Ali’s blog

Mostly quant stuff with occasional digressions

The worst and the best US presidents

Posted by alifinmath on January 29, 2008

A Norwegian professor’s judgement in a Norwegian newspaper:


Two members of the Republican party landed as both the worst and the best presidents. Bush, in Moen’s opinion, is the worst.

“His administration stands for a dangerous blend of arrogance and ignorance,” Moen told A-magasinet, claiming that Bush has lacked an ability to listen to and cooperate with other heads of state, and with the US Congress.

Moen cited the invasion of Iraq, the resulting chaos that has erupted in the country and the intelligence reports that Bush’s basis for the invasion (alleged weapons of mass destruction) didn’t exist. Bush also defied international opinion on a host of other issues, from the Kyoto agreement to rules for an international court, and his tax measures have widened the gap between rich and poor.

A federal budget surplus inherited from the Clinton administration has turned into a huge deficit and now the US is widely believed to be heading into a recession. Bush’s approval ratings are currently at a low point in the US, but Bush himself has indicated that he doesn’t care about his legacy.


Quite right. Bush doesn’t give a tinker’s cuss about his legacy. This is a man who could order the detonation of a nuclear device among a civilian population and not feel  even a twinge of compunction or responsibility. It would be interesting to know whether he’s taken a single policy decision on his own or whether he’s been following instructions at each and every step. Still, as I always maintain, a country gets the “leaders” and government it deserves.

I understand there’s an ongoing debate among presidential scholars on whether Bush is the worst the US has ever had. I suppose a consensus will be reached once he slinks back to Texas. But one must bear in mind that he was re-elected: it speaks volumes about the USA today.


Moen’s choice for the “next-worst” US president is James Buchanan, a Democrat, whose term ran from 1857-1861 and who is often called the father of the American Civil War. Buchanan is followed by Warren G Harding, a Republican who was president in the early 1920s and whose isolationist policies destabilized the world economy and helped fuel Germany’s desire for military revenge.

Moen chose Calvin Coolidge, president from 1923-27) who continued an isolationist strategy, as the fourth-worst president, and Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) as the fifth worst, because he allowed defeated southern states into the union without insisting that they reform themselves.

The Norwegian professor’s favorite president is Abraham Lincoln, also a Republican, who insisted on a government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” and who rose from a poor background to save a nation that had descended into civil war.

Franklin D Roosevelt is Moen’s choice as second-best president, for bringing the US out of the Depression, launching social reforms and leading the nation to victory in World War II. George Washington, the country’s first president, was ranked third-best, Thomas Jefferson fourth and Woodrow Wilson fifth.


I’m not so sure about this list of best presidents. I can’t stand the sanctimonious Wilson. And one of my favorites — Richard Nixon — isn’t on the list at all (I’m not joking). Nixon was arguably the most intellectual president of the 20th century — a man who slept with Spengler’s Decline of the West under his pillow. The president who increased arts and science funding, who created the Environmental Protection Agency, and who established diplomatic relations with Communist China.


3 Responses to “The worst and the best US presidents”

  1. nodoodahs said

    Geez, the author of that list is a historical know-nothing. Lincoln was not only the cause of the War of Northern Aggression, he was also quite possibly the worst president in our history.

    The “best” presidents are defined by the LACK of crises in their term in office; by the LACK of central government expansion; by the LACK of participation in foreign wars; and by growing financial weal in the overall country.

  2. alifinmath said

    I’m uncomfortable when people get idolised and I think this is what’s happened with Lincoln. As I understand it, the industrial North was lusting after the wealthy agrarian South. And additionally — excuse my poor knowledge of US history — a loose confederation of American states (which the South wanted to maintain) was giving way to a more centralised federal structure. Licoln made it clear that he was waging war to maintain the country as one, i.e., to prevent secession. As a consequence, the whole way of life of the largely English South came to an abrupt end, socially and economically.

    With regard to incompetence, I always thought Harding was the worst, but he’s been outdone by Bush, IMHO.

    At the moment, the USA is in the middle of various medium-term and long-term crises as it loses its economic grip and overall hegemony over the rest of the world. These aren’t the days of Eisenhower.

  3. nodoodahs said

    All wars are about power (political or personal) and money. There are NO other causes. EVER.

    If the South had seceded, then European textiles and industrial goods could have gotten to the emerging markets in the western part of the continent through ports like Mobile AL, Indianola TX (prominent before Galveston), Galveston, and New Orleans. They also would have avoided high tariffs, since the Confederacy would not have protectionist policies towards such goods, as they were produced in the northern United States.

    Keeping the South in the Union provided the following economic benefits to the war constituents: tariffs raised tax revenue and were protectionist of industry in the northern United States; a quicker ocean route to ports in the northeast would ensure that railroads moved the freight west (hey, wasn’t Lincoln a railroad lawyer before he was a president?), and the lack of internal tariffs in the United States would mean that the north got agricultural goods, like cotton for textiles, at a cheaper price.

    All about the money. Like every other war.

    The issue of slavery is an after-the-fact straw man argument. Read the Lincoln-Douglass debates, and you’ll see that “honest Abe” didn’t give one hoot about the plight of the slaves when running for office. Slavery was still legal in most northern states during and after the War. Every other major nation was able to abolish slavery peacefully over time, without divisive wars killing off hundreds of thousands of potentially productive youth and despoiling the economy for decades.

    Regarding incompetence, I would just as soon have an incompetent and inactive president as a compentent, active one, as the no amount of central government compentence can trump market solutions, and high levels of activity in the Oval Office have historically been a sign of future crises CAUSED by that activity.

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