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OpEdge: Ranking the Presidents Since World War II

Marc Jampole
July 8, 2014
by Marc Jampole obama-michelle-floor-630 A RECENT Quinnipiac University poll found that a sampling of about 1,300 Americans rank Ronald Reagan as our best president since World War II and Barack Obama as the worst — just nosing out that supreme incompetent, George W. Bush. I’m not sure what goes into the thinking of most people, but if we judge the presidents on the good and bad they did, the direction into which they guided the country, and the competence with which they led, Reagan should rank as the third worst president since World War II — and alas, also the third worst president ever. Let’s start with our worst president since Roosevelt and also our worst president of all time — and it’s not even close. Harry Truman earns this dubious distinction by virtue of ordering the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. People make excuses for these barbarous acts, which led to the slaughter of the largest and second largest number of human beings in a day’s time in recorded history. Apologists say that Truman saved more American lives than the bombs took, which is absurd on the surface, since Japan was already reeling and had already proposed virtually the same terms that they took at the final surrender. Estimates range from 150,000 to 250,000 killed by the only two atom bombs ever used on human beings. How could subduing Japan with conventional airstrikes of munitions factories and military bases taken as many lives? The almost smarmy assertion that dropping the bombs saved lives also neglects the fact that the American lives supposedly saved were soldiers, whereas most of those actually killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were neither soldiers nor workers in war factories, but innocent civilians. Outside of dropping the bombs, Truman’s record is pretty shabby: He helped to start the Cold War. He selected nuclear power over solar as the primary energy source for the government to support. He nationalized steel factories to stop a strike. He let Joe McCarthy walk all over the country and tacitly approved the Red scare. LET’S MOVE ON to Bush II. Rating George W. Bush as a worse president than Ronald Reagan is a tough call, because they are the two ideologues most responsible for the economic mess we’re in. In a sense, Bush II completed the Reagan revolution. But Bush II led an incompetent regime that pretty much botched everything it touched. His team was asleep at the wheel when the 9/11 attacks hit. The response included two of the most ill-conceived and expensive wars in history, two wars that destabilized the powder keg that is the Middle East and led to a worldwide loss of trust in and respect for the United States. Bush II established a torture gulag across the globe and a spy state at home. Bush II tax cuts starved the country of much needed funds to invest in the future and help the needy. His handling of Hurricane Katrina displayed both incompetence and disregard for suffering. ANY DISCUSSION of Ronald Reagan should start with the fact that he and his team were traitors who should have been placed on trial for crimes against the United States. I’m referring to the deal with Iran that kept our hostages in captivity for months longer than they had to be, only so Reagan could defeat Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. What the Reagan Administration did for Iran in return seems unconscionable to a patriot: we sold weapons of warfare. And what did Reagan do with the money from arms sales to a country the president said was our enemy? He funded a civil war in Nicaragua. Even without this treachery, Reagan would still rank among our three worst presidents of all time. He was the leader of the turn in American politics around 1980 that has led us down a disastrous path. The economic plan of Reaganism called for and produced an enormous shift in wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy over a 30+ year period that continues. His game plan included all the reasons the rich have so much and the rest of us are struggling: lowering taxes on the wealthy and businesses; weakening laws that protect unions; privatizing government services; cutting social services; and gutting Social Security. Reagan also asked the country to stick its head in the ground ostrich-like and ignore how our fossil-fuel dependent economy was degrading the earth and threatening our future. NOW THAT WE HAVE disposed of the truly incompetent and/or evil presidents, I want to reverse the order of presentation by naming Lyndon Baines Johnson as the best president we have had since FDR. If not for the Vietnam War, Johnson would rank with Lincoln as our greatest of leaders. He passed the Civil Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid. He started food stamps, work study, Head Start and a slew of other anti-poverty programs that worked, no matter how much right-wingers want to rewrite history. He passed the most generous education bill and the strictest gun control law in American history. Under Johnson, the space program thrived and it was only a cruel twist of fate that postponed the first moon landing until early in Nixon’s first term. Of course there have always been stories afloat about Johnson fixing elections early in his career or practicing crony capitalism (as if any president since Andrew Jackson hasn’t?). But that he was essentially