What does the ‘best president’ survey tell us?

It doesn’t take much, really, to get to the top of a list of president’s in one’s lifetime. Not many presidents serve during the average lifetime.

I’m in my sunset years, for example; there’ve been only 12 and one was the treasonous Richard Nixon, so only 11 are in the competition.

Nonetheless, it’s not entirely insignificant that President Barack Obama has finished at the top of a Pew survey of 2,002 adults, which asked which president has done the best job in their lifetimes. The analysis is based on their first and second choices.

There’s probably some interesting math to be played with under the survey but the fact Franklin Roosevelt finished last in the survey has little to do with Roosevelt’s performance in office — all he did was literally help save the world — and more to do with the fact most people in the survey couldn’t select Roosevelt because they weren’t alive when Roosevelt served.

But it makes for tasty headlines, we suppose.

“People’s views of the best president of their lifetimes are partly tied to their ages,” Pew says in an understatement. “Millennials, who are currently ages 22 to 37, are far more likely than older generations to name Obama as one of the best presidents in their lifetimes: About six-in-ten Millennials (62%) view Obama as one of the top two, with nearly half, 46%, naming him the best president.”

The old-timers are more likely to select Ronald Reagan, Pew says.

Is there much to really take away from surveys like this? Not really. History judges presidents. And Pew notes that people rarely name a sitting president as the best, even people who are members of a sitting president’s party.

There’s a little bit of bipartisanship in the survey. Fourteen percent of Democratic-leaning respondents gave credit to Reagan. Thirteen percent of Republicans surveyed say Obama has done the best job of any president of their lifetimes.

  • Rob

    Odd to see that Cadet Bone Spurs didn’t rank dead last across the demographic spectrum…

    • RBHolb

      People are still in denial that he was elected.

  • BJ

    Reagan was really well liked.

    • Which baffles me because his administration was an abject failure.

      • jon

        Look at it through a partisan lens…

        In my life time the GOP presidents, have been Trump, Bush II, Bush I, Regan…

        Bush I was reagan redux, with less economic success…
        Bush II is most noted for failing to respond to a natural disaster and starting two wars because of a man made disaster…
        And Trump…

        Prior to that you’ve got Ford and Nixon… no help there for the GOP… Then eisenhower, who takes second place for the GOP among boomers and second overall for the silent generation…

        Continuing back (which goes prior to the listed options) you’ve got hoover, best known for the great depression, then coolidge, and harding, both on the top 10 list of most forgettable presidents… so even if you were alive for those guys you are unlikely to say that they were among the best presidents…
        And I doubt many people are still alive from the taft era…

        • jon

          oops… just realized I crossed the results for kennedy and Ike… I’ve no idea why Eisenhower didn’t do better… gap in my historical knowledge I guess…

      • BJ

        I don’t know – He really did end the cold war.

        • Jeff

          I think Gorbachev was more responsible than Reagan.

        • RBHolb

          Whittaker Chambers (among, probably, others) accurately predicted how the Soviet Union would fall, sometime in the 60s. He said it would start with unrest in the “satellites (e.g. Poland),” and spread from there.

    • Jerry

      Wait, so you’re saying an actor had charisma and was good at selling himself?

  • jon

    //Fourteen percent of Democratic-leaning respondents gave credit to Reagan. Thirteen percent of Republicans surveyed say Obama has done the best job of any president of their lifetimes.

    I wonder how much of that is because of changes to affiliated party… I feel like a lot of republicans during the reagan era could well be democrats now… Though I don’t know that many democrats in the obama era would identify as republicans now, unless they are #walkaway russian trolls being polled…

    It is also telling that neither bush topped the list…

    • Top Republican in second choice among Millenials, which is interesting.

      • jon

        For many millennials the bush’s are the only republican presidents in their lifetime who aren’t currently in office.

    • RBHolb

      How much does nostalgia factor in? Reagan left office 30 years ago, so are respondents’ memories affected by recollections of their own lives 30 years ago? For example, most of us will have memories of 1988 that don’t include Iran-contra, or remember it as a kind of cool thing, with Ollie North defying The Man.

  • Mike

    I wouldn’t rate any of the presidents of my lifetime highly – they’re mediocre to terrible. (I was born during Nixon’s tenure.) Tricky Dick and Bush II are tied for worst in my mind, though. I think both of them will be judged harshly by history – I hope. I’m not counting Trump because his administration is still a work (car wreck?) in process.

    I have trouble imagining how it would be to have a president like FDR; it’s so foreign to my life experience.

    • I had an uncle who refused to send mail when postage was 6 cents because the 6-cent stamp featured FDR. It was Obama-like, I suspect.

      • Mike

        Yes, the difference being that FDR was a genuinely transformational leader. Obama was elected with a mandate to change things as well, but he declined to do so.

