I think it is fair to judge Donald Trump’s presidency now that Trump’s presidency has far exceeded the length of William Henry Harrison’s presidency, allowing some time for him to make an impact on our country.
It is first necessary to address the worst presidents from the past and then to determine what makes a bad president among the worst presidents.
Candidates for worst president include the usual suspects and those in approximate range of the worst, James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, John Tyler, Warren G. Harding, Millard Fillmore, US Grant, Andrew Johnson, George W. Bush, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, Martin Van Buren, Chester A. Arthur, William Henry Harrison, James Garfield, Zachary Taylor, Rutherford B. Hayes, Gerald Ford, Benjamin Harrison, and Calvin Coolidge. All of these presidents have been ranked among the worst since the first major presidential ranking was made in 1948. For the sake of this blog, I will throw in Donald Trump. Thus, we have about 19 failed presidents of 45 presidents, or 42% of our presidents.
As 19 presidents are too much to evaluate, let me decrease the list by eliminating those that are more often listed as “below average” (Hayes, Ford, Carter, BHarrison, Coolidge, Arthur, Van Buren, Grant), those that are sometimes not ranked at all (WH Harrison and Garfield). This leaves me with a list of 10 presidents to work with, including Trump.
How Should a President be Evaluated?
I think Siena and CSPAN, both which have ranked presidents a few times have a good system for ranking presidents, but I need to greatly amend it, since some of the categorized areas are much more important than others, and they shouldn’t be weighed equally. Some of the areas are very unimportant, such as “background,” which is something that can contribute to success or failure, but isn’t success or failure in itself. I’ve also added some categories of my own.
The ten presidents will be judged in the following 13 equally crucial categories for success and failure: Party Leadership, Relations with Congress, Executive Appointments, Court Appointments, Economic Management, Ability to Compromise, Avoid Crucial Mistakes, Foreign Policy Accomplishments, Domestic Accomplishments, Moral Authority, Pursuing Equal Justice, Support of the People during Presidency, and Established Peace & Tranquility. However, I will only elaborate on James Buchanan, often considered the worst president of the ten.
James Buchanan, likely the worst president
Party Leadership (PL): F – His major blunder was his failure to attempt to keep his party together, as it split between Northern and Southern Democrats.
Relations with Congress (RC): D – For the most part, his party had control of Congress; although, he lost the senate. He used the veto only 7 times and was never overruled. However, he made little effort to prevent the sectional fighting within Congress.
Executive Appointments (EA): F – Several of his appointments left to join the Confederacy, while some directly or indirectly aided the South before disowning the United States. He did punish any questionable behavior, as he seemed unsure of what to do during the crisis in general.
Court Appointments (CA): D – His one Supreme Court appointment, Nathan Clifford, was fairly solid and served twenty years after Buchanan’s presidency ended. Several of his lower federal court appointments left to join the Confederacy, however.
Economic Management (EM): F – His willingness to allow the South to secede devastated the economic power of the country, since cotton, sugar, tobacco and lumber were all profitable to export and trade. In addition to this, Buchanan presided during the Panic of 1857, which was the first worldwide economic panic. Buchanan did little to stop it, and the economic downturn, felt mostly in the North, continued until the Civil War.
Ability to Compromise (AC): D – Buchanan’s strict Constitutionalism made it so that he preferred disastrous indecision to compromised action, which under the unusual circumstances may have been preferable. He did, however, compromise within the sectional divisions in his party, attempting to give equal justice to both Northern and Southern Democrats.
Avoid Crucial Mistakes (AM): F – I need not elaborate.
Foreign Policy Accomplishments (FA): F – As the South seceded, the reputation of the United States was severely damaged abroad. Prior to the war, major economies such as Great Britain and France saw the US as a young economic power on the verge of steamrolling by the end of the century. As such, the threat of economic powers aiding the Confederacy in an effort to weaken a threatening competitor became a real possibility. Buchanan, however, was somewhat successful in asserting US sovereignty in Central America and in the Caribbean; although, his methods were controversial since he bullied the weaker countries into complying with US policy. Buchanan’s attempt to annex Cuba failed, however.
Domestic Accomplishments (DA): F – I need not elaborate
Moral Authority (MA): F – Buchanan refused to be much of an authority in any sense. While he was not naturally an immoral person, his methods for handling foreign affairs, abolitionists, slaves seeking freedom, Americans in economic distress was among the worst examples we have. His sole major moral stance was his unwillingness to initiate the Civil War, since he felt he had no constitutional authority to prevent secession, while believing that the states abandoning the Union were committing the unconstitutional act of seceding. Buchanan’s argument is weak, and he likely wanted to wait for Lincoln to deal with it.
Pursuing Equal Justice (EJ): F – This bites into his domestic accomplishments as well. He supported the Dred Scott Decision and the Slave-holder’s Lecompton Constitution for Kansas, which was pushed by only a minority of those in Kansas. Like Pierce, he believed those seeking equal justice–the abolitionist–were much more of a problem for American than the institution of slavery was to the country.
Support of the People during Presidency (SP): F – Had approval ratings existed in 1860, Buchanan would have easily been a sub-35er, as the entirety of Republican-leaning voters would have certainly been against him, as would likely half of the Northern Democrats, if not more. The majority of his support would have been in the South, which was leaving the country during the end of his presidency. On top of this, Buchanan did not seek reelection, and almost definitely would not have won renomination by his own party had he sought it.
Established Peace & Tranquility (PT): F – I need not elaborate.
As we can see, it would be very difficult to make the argument of that Trump is the worst president. However, where does he rank among the worst?
President PL RC EA CA EM AC AM FA DA MA EJ SP PT Average Grade
Tyler F F D F D F F C F D F F D F (w/1 C)
Buchanan F D F D F D F F F F F F F F (w/ 3 D’s)
Pierce F C D F C D F D F F F F F F (w/ 2 C’s)
Fillmore F D C C C B D D D F F F C D (w/ 1 B & 4 F’s)
A. Johnson F F C F C F F F F F D F D F (w/ 2 C’s)
Harding D B C B D B F D F F C C B D (w/ 4 B’s & 3 F’s)
Hoover D B D B F B D D D C C F D D (w/ 3 B’s & 2 F’s)
Nixon C C D D D B D B C F C D D D (w/ 2 B’s & 1 F)
Bush II C C D C F D F F D C D D F F (w/ 4 C’s)
Trump D D D C C D F F F F F D D F (w/ 2 C’s)
Conclusion: Trump’s Current Placement
Trump’s current grade is mostly affected by his limited time in office. He has time to improve, but should his presidency end today, he would likely rank only above James Buchanan (easily the worst), Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, and John Tyler. Thus, the 5th worst president.
Trump receives his highest grade in court appointments and economic management. He has coasted on Obama’s economic success, and has not appeared to have undermined it at this point. Gorsuch’s nomination, while controversial in it’s design, was more a mar on the reputation of the Republican legislature, and not on Trump. Gorsuch, despite one’s ideology, is a qualified and experienced judge.
Trump’s F’s are in accomplishments, both domestic and foreign, since he’s done little of anything. As a lightning rod for leaks and scandal, he gets an F for Avoiding Crucial Mistakes. Trump also receives an F for a reversal in Pursue Equal Justice for All, and another F for possibly having the least Moral Authority, possibly surpassing Nixon’s reputation for lack of integrity.
Overall, President Trump is hardly the worst president, but he ranks fairly close at the moment. Having just started his presidency, Trump, a political rookie at age 70, has plenty of time to fall one way or the other should he seek to learn from himself, from others that came before him, and those much more experienced, capable and knowledgeable around him.