a decent man comes out again and again, and especially in that transcendent moment when he learned that the FBI was spying on Martin Luther King and he hit the roof and ordered it stopped immediately.This ultimate wielder of power knew better than most that power must be restrained in a free society. Unfortunately, the Vietnam War, which Johnson inherited from Eisenhower and Kennedy and bequeathed to Richard Nixon, crystallized all the contradictions of America’s Cold War policies: imperialism parading as idealism, exaggeration of the threat from the Soviet Union, and an inability to view the world from any other perspective except that of large multinational corporations. I don’t mean to absolve Johnson — he made the decisions to escalate and bomb and thereby helped to kill millions. It was a major flaw that disfigures Johnson as a historical figure and sullies the rest of his accomplishments. AFTER JOHNSON, I select two presidents who were pretty mediocre, but ruled over good times, made no enormous blunders, and led competent administrations that did a fairly good job of running the country on a day-to-day basis and responding to the occasional disaster. If you read the labels most pundits put on these two men, you would think they were miles apart of political spectrum, but if you instead review their stands, you find them fairly close indeed. Both were centrist on social policy and both continued the imperialistic foreign policy that has guided the country since Roosevelt. I’m talking about stodgy Republican Dwight Eisenhower and rock-star Democrat Bill Clinton. I personally favor Clinton because he tried to pass single-payer health insurance and presided over a relative shrinking of the U.S. military and U.S. militarism. How is it possible that the evil genius of Richard Nixon can rank as high as fourth among recent presidents? His illegal actions in Southeast Asia and extension of the Vietnam War were disgraceful. His dirty tricks and domestic spying shook the country by being the first visible signs that technology and centralized power could quickly reduce us to a police state. But Nixon also opened China, set wage and price controls, continued Johnson’s poverty and education programs, and established the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He also ran a competent administration that responded with reason and rationality to most challenges — except, unfortunately, the war and Nixon’s political intrigues. Nixon was a despicable human being by virtually all accounts, so it’s a little painful to rate him above four essentially likable men, none of whom had the competence to pursue their agendas: Carter, Obama, Kennedy, and Ford. I find parts of the vision of all four of these men problematic: Carter was in favor of globalization without protections for U.S. workers or the environment. Obama is basically a pro-business, anti-union liberal who shares the consensus view that the United States should have special rights in world affairs. Kennedy was a militaristic cold-warrior who fervently believed in cutting taxes on his economic class, the ultra wealthy. Ford basically was a continuation of Eisenhower and Nixon, a pro-business cold-warrior open to compromise with progressives on social issues. None of these men had a great impact because none knew how to work the system like Johnson or Nixon. That leaves us with Bush I, who is to Reagan what Ford is to Nixon-Eisenhower, a continuation. Bush I was a little more effective than Carter or Obama, but his policies kept us down the path to greater inequality. Here, then is the OpEdge ranking of presidents since 1945. Of these 12 white males, only three would rank in the top half of all our presidents. Again, I rate the bottom three as the three most disastrous presidencies in American history:
  1. Lyndon Johnson
  2. Bill Clinton
  3. Dwight Eisenhower
  4. Richard Nixon
  5. Jimmy Carter
  6. Barack Obama
  7. John F. Kennedy
  8. Gerald Ford
  9. Bush I
  10. Ronald Reagan
  11. Bush II
  12. Harry Truman
IT’S THE TIMES that usually make the man or woman, and not the other way around. These men represented ideas that those with wealth and influence found attractive. Donors, their parties and the think tanks funded by big individual and corporate money shaped their views. It was General Electric money, after all, that helped turn Ronald Reagan from a New Dealer to the symbol of the politics of selfishness. None of these men would have found support if they didn’t buy into the basic premises of American foreign policy over the past century. Since World War II we have made three major wrong turns as a country: The first was to create the Cold War and continue to assert America’s divine right to intervene anywhere around the world at any time. The second was to ignore the threat of environmental degradation and resource shortages and build our economy on wasteful consumerism powered by fossil fuels. The third was to turn our back on the mixed-model social democracy that we began to establish from 1932-1976 or so and return to economic rules that favored the interests of the wealthy over everyone else’s. We probably would have taken these treacherous paths no matter who we had elected president. Marc Jampole, a member of the Jewish Currents editorial board, is the author of Music from Words (Bellday Books, 2007), a poetry collection. He is a public relations executive and former television news reporter who blogs regularly at and at his blog, OpEdge.