        The conservatives of the 1930s had real reasons not to like FDR, whereas the “conservative” opposition to Obama was mostly based on race and the never-ending faux partisanship that characterizes retail politics today. Obama was quite conservative in many respects.

        • Obama had a naivete about politics and the presidency, even as the loyal opposition was staging a coup to pack the judiciary. I always got the impression he always expected politicians to be better than politicians have ever shown they’re capable of being.

          • Mike

            That’s the charitable view of Obama, but it’s not one I share.

            The Clinton presidency should have been an object lesson in how the Republicans set the standard for obstructing anything and everything. Obama had no reasonable expectation of cooperation from Republicans, so his continued effort in that respect (after being rebuffed time and again) just marked him as either 1) weak, or 2) disingenuous in his campaign promises.

            There are many things he could have done to build his coalition after his election. For example, I think if he’d prosecuted a few of the worst financial criminals responsible for the recession, that would have earned him tremendous popularity – especially when unemployment and foreclosures were high in 2009-2011.

            My conclusion is that Obama didn’t act like a liberal in office because he actually wasn’t one. He merely fooled a lot of people into thinking he was.

          • Jack Ungerleider

            How liberal you are is a relative measure. I’ve often said if you take the G. H. W. Bush that ran against Reagan in 1980 and put him next to Bill Clinton you would see much difference. The elder Bush was at that time still a member of the northern moderate wing of the GOP, not as liberal as Rockefeller or Javits, but certainly in the same strata as former GOP Senator Lowell Weicker (also of Connecticut) and the late Arlen Specter. Both of those politicians were “forced” out of the GOP like local “heroes” Arne Carlson and Dave Durenburger.

            That said, I think Obama was slightly more liberal than Clinton, but not as liberal as the Republican/Conservative media establishment painted him. He was a slightly left of center moderate politician.

  • MrE85

    I’ve got the same 12 presidents. “Best” is a pretty subjective term, but if you are asking the the president who left office with the country better than he found it, my top pick would have to be LBJ.

    That’s right, I said LBJ.

    • I can’t see a single case to be made that the country was in better shape WHEN LBJ left office.

      • MrE85

        I didn’t think you could. But I’ll bet some of your readers might know what I’m talking about.

        You want to focus on Vietnam. Fine. Go ahead.

        But there was also:

        Civil Rights Act of 1964 & 1968
        Voting Rights Act
        Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (ended national quotas)
        Head Start
        1st Black Supreme Court Justice
        SNAP (food stamps)
        National Endowment for the Humanities
        National Endowment for the Arts

        I could go on, but you get the point.

        If you don’t like LBJ, fine. But you can’t dismiss his legacy. The country WAS a better place after his presidency.

        • Rob

          The fact that LBJ escalated the Vietnam War with tens of thousands of troops and carpet-bombed the region – and started secret wars in Cambodia and Laos – means that all his other accomplishments on Civil Rights and other domestic matters are, tragically but essentially, zeroed out. His presidency was therefore a wash at best. His legacy is being the architect of an immense clusterf#!k of hundreds of thousands of lives lost overall, environmental pillage on a staggering scale, and billions of dollars peed down a rathole.

          Your mileage may continue to vary.

        • RBHolb

          It’s interesting that LBJ has his legacy (justly) tainted by the escalation of our involvement in Vietnam, but JFK remains a liberal icon, despite his efforts at ramping up our involvement there. Johnson also did a lot of the heavy lifting on civil rights that Kennedy did not or could not do.

          It should also be remembered that Johnson’s late-term efforts to end the war were sabotaged by Nixon.

          • I don’t know what constitutes a liberal icon and it’s telling to me that the martyred Kennedy that seems to get most attention is RFK, more than JFK.

            JFK was a symbol of a new generation and I think that is what people react to more than a record achievement, which is virtually impossible for a president who only served for about a thousand days.

            And he did help create a sense that as a country, we could do things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

            I think this is the lost art of leadership that flickered — briefly — during the 2008 campaign… inspiration. Kennedy called for people to act and they did. They joined the Peace Corps and went to service. Obama did the same thing and the result was “meh, maybe later, but go ahead and change things.”

            In many ways the presidents end up getting defined by the people they “lead”.

          • Jack

            I like that JFK started the Peace Corps but it was really Hubert Humphrey’s idea.

            I vote with E85, LBJ made great strides in Civil Rights. Too bad they couldn’t have been permanent.

          • RBHolb

            JFK is an icon for many who like to claim they used to be liberal, but the Democratic Party moved “too far to the left” after him. You know, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, Medicare, Head Start . . . Bolshevism, I tell you!

    • Jeff

      Except for the Vietnam War I would agree. But then it’s like saying the Twins would have won if the other team hadn’t scored 8 runs in the 5th inning.

      • MrE85

        Even the “treasonous” Nixon had his bright spots.

