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This is the ultimate semi-arbitrary ranking of American presidents

Diego Cambiaso

It's President's Day! Perhaps America's least distinguished holiday, but an excellent time for lists. Specifically lists of presidents. The cohorts are more important than the ordinal rankings here.

The all-time greats

These are the guys who steered the country through times of crisis and let it endure and improve. George Washington established the tradition of republican governance and peaceful transfers of power. Lincoln prevented the country from literally collapsing. And Roosevelt preserved democracy at a troubled time through his decisive rescue of the economy, and then led the country to victory in the Second World War.

1. George Washington

2. Abraham Lincoln

3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

The good ones

These presidents created major elements of the American welfare state, forged its foreign policy tradition, and turned the state from an enemy into an ally in the fight for racial justice.

4. Ulysses Grant

5. John Adams

6. Harry Truman

7. Dwight Eisenhower

8. George H.W. Bush

9. Lyndon Johnson

10. Barack Obama

They did fine

These are your run of the mill presidents. Some of them are very well-regarded because of an economic boom, while others are held in low regard due to poor economic performance. Some are obscure and some are famous. But all basically left the country in the same fundamental shape that they found it.

11. Theodore Roosevelt

12. Bill Clinton

13. Warren Harding

14. William McKinley

15. Thomas Jefferson

16. James Monroe

17. John Quincy Adams

18. James Madison

19. William Howard Taft

20. Zachary Taylor

21. Gerald Ford

22. Jimmy Carter

23. Calvin Coolidge

24. Chester A. Arthur

25. Benjamin Harrison

26. Grover Cleveland

27. Rutherford B. Hayes

28. Martin Van Buren

29. John F. Kennedy

30. John Tyler

Very consequential, not always in good ways

These are guys who in terms of pure "greatness" should clearly rank above the earlier cohort of presidents. Big things happened under their watch, and if I liked the big things that they did I would consider them great presidents.

31. Ronald Reagan

32. Woodrow Wilson

33. Andrew Jackson

34. James K. Polk


These guys died really soon after taking office. Harrison has at least been granted the dignity of famously dying really quickly. Garfield's six-month span in office before being assassinated is simply forgotten. Getting shot and killed by a patronage-hungry office-seeker actually helped inspire an important civil service reform in the next administration, but it's hard to give a guy credit for getting shot.

35. William Henry Harrison

36. James A. Garfield

Laid the groundwork for civil war

From 1850 to 1860 the country was governed by a series of three presidents whose big idea was to forestall civil war by appeasing the South and buttressing the institution of slavery. It was immoral and it didn't work.

37. Millard Fillmore

38. Franklin Pierce

39. James Buchanan

True, epic disasters

In different ways, these three presidents all managed to totally wreck the economy. Nixon's inflation wasn't as bad as the other two, but he gets extra demerits for also shredding the constitution.

40. George W. Bush

41. Herbert Hoover

42. Richard Nixon

The worst

Jamelle Bouie has a good piece on this, but basically Johnson's deep-seated commitment to white supremacy ended up giving back a huge share of what had been accomplished during the Civil War.

43. Andrew Johnson

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