We know what voters think about Trump and Biden. But how do the experts rate their presidencies?

(Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

We know what voters think about Trump and Biden. But how do the experts rate their presidencies?

Op-ed, Election 2024, LA Politics

Justin Vaughn and Brandon Rottinghaus

February 18, 2024

Presidents Day comes at a crucial time this year, as the presidency teeters on the brink of crisis as we shuffle inexorably toward a rematch between the incumbent president and his predecessor. It’s the kind of contest we haven’t seen since the 19th century, and judging by public opinion from President Biden and former President Trump, most Americans would have preferred to keep it that way.

But the third installment of our Presidential Greatness Project, a poll of presidential experts released this weekend, shows that scientists do not share the same distaste among American voters for either candidate.

In fact, Biden makes his debut on our rankings at number 1. 14, putting him in the top third of US presidents. Trump, meanwhile, maintains the position he held six years ago: last place, after historically disastrous top executives such as James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson. In that and other respects, Trump’s radical departure from political, institutional, and legal norms has influenced expert judgments not only of him, but also of Biden and several other presidents.

The overall survey results show both stability and change in the way scientists assess our country’s most important and controversial political function. Great presidents have traditionally been seen as those who presided over moments of national transformation, led the country through major crises, and expanded the institution of the presidency. Military victories, economic growth, assassinations and scandals also influence expert assessments of presidential performance.

The presidents at the top of our rankings, and others like ours, reflect this. Sacred leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and George Washington consistently top the list.

Our latest rankings also show that expert ratings are shaped not only by traditional notions of greatness, but also by the evolving values ​​of our times.

An example is the continued decline in approval ratings for two important presidents, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson. Their reputation has suffered consistently in recent years, as modern politics has led scholars to increasingly harshly assess their presidencies of the early 19th and 20th centuries, especially their unacceptable treatment of marginalized people.

More acutely, this research has seen a pronounced partisan dynamic on the rise, perhaps in response to the Trump presidency and the Trumpification of presidential politics.

Supporters of a Biden presidency have strong arguments in their arsenal, but his high ranking in the top 15 suggests a powerful anti-Trump factor is at work. So far, Biden’s record does not include the military victories or institutional expansion that have typically led to higher rankings, and a family scandal like the one involving his son Hunter normally dents a president’s ranking.

Biden’s most significant achievements may be saving Trump’s presidency, resuming a more traditional style of presidential leadership and gearing up to keep the office out of the hands of his predecessors this fall.

Trump’s position at the bottom of our rankings, meanwhile, puts him not only behind Buchanan and Johnson, but also behind such lowlights as Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding and William Henry Harrison, who died just 31 days after taking office.

Trump’s influence extends far beyond his own rankings and those of Biden. Every contemporary Democratic president has risen in the ranks of Barack Obama (No. 7), Bill Clinton (No. 12) and even Jimmy Carter (No. 22).

Yes, these presidents have achieved great achievements, such as expanding access to health care and ending conflict in the Middle East, and they have two Nobel Prizes among them. But given their shortcomings and failures, their rise seems less about reassessment of their governments than it is a bonus for being neither Trump nor a member of his party.

Every modern Republican president has fallen under scrutiny, including the transformational Ronald Reagan (No. 16) and George HW Bush (No. 19), who led the nation’s last decisive military victory.

Academics do lean left, but that hasn’t changed since our previous surveys. What these results suggest is not only an additional emphasis on a president’s political beliefs, but also the emergence of a president’s allegiance to political and institutional norms as a criterion for what makes a president great to the scholars who study them.

As for the Americans voting for the next president, they are in the historically rare position of knowing how both candidates have performed in office. Whether they will consider each president’s commitment to the standards of presidential leadership and judge them as differently as our experts do remains to be seen.

Justin Vaughn is an associate professor of political science at Coastal Carolina University. Brandon Rottinghaus is a professor of political science at the University of Houston.


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