News & Politics

Obama Debuts High on Historians’ List of Best Presidents

Photograph via the White House.

Barack Obama is off to a good start in the history books, according to a C-SPAN survey of 91 presidential historians released today. He ranks as our 12th-best president—24 spots ahead of where George W. Bush debuted. The last survey was in 2009.

Edna Greene Medford, a member of C-SPAN’s advisory team, thought Obama would have done even better. Medford said in a press release that she was surprised he ranked “8th in economic management (despite having helped to save the auto industry and significantly reducing unemployment).” Fellow advisory team member Douglas Brinkley called Obama’s showing “quite impressive,” and said it was good news for George W. Bush that he rose from No. 36 to No. 33.

Of other recent presidents, Bill Clinton held tight at No. 15, George H.W. Bush dropped from No. 18 to No. 20, Jimmy Carter dropped one spot to No. 26, and Ronald Reagan moved up a notch, from 10 to 9.

The top of the list hasn’t changed since the last survey in 2009. Few will be surprised to see that Abraham Lincoln maintained his crown. George Washington and FDR are still No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, as well.

The bottom of the list is similar too. James Buchanan remains our worst president. He doesn’t seem to have been better at predictions either. “Posterity will do me justice,” Buchanan said from his deathbed. “History will vindicate my memory from every unjust aspersion.” Maybe next time will be his year.

And in a sign that historians may have President Trump on their minds: Andrew Jackson was this year’s biggest loser. Jackson, the original champion of the white working class, fell from No. 13 to No. 18. Trump might appreciate that Jackson ranks seventh in public persuasion. When it comes to pursuing equal justice for all, on the other hand, Jackson finishes a dismal 38th.

C-SPAN’s next survey will likely come out after Donald Trump leaves office. 

Below are the full rankings.

  1. Abraham Lincoln:
  2. George Washington
  3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
  4. Theodore Roosevelt
  5. Dwight Eisenhower
  6. Harry Truman
  7. Thomas Jefferson
  8. John F. Kennedy
  9. Ronald Reagan
  10. Lyndon Johnson
  11. Woodrow Wilson
  12. Barack Obama
  13. James Monroe
  14. James Polk
  15. Bill Clinton
  16. William McKinley
  17. James Madison
  18. Andrew Jackson
  19. John Adams
  20. George H. W. Bush
  21. John Quincy Adams
  22. Ulysses Grant
  23. Grover Cleveland
  24. William Howard Taft
  25. Gerald Ford
  26. Jimmy Carter
  27. Calvin Coolidge
  28. Richard Nixon
  29. James Garfield
  30. Benjamin Harrison
  31. Zachary Taylor
  32. Rutherford Hayes
  33. George W. Bush
  34. Martin Van Buren
  35. Chester Arthur
  36. Herbert Hoover
  37. Millard Fillmore
  38. William Henry Harrison
  39. John Tyler
  40. Warren Harding
  41. Franklin Pierce
  42. Andrew Johnson
  43. James Buchanan

Editorial fellow

Noah Lanard is an editorial fellow. Before Washingtonian, he freelanced for the Guardian, Fusion, and Vice in Mexico City. He was born in DC, grew up in New Jersey, and went to college in Montreal.