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Biden is the 14th best US president and Trump was the worst, according to a poll of historians

Abraham Lincoln heads the new edition of a list made with the opinions of 154 academics and experts

Biden best US president
Joe Biden and Donald Trump.Getty / Reuters
Miguel Jiménez

If the presidents of the United States were chosen by historians, Donald Trump would not have much of a chance of returning to the White House. That’s according to scholars who voted in the third edition of a poll conducted by professors Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston, and Justin S. Vaughn, an associate professor of political science at Coastal Carolina University. The survey places the current occupant of the White House, Joe Biden, in 14th place out of 45 presidents.

Rottinghaus and Vaughn’s initiative, called the Presidential Greatness Project Expert Survey, had low participation: 525 respondents were invited to participate, and 154 usable responses were received, yielding a 29.3% response rate. Respondents included current and recent members of the Presidents & Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association, which is the foremost organization of social science experts in presidential politics, as well as scholars who had recently published peer-reviewed academic research in key related scholarly journals or academic presses.

Historians and political scientists were asked to rate presidents from 0 to 100, where 0 is Failure and 100 is Great. Organizers noted that “the results of this ranking are quite similar to the results from our previous surveys (released in 2015 and 2018): Abraham Lincoln again tops the list (95.03 average), followed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (90.83), George Washington (90.32), Teddy Roosevelt (78.58), Thomas Jefferson (77.53), Harry Truman (75.34), Barack Obama (73.8) and Dwight Eisenhower (73.73). The most notable changes in this ordering are Franklin Delano Roosevelt moving up to #2 from the third spot last year, and Dwight Eisenhower falling back to #8 from #6 last year.” Except for Roosevelt, who was president when Mount Rushmore was sculpted, the other four presidents who top the list are those whose faces are reflected on the South Dakota monument.

Donald Trump is the worst rated (10.92) by experts, behind even James Buchanan (16.71), the president who failed to avert the Civil War. Although respondents have a certain progressive bias, there is a strong consensus that Trump was a terrible leader. By partisan affiliation, both Democratic and independent historians consider him the worst president ever, while Republicans place him in 41st place, leaving Buchanan in last place. Something similar occurs in terms of respondents’ ideology: experts who identify themselves as progressive or moderate placed Trump last and those who define themselves as conservative ranked him 43rd, again with Buchanan placing dead last.

Biden ranked 14th place with 62.66 points, behind John F. Kennedy (10th), Barack Obama (7th) and Bill Clinton (12th), but ahead of Ronald Reagan (16th), George H. W. Bush (19th), George W. Bush (32nd) and Donald Trump (45th).

Biden’s good showing is due in large part to the fact that he kicked Trump out of the White House. “Biden’s most important achievements may be that he rescued the presidency from Trump, resumed a more traditional style of presidential leadership and is gearing up to keep the office out of his predecessor’s hands this fall,” wrote Vaughn and Rottinghaus in a column published in the Los Angeles Times.

The opinion of political scientists and historians is, however, very different from the opinion of ordinary citizens, according to polls that give Biden the lowest approval rating for a president since Jimmy Carter. Furthermore, his age (81 years) and mental acuity have become causes of concern, even for supporters of his own party.

Biden and Trump are the most likely candidates for next November’s presidential election. Most polls are giving Trump an advantage for now, both in the popular vote of the country as a whole and in the decisive states. It is unclear what role Trump’s indictments and trials may have in the campaign. So far, the court cases have worked in his favor among grassroots Republican voters, and Trump seems on track to secure the nomination in the primaries. It is less clear what the effect of seeing him sitting in the dock, or even of a hypothetical conviction, would be among independent, moderate and undecided voters.

Republicans and conservatives feel that George Washington was the best president, ahead of Lincoln, a favorite of the Democrats, independents, progressives and moderates. There is a great difference of opinion based on ideology about many of the recent presidents (Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Obama and Biden). In the case of the current president, the Democrats rank him 13th place; independents rank him 19th and Republicans put him in 30th place.

“In the first post-Trump survey, we see a significant bump for recent Democratic presidents with each one moving up in the rankings while each of the recent Republican presidents dropped down, with the exception of President Trump who remained at the bottom of the rankings,” Vaughn said in a statement released by the University of Houston.

“As presidential scholars reassess the impact of the modern presidency from administrative and cultural standpoints, we see significant shifts over time in what constitutes presidential greatness,” Rottinghaus added.

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