C-SPAN survey of presidential leadership adds luster to Eisenhower and Truman

TOPEKA — Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman played pivotal roles in World War II and remain tied to each other near the top of the C-SPAN ranking of U.S. presidents based on leadership.

Eisenhower, with a presidential library in Abilene, finished fifth behind No. 1 Abraham Lincoln, No. 2 George Washington, No. 3 Franklin Roosevelt and No. 4 Teddy Roosevelt. Eisenhower’s position remained unchanged from the previous survey of historians in 2017. Truman of Independence, Missouri, ranked sixth ahead of No. 7 Thomas Jefferson, No. 8 John Kennedy, No. 9 Ronald Reagan and No. 10 Barack Obama.

James Buchanan, who finished 44th, came last in the 2021 survey. Andrew Johnson stumbled to 43rd place. Tied for 41st: Franklin Pierce and newcomer Donald Trump, who was eligible for the first time.

“What strikes me here is the stability,” said Richard Norton Smith, who headed the Dole Institute of Politics in Lawrence as well as the presidential libraries of Eisenhower, Reagan, Ford, Lincoln and Herbert Hoover. “It’s interesting, especially up and down the list, how little significant movement there has been.”

“In contrast, living presidents seem much more likely to fluctuate,” the historian said. “It’s almost like there’s a backfire where historians exaggerate a bit when presidents leave office and they’re at the bottom of their partisan reputation and then they get less political status.”

Obama entered the rankings at No. 12 four years ago, but improved two places in 2021. George W. Bush continues to climb the mountain from No. 36 in 2009 to No. 33 in 2017 and No. 29 in 2021.

Ulysses Grant recorded the largest overall gain in the four C-SPAN presidential leadership surveys, rising 13 spots from No. 33 in 2000 to No. 20 in 2021.

“Grant has his ‘Hamilton’ moment,” said Douglas Brinkley, a professor at Rice University in Texas.

For the new survey, C-SPAN asked 142 presidential historians and professional observers of the presidency to rank the nation’s 44 former business leaders on 10 leadership characteristics. Released in conjunction with Independence Day, the 2021 results were the work of twice as many reviewers as in 2017. The list of reviewers has been changed to expand the diversity of philosophy, age, sex and race.

Trump, who lost re-election in 2020 to President Joe Biden, received his highest marks in public persuasion, at 32nd, and economic management, at 34th. The panel placed Trump last in the Moral Authority and Administrative Skills categories.

Brinkley said Trump’s connection to impeachment negatively impacted his score as that process also undermined Nixon and Clinton. In 2000, Nixon was ranked 26th but fell to 31st. Bill Clinton opened at No. 21, peaked at No. 15 in 2009 and 2017 before slipping to No. 19 in 2021.

“This year, people compared which is worse: Watergate or Trump’s impeachment? said Brinkley. “The word ‘impeachment’ probably cost Nixon a few spots this year, and maybe Clinton too.”

Edna Greene Medford of Howard University said appreciation for the historical implications of racial injustice in the United States had grown, but slave-holding presidents remained at the top of the list.

“While we may be a little more enlightened about race today, we still overlook its importance when evaluating these presidents,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this story identified Andrew Jackson as the 43rd ranked president. The story has been updated to show Andrew Johnson was ranked 43rd.

Kevin E. Boling