Who are the best and worst U.S. presidents of the last 100 or so years? Anytime a historian is asked this question, they will typically cite the most interventionist – foreign and domestic – chief executive as the nation’s greatest. This is evident in a myriad of scholarly presidential rankings, with former Presidents Lyndon Baines Johnson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson always cracking the top 10.
But why? Historians, as well as the public, love it when presidents do something – whatever that something is doesn’t really matter. In other words, big government advocacy reigns supreme if you wish to be great. LBJ expanded the federal government, FDR overhauled the fabric of the country, and Wilson was a progressive and an internationalist – yet they’ve been lionized by the anointed.
These days, everyone expects the commander in chief, and every other politician, to be busy. To scholars, pundits, and voters, elected officials are required to come up with a solution to every problem plaguing society as if he were an omnipotent, all-knowing being. Every declared candidate for higher office needs a bold, comprehensive strategy to tackle climate change, the economy, and foreign policy. Indeed, modern-day politics is about being in a perpetual frenzy rather than normalcy and staying cool – the campaign slogans of former Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.
The Forgotten Presidents
Who were Harding and Coolidge? They were the country’s 29th and 30th presidents respectively, as well as being probably the least appreciated and most forgotten ones of the last century. Harding and Coolidge were two opposing personalities: the former was a playboy, while the latter was the silent type. But they both shared something in common: small government.
Harding would be described as a libertarian today. On economics, he cut and abolished taxes for individuals and corporations, resisted intervening in the recession of 1921 (that would be political suicide today), and cut the federal budget in half. On foreign policy, he was a non-interventionist: He slammed his predecessors’ meddling in Latin America, signed various peace treaties, pardoned 24 war opponents, and encouraged naval disarmament.
There were drawbacks to his administration, such as his cozy relationship with business and getting the government involved in the latest technologies, like the radio and the automobile. For the most part, though, he was a superior leader compared to most of his successors.
Coolidge is another president ignored by the intellectuals. Continuing the policies of his predecessor, Coolidge slashed and burned taxes, kept federal spending flat, and paid down the national debt. He eventually carved out his own legacy of opposing business subsidies, federal flood controls, and foreign interventions – he considered the 1920 election a national rejection of Wilsonian ideas.
What made Coolidge vastly different from his contemporaries was his decision to not seek re-election in 1928, telling reporters: “If I take another term, I will be in the White House till 1933 … Ten years in Washington is longer than any other man has had it—too long!” If only the politicians heeded his advice.
If any chief occupant of the White House today, especially of the leftist persuasion, oversaw record economic growth, new society-changing technologies, and genuine fiscal responsibility without any significant public policy tools, they would be deemed the greatest of all-time.
So, it is befuddling to think that Harding and Coolidge are typically absent in these discussions. What could be the reasons for their not making it to the top 10 lists of historians’ surveys?
It can’t be because of racism. They may not have been as “woke” as people are today, but they certainly were not racists. Warren supported anti-lynching legislation, advocated for racial equality, and requested his Cabinet to find employment positions for black Americans. Coolidge detested the Ku Klux Klan, stressed tolerance for minorities, and declared blacks’ rights “just as sacred as those of any other citizen.”
Scandals? The Teapot Dome bribery scandal and Harding’s playboy nature hurt his administration, but these incidents paled in comparison to what’s happened regularly in the Oval Office over the last few decades. Coolidge was the silent type who kept to himself and did not have any obvious improprieties of his own.
In the end, it could just be because they were effective without the imperial presidency, which contradicts everything today’s academic men and women have been taught and what they teach: only government can make us prosperous.
Recently, Siena College Research released its sixth presidential ranking since 1982. Unsurprisingly, it did not give President Donald Trump glowing remarks, placing him as the third worst president of all time, behind Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan. Of course, the survey of 157 scholars probably would have liked to rank him at the bottom in U.S. history, but that would have been embarrassingly hyperbolic.
Since the first day President Trump entered the Oval Office, the experts have proclaimed that the real estate billionaire mogul is the worst, or one of the worst presidents ever. Two years later, despite several victories, Trump is still considered “the worst president we’ve ever had,” according to former Senator Harry Reid (D-NV).
Unfortunately, this is only too common. Every generation likes to think they’re witnessing something unique and historic when they make these bold claims. Republicans did it with Barack Obama, the Democrats did it with George W. Bush, and so on. While it is easy to declare someone as the most abominable thing since the Ice Capades, it is important to afford some time before announcing to the world that the current president is the worst president … until the next one, that is.
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