Biden ranks as a Top 15 president all time and Trump sits last, scholars say

Feb 19, 2024, 6:02 PM | Updated: Mar 29, 2024, 1:48 pm

Images: In this combination of photos, President Joe Biden, left, speaks on Aug. 10, 2023 in Salt L...

In this combination of photos, President Joe Biden, left, speaks on Aug. 10, 2023 in Salt Lake City and former President Donald Trump speaks on July 8, 2023 in Las Vegas. (AP file photos)

(AP file photos)

It’s Presidents Day in a presidential election year. By the end of this year, the United States’ voting citizens could decide to keep going in the same direction under Democratic President Joe Biden. Or, they could swerve back into the other direction and bring back Republican Donald Trump for another four years.

As two politics professors stated in The Los Angeles Times Sunday, we haven’t seen an election like this since the 19th century. Judging by public opinion of Biden and Trump, “most Americans would have preferred to keep it that way.”

Scholars don’t quite see it the same way, however, as Brandon Rottinghaus of the University of Houston and Justin S. Vaughn of Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina reported in the results of a presidential survey released Monday. In fact, while academics may not think Biden is the best president ever or even in the Top 10, they do believe Trump deserves to sit in last place, No. 45 out of 45.

The two professors released the third edition of their Presidential Greatness Project, a poll of presidential experts, this weekend and revealed some of their key findings in a Los Angeles Times editorial. (A PDF of the report of the survey’s findings can be viewed here.)

Looking at Biden’s and Trump’s rankings

Biden finished at No. 14 — in the top one-third of presidents overall — and Trump again finished last as the worst president ever, just as he did the last time this survey was completed in 2018.

Rottinghaus and Vaughn concluded the survey has seen “a pronounced partisan dynamic emerge, arguably in response to the Trump presidency and the Trumpification of presidential politics,” adding that Biden’s significant placement “suggests a powerful anti-Trump factor at work.” The scholars explain Biden’s record does not, yet, “include the military victories or institutional expansion that have typically driven higher rankings.” They also note that “a family scandal such as the one involving his son Hunter normally diminishes a president’s ranking.”

The professors then went on to say in the Times that 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.”

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In his coverage of the study, Peter Baker of The New York Times, who has covered the White House for decades, adds that, “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. ”

Ranking the other commanders in chief

The top five probably won’t be surprising as all four presidents on Mount Rushmore are represented.

Abraham Lincoln, who held office during the tumultuous Civil War in the 1860s, finished No. 1 for the second consecutive survey.

In the only change to the Top 5 since the last survey, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was president during the Great Depression and World War II, moves up to No. 2. George Washington, the nation’s first president, slipped down to No. 3.

Rounding out the Top 5 is Teddy Roosevelt at No. 4 and Thomas Jefferson at No. 5.

Rottinghaus and Vaughn also explained Trump’s impact goes well beyond his own ranking and Biden’s as every contemporary Democratic president has moved up in the rankings. Barack Obama ranks high at No. 7, up nine spots from the first study in 2015. Bill Clinton went up two spots to No. 12 and even Jimmy Carter rose four spots to No. 22.

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About the survey

Looking at methodology, the professors explained the survey was conducted online via Qualtrics from Nov. 15-Dec. 31, 2023. Respondents included current and recent members of the Presidents & Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association, which is what they labeled “the foremost organization of social science experts in presidential politics.” Scholars who had recently published peer-reviewed academic research in key related scholarly journals or academic presses also were asked to participate. (A PDF of the report of the survey’s findings and its methodology can be viewed here.)

In total, 525 respondents received invitations to participate, and the professors got back 154 usable responses, a 29.3% response rate. The professors’ survey asked respondents to rate each president on a scale of 0-100 for their overall greatness. A score of zero means their presidency was a failure, 50 means an average presidency and 100 means great. From there, the professors averaged the ratings for each president and ranked them from highest average to lowest.

Steve Coogan is the lead editor of MyNorthwest. You can read more of his stories here. Follow Steve on X, formerly known as Twitter, here and email him here.


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Biden ranks as a Top 15 president all time and Trump sits last, scholars say