The List: 6 presidents, ranked from best to worst



1. Jimmy Carter

Editor in Chief Brian Clarey and I came to a consensus about this ranking in 30 seconds, so take it with a grain of salt, but it does say something we agreed immediately without any argument, and trust me, it’s practically in my DNA to push back against my boss.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency is regarded as a political punchline by some. Introducing Donald Trump in January, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. drew a parallel to his father, televangelist Jerry Falwell’s support for Ronald Reagan. “After all, Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday school teacher,” the younger Falwell snickered, “but look what happened to our nation with him in the presidency. Sorry.”

Actually, Carter was the best president of my lifetime. He brought humility to the office, walking barefoot on the White House grounds with the Allman Brothers. He brought a human-rights emphasis to US foreign policy, and while the energy crisis was admittedly a difficult period for the country, Carter called for a new spirit of modesty that sounds prophetic more than 30 years later. The peace agreement Carter brokered between Israel and Egypt was monumental. And his post-presidential advocacy for international human rights and free elections is a model.

2. Barack Obama

Obama runs a close second to Carter. He is one of the smartest presidents in recent history, and his intellectualism was a refreshing change from the national dumbing-down of the previous eight years with W in the White House. Beyond the significance of being the first black president, Obama promoted a sense of inclusion that redefined patriotism, building a political coalition of Americans of color, women and young people. LGBTQ people made significant advances under Obama’s leadership, with the lifting of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the president’s declaration of support for same-sex marriage. Obama’s use of drones to liquidate suspected terrorists is somewhat troubling, and muddled economic policies did nothing to curb the excesses of Wall Street or halt the march of income inequality, but the most of the failures of Obama’s presidency can be laid at the feet of the obstructionist Republican Congress.

3. George HW Bush

The elder Bush doesn’t get a lot of love from either Republicans or Democrats, and I for one was not a fan of the Panama and Iraq invasions. That said, he deserves credit for skillfully managing the transition from the end of the Cold War, and promoting a multilateral approach to foreign policy that was sadly discarded by his son.

4. Bill Clinton

Let’s see: The North American Free Trade Agreement hastened the deterioration of manufacturing jobs. The 1994 crime bill ramped up mass incarceration. The 1996 welfare-reform bill slashed the social safety net for people who were already reeling from the transition from manufacturing to the service economy. Also in 1996, Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, barring same-sex married couples from receiving federal benefits; it was thankfully struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. Yes, it’s true that the 1990s were a time of unprecedented prosperity, but the tech bubble set the stage for a recession that would hit shortly after Clinton left office.

5. Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan promoted a bellicose foreign policy that risked a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union. His mean-spirited stance towards the poor coincided with an epidemic of homelessness. And his refusal to publicly acknowledge and address HIV/AIDS makes him complicit in the deaths of thousands of homosexuals and intravenous-drug users. The national debt soared, while households ran up unsustainable personal debt as part of a national culture of immediate gratification and conspicuous consumption. Meanwhile, masses of white working-class voters defected from the Democratic Party, attracted by the feel-good, rah-rah, “we’re No. 1!” sentiment of the Reagan brand. Much of the empty symbolism of the 2016 Republican primary contest can be traced back to the political currents that swept Reagan into office.

6. George W. Bush

Until the emergence of Donald Trump, George W. Bush represented the ultimate dumbing down of American politics, playing the role of the Methodist church tee-ball coach, mildly religious with and with a slight temper. As the ultimately political cipher, Bush said during the 2000 election: “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us; if we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us,” adding that the United States needed to maintain a humble posture. And then, of course, he plunged the United States into a disastrous and unnecessary war in Iraq that ran up the national debt, weakened our international standing and needlessly spilled the blood of American service members and Iraqi civilians. And the Bush administration’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina was a national scandal.