        The creation of the EPA, and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. The first steps toward peace with China and Russia (then the USSR),

        • Angry Jonny

          The Economic Opportunity Act (*directed at your LBJ post).

        • Pete C.

          Crediting Nixon with the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts is a bit of a stretch. The 1972 ammendments to the Clean Water Act were actually passed via an override of his veto, and even after that, he tried to prevent the funding associated with the legislation being spent. He was hardly an environmentalist, but was savvy enough as a politician to know that the opposition environmental movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s would be a losing position at the voting box.


  • RBHolb

    I’ve seen a survey of presidential historians that ranks Trump 45 out of 45, so good news for James Buchanan.

    • jon

      were they ranking them chronologically?
      And did they rank Cleveland twice?

      • RBHolb

        Not chronologically (Buchanan is now the second worst President).
        Cleveland was only ranked once.

        It’s unfair to include Wm. Henry Harrison and Garfield in these surveys. Harrison was only President for a month. At most workplaces, he would still have been on probation.

  • I think that’s a fair point. What set LBJ apart was he may be the last president to basically say to America, “take your medicine.”

    • MrE85

      Spot on. He also expected us to better toward each other than we were in the past. We still have to work on that one.

  • Angry Jonny

    Can you imagine the ego-rage going on in Trump’s brain right this second as he reads that chart? He’s probably fit to be tied.

    • RBHolb

      He doesn’t have the attention span to read a menu. The only way he would know about this is if one of his people told him.

      I think we know what the odds of that happening are.

  • AL287

    If you base it on personality alone, it makes sense that Reagan, Clinton and Obama would rank very highly across all age groups.

    All of them had a sense of humor and made us laugh even when things weren’t going that well. They were skilled orators who knew how to calm the masses in times of crisis.

    FDR and Kennedy had that same charismatic ability.

    As for the consideration of legacies left behind, FDR and LBJ are at the top of the heap.

    FDR gave us the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, both of which put hundreds of thousands of workers back to work during the height of the Great Depression.

    His greatest single social achievement was the implementation of Social Security.

    Mr. E85 has already listed some of the many accomplishments of LBJ. Had he not been so hell bent on winning an unwinnable war, he would have been a two-term president.

    He was able to get these things accomplished by being a savvy negotiator across the aisle, bar none except perhaps Clinton.

    My vote for the worst president? Donald Trump, who since taking office has single-handedly managed to undo any American respect and influence that has been built up over the last 60 years and the carnage continues unabated.

  • Jerry

    People tend to look more favorably on the presidents of their youthful years than those of their 20’s and beyond, which says more about them than the presidents.

  • lindblomeagles

    I wasn’t around for FDR’s Presidency, but I would STRONGLY AGREE FDR was a terrific President, and if you don’t know about his legacy, please visit his Memorial in Washington D.C. I’ve often thought it was the prettiest and best of the Memorials. It is honestly worth your interest. Boomers LOVE Reagan, but, in all honesty, I can think of 3 Republican Presidents who frankly did a much better job Reagan, and they were, in this order, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Lincoln freed the slaves. We all know that. But Teddy established the National Parks System (think Itasca, think the Boundary Waters, think Gooseberry Falls) and busted a lot of trusts and monopolies. All Dwight did was establish the National Highway system and started the growth of suburbs. I can’t remember a single accomplishment Reagan had. He talked tough, but even his War on Drugs basically failed. I guess for me, if we’re talking about Presidents in my lifetime, which is 1970 to the present, I’d say it’s Obama, Clinton, and Carter, with caveats to President Ford (tried to advance Women’s Rights) and George W. (who was right about a pathway to citizenship for Latin Americans). If we’re discussing overall, it would be Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and John Adams.

  • Rob

    That would have required way more moral courage than he and McNamara possessed.

  • Barton

    As a Gen X’er I am very disappointed to see Reagan up so high. Did none of my fellow Gen X’ers pay attention to the results of “Reaganomics?” The rise in “theocracy” under his group (i.e. the lessening of that big wall between church and state)?

  • // while JFK didn’t

    to be fair, LBJ had a martyr to help build support for his agenda. JFK didn’t.

  • Rob

    I would contend that JFK lucked out in the Cuban Missile Crisis. What virtually all asessments of the Crisis neglect to point out is that the U.S. and NATO had Russia ringed with dozens, if not hundreds, of land, air, and sea-based nukes in 1962. When the Russians decided that turnabout was fair play, the Kennedy administration got its back up, and its “toughness” could very well have ended in a nuclear exchange. Thankfully, the Russians did blink, but they did, in that situation, have a justified grievance. And we still have Russia ringed with scads of nukes.

    • I’m convinced that every day we’re one blink of an eye away from annihilation. I base this, of course, only on the fact that whatever b riefings presidents get on their first day in office, apparently can change anyone into a defense hawk.

  • yep