WASHINGTON — Donald Trump beat the odds to become the 44th U.S. president in 2016. He’s starting in an even bigger hole when it comes to his place in history, according to a new poll. A panel of historians and political observers has released their fourth ever survey ranking presidential leadership among all the former commanders-in-chief. In his debut on the poll, Trump ranks 41st overall, the lowest-ranked living president.
The survey, conducted by C-SPAN, has been ranking every president on their leadership skills since 2000 and has put out a new poll after every change in office. In this new survey, the C-SPAN panel gave Trump his highest marks for “Public Persuasion” (32nd) and “Economic Management” (34th). However, the former president ranked last in “Moral Authority and Administrative Skills.”
Who makes the ‘Mount Rushmore’ of leadership?
Just like in 2000, 2009, and 2017, Abraham Lincoln ranks as the greatest president in terms of leadership qualities. George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Theodore Roosevelt also remained in the top five for the fourth straight poll. Rounding out that group, Dwight Eisenhower finished fifth for the second straight time.
Experts says, for the most part, presidents from the distant past tend to stay where they are on the poll with little change. Living presidents, however, tend to bounce around the list as partisan viewpoints typically cloud their reputations right after they leave the White House, before historians become more objective later on.
“What stands out to me here is the stability,” says presidential historian Richard Norton Smith in a media release. “It’s interesting, particularly at the top and bottom of the list, how little significant movement there has been. By contrast, the living presidents seem much more likely to fluctuate. It’s almost as if there was a boomerang effect where historians go overboard a bit when presidents leave office and they are at the nadir of their partisan reputation, and then they graduate to a less political status.”
Moving on up
One notable exception to this rule is President Ulysses S. Grant. The famous Civil War general has jumped 13 spots since the poll’s debut, from number 33 in 2000 to number 20 in 2021.
“Grant is having his Hamilton moment,” says Rice University professor Dr. Douglas Brinkley.
Also moving up the list are George W. Bush — going from 33rd in 2017 to 29th — and Barack Obama, breaking into the top 10 this year. On the other hand, Bill Clinton fell four spots from 15th to 19th. It’s worth noting all three men are part of the group of living presidents and the three most recent presidents after Trump.
Experts also believe the shadow of impeachment also hurt Presidents Trump and Clinton in this year’s survey.
“This year, people compared which is worse: Watergate or the Trump impeachment? The word ‘impeachment’ probably cost Nixon a few spots downward this year, and maybe Clinton too,” Brinkley adds.
Looking more at equality and justice through the years
When it comes to who’s making these judgments about the nation’s former leaders, C-SPAN notes they expanded their panel this year to put more emphasis on diversity in race, gender, age, and philosophy.
“C-SPAN’s success in assembling a truly diverse group of historians and professional observers of the presidency only strengthens an already strong poll,” says Amity Shlaes, chairman of the Calvin Coolidge Foundation.
The 142-person group made the greatest changes to the ranks in the “Pursued Equal Justice for All” category. Making the largest gains include Presidents Grant (+12), Coolidge (+10), Taft (+7), and Harding (+7). Presidents Wilson (-17), Jefferson (-9), Monroe (-9), and Nixon (-9) suffered the biggest drops in this one category.
“Despite the fact that we’ve become more aware of the historical implications of racial injustice in this country and we’re continuing to grapple with those issues, we still have slaveholding presidents at or near the top of the list. So even though we may be a bit more enlightened about race today, we are still discounting its significance when evaluating these presidents,” says Howard University’s Dr. Edna Greene Medford.