% as economic stimulus measures kicked in and people started to buy things again. Amazon posted profits of $8.1 billion for the first three months of the year; the same months last year brought the company $2.5 billion. Supply chains are still frayed, pushing prices upward, but those problems are expected to ease as the chains heal.
At the beginning of the year, economists predicted just 0.6% growth, because they did not expect vaccinations to go into circulation as quickly as they did, and they expected the recession to linger for months. If the current growth rate holds, it would mean an annual rate of 6.4% (it’s unclear, of course, if it will hold).
For the last three weeks, jobless claims have dropped. Restaurants and service industries are not in as good a shape as consumer goods, but they should recover as more and more people get vaccinated. We are still down about 8.4 million jobs lost during the pandemic, but employment is moving in the right direction.
This economic turnaround is possible because of the administration’s vaccine program. That’s another huge story. Just four months ago, it was unclear how vaccinations would happen, and how long they would take. But Biden clearly considered the vaccination program his top priority, a way to prove that an efficient federal government was indeed vital to the country.
C-SPAN ranking: N/A. I have him eighth overall, just above JFK and LBJ. Which means that, so far, Biden is indeed the best president of my lifetime.
E12: The Biden/Harris 100 Days Extravaganza (Double Episode, with Candidly Tiff & Joanie Vee and DAME Magazine’s Jennifer Reitman)
Description: On this, the 107th day of the Biden/Harris Administration, Greg Olear discusses the remarkable job the new President and VP have done so far with, first, DAME Magazine founder and publisher Jennifer Reitman, and then, his Kamala cohorts Candidly Tiff and Joanie Vee. Plus: a new Siberian dating app.
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Theme song by Matthew Fossa.
Photo credit: Adam Shultz, White House. The Bidens call on the Carters.