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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Poll ranks Biden as 14th-best president, with Trump last



President Joe Biden arrives at Pittsburgh, en route to East Palestine, Ohio, on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. A new poll of historians coming out on Presidents’ Day weekend ranks Joe Biden as the 14th-best president in American history, just ahead of Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan, and Ulysses S. Grant. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

By Peter Baker


President Joe Biden has not had a lot of fun perusing polls lately. He has a lower approval rating than every president going back to Dwight Eisenhower at this stage of their tenures, and he trails former President Donald Trump in a fall rematch. But Biden can take solace from one survey in which he is way out in front of Trump.


A new poll of historians coming out on Presidents Day weekend ranks Biden as the 14th-best president in American history, just ahead of Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan and Ulysses S. Grant. While that may not get Biden a spot on Mount Rushmore, it certainly puts him well ahead of Trump, who places dead last as the worst president ever.


Indeed, Biden may owe his place in the top third in part to Trump. Although he has claims to a historical legacy by managing the end of the COVID pandemic; rebuilding the nation’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure; and leading an international coalition against Russian aggression, Biden’s signature accomplishment, according to the historians, was evicting Trump from the Oval Office.


“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 Justin Vaughn and Brandon Rottinghaus, the college professors who conducted the survey and announced the results in The Los Angeles Times.


Trump might not care much what a bunch of academics think, but for what it’s worth he fares badly even among the self-identified Republican historians. Finishing 45th overall, Trump trails even the mid-19th-century failures who blundered the country into a civil war or botched its aftermath like James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and Andrew Johnson.


Judging modern-day presidents, of course, is a hazardous exercise, one shaped by the politics of the moment and not necessarily reflective of how history will look a century from now. Even long-ago presidents can move up or down such polls depending on the changing cultural mores of the times the surveys are conducted.


For instance, Barack Obama, finishing at No. 7 this year, is up nine places since 2015, as is Grant, now ranked 17th. On the other hand, Andrew Jackson has fallen 12 places to 21st while Wilson (15th) and Reagan (16th) have each fallen five places.


At least some of that may owe to the increasing contemporary focus on racial justice. Obama, of course, was the nation’s first Black president, and Grant’s war against the Ku Klux Klan has come to balance out the corruption of his administration. But more attention today has focused on Jackson’s brutal campaigns against Native Americans and his “Trail of Tears” forced removal of Indigenous communities, and Wilson’s racist views and resegregation of parts of the federal government.


As usual, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson top the list, and historians generally share similar views of many presidents regardless of their own personal ideology or partisan affiliation. But some modern presidents generate more splits among the historians along party lines.


Among Republican scholars, for instance, Reagan finishes fifth, George H.W. Bush 11th, Obama 15th and Biden 30th, while among Democratic historians, Reagan is 18th, Bush 19th, Obama sixth and Biden 13th. Other than Grant and Biden, the biggest disparity is over George W. Bush, who is ranked 19th among Republicans and 33rd among Democrats.


Intriguingly, one modern president who generates little partisan difference is Bill Clinton. In fact, Republicans rank him slightly higher, at 10th, than Democrats do, at 12th, perhaps reflecting some #MeToo era rethinking and liberal unease over his centrist politics.


The survey, conducted by Vaughn, an associate professor of political science at Coastal Carolina University, and Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston, was based on 154 responses from scholars across the country.

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