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These three presidents are always ranked highest by historians for a good reason

President rankings even by professional historians and political scientists are often said to be subjective. However, when they are done in a scientific way, listing the various categories of leadership that are essential to success, then they are to be taken more seriously.

The one that I usually give more credence to since it is not similar to a popularity contest, like that of C-SPAN, is done by historians at Siena College in New York. They have been done from 1982 periodically until 2022.

However, I would like to note one proviso that a history professor of mine issued back in the 1970s. He said that a president could not be historically ranked until he has been out of office for 25 years.

Famed historian and retired Harvard professor Doris Kearns Goodwin, one of the top presidential historians in the U.S. right now, said that “it normally takes a generation to evaluate a leader.”

If that is the case, we should not evaluate the last four presidents: George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, or the present one, Joe Biden.

These do include those, but what is consistent about the best rankings is that the top 3 presidents are always the same, albeit in a different order: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Siena College rankings of 2022 have Roosevelt first, Lincoln second, and Washington third. It was Siena’s 7th Presidential Expert Poll 2981-2022 and included 141 “presidential scholars, historians, and political scientists.”

A more recent one is conducted by Professor Brandon Rottinghaus of the University of Houston and Professor Justin Vaughn of Coastal Carolina University. It is called the “Presidential Greatness Project,” and it includes “current and recent members of the Presidents & Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association, which is the

foremost organization of social science experts in presidential politics, as well as scholars who had

recently published peer-reviewed academic research in key related scholarly journals or academic

presses.” So, both have distinguished academic scholars in it.

This group has Lincoln at the top, FDR second, and Washington third. They regard their listing this way: “Great presidents have traditionally been viewed 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 affect expert assessments of presidential performance.”

So, why these three?

The Siena survey ranks the presidents in each of 20 categories, thus making it more scientific than some of these. These include “background, imagination, integrity, intelligence, luck and willingness to take risks, abilities – compromising, executive ability, leadership, communication, and overall ability and accomplishments – party leadership, relationship with Congress, court appointments, handling the economy, executive appointments, domestic accomplishments, foreign policy accomplishments and avoiding mistakes.”

This is very thorough. So, it is worth a look at the breakdown of how presidents fare in each.

However, I will make an assessment as to why these three are always at the top of list: Washington established the presidency as a true role that brought 13 colonies into one country, Lincoln kept the country together through the greatest internal calamity in history, the Civil War, and Franklin Roosevelt engineered a victory in World War II, allowing his generals to devise a military strategy while he devised a political one that saved the world from a takeover by Hitler and Hirohito.

In other words, Washington established the country, and both Lincoln and Roosevelt led the country to victory in the greatest challenges since then.

Of course, there are more reasons for both. Certainly, leading the country through the greatest economic turndown in history added to FDR’s acclaim, and leading the colonial forces to victory in the Revolutionary War were major factors in his popularity.

Were they perfect human beings or leaders? Of course not, but they are the top three listed by any credible ranking of historians and presidential scholars.

Who is next?

So, if Washington, Lincoln, and FDR were the greatest presidents, who are the “near greats”? Here, there are differences over time. Generally, Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson are in that category. However, both Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower have moved into the near great category, too.

Truman is illustrative of why presidents should not be ranked until 20 to 25 years from the time they leave office. He had an approval rating in the 20-percentile late in his presidency, but his actions in taking over for FDR, ending WWII, setting up a post-war defense policy including the Truman doctrine — are now considered to be outstanding.

In any event, the top three will probably remain the same for the remainder of the 21st Century — and probably beyond.

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