Who was the worst president in the history of the US?

·6-min read
US President Donald Trump arrives for the Independence Day events at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, July 3, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
Donald Trump at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, earlier this year. (AFP via Getty Images)

Words by Joaquim Utset

On more than one occasion, Donald Trump has declared his admiration for Mount Rushmore, the famous mountainside in South Dakota with the faces of four of the most important presidents in US history carved into it.

For someone who has made a living by putting his name on what he sells, the possibility of forever accompanying figures such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln on one of the most iconic national monuments has even be acknowledged by the commander-in-chief himself in a tweet.

In August this year, the president denied a report in the New York Times that White House aides had reached out to the governor of South Dakota to enquire about the process of adding another bust to the mountainside.

He then followed his denial up by saying it “sounds like