C-SPAN released their latest power rankings of American presidents past and, for the first time, Barack Obama has taken his place in the lineup. 91 professional historians and other observers of the presidency participated in the 2017 survey, where they ranked the 43 men who have concluded their service in the highest office in the United States government.
Obama came in hot, landing at number 12 on the list. He scored highly on public persuasion, moral authority, and the pursuit of justice and equality for all. He was held back by a middling international relations score and the sixth-worst score for relations with Congress. Lincoln retained his number one spot for the third time in as many C-SPAN surveys, a fitting position for the man who guided a then-young republic through a devastating civil war.
Obama’s mediocre rating on international relations is understandable. He focused much of his energy resetting the tone of U.S. foreign policy after George W. Bush’s tenure in office (who ranks in the bottom three for the same category), focusing on thawing relations with the isolated island nation of Cuba and the Islamic Republic of Iran. His efforts with the latter, which culminated in the Iran nuclear deal, angered the leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Obama’s support for demonstrators during the Arab Spring also strained U.S. relationships with autocratic leaders that previously had solid support from the White House when sufficiently deferential.
Obama’s relationship with Congress was certainly weak at times, though it pains me to see his ranking suffer as a result. It’s a fact that Mitch McConnell and other congressional Republicans intended to obstruct and oppose Obama whenever possible. Ted Cruz and other hardliners were willing to shut down the government and ignore their duty to grant hearings to people put forward to fill important roles, including Judge Merrick Garland. Much of the furor and obstructionism was sustained by Tea Party candidates, who rode waves of racism and made unrealistic promises to get to office. To be fair, presidents must figure out a way to work with Congress in order to achieve any part of their agenda. However, it’s hard to see what Obama could have done differently without abandoning so many of the things that made him popular.
The top three presidents according to the survey are all very deserving. FDR led the country through the Great Depression, and sustained an alliance with Great Britain and future arch-rival U.S.S.R. in order to defeat the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan. In doing so, he set the stage for the American world order. Washington showed tremendous wisdom in avoiding entanglement in partisan politics, and his wisdom reverberates even today. Lincoln, as mentioned, guided the country through its darkest era. He brought an end to slavery, easily the worst legacy of the nation.
Reagan is easily the most overrated name on this list. He’s creeped up to ninth place after starting eleventh. There’s no doubting his charisma and ability to win over voters, but his was an administration full of questionable activities and irresponsible spending. He sold weapons to Iran, and set a presidential record with 138 officials convicted, indicted or investigated. That’s some legacy! He also gets credit for “defeating” the Soviet Union, even though nobody expected the U.S.S.R. to collapse when it did. Thus, I’d consider him a fortunate bystander who was merely in the right place at the right time. He’s certainly not the worst, but stop it with the top-ten placement. He doesn’t deserve it.
It’s also interesting to note that George W. Bush advanced three spaces since the last survey was completed in 2009. It’s possible that the historians, like many of us, are looking at the current administration and regretting how we made that guy sound like the worst leader we could ever hope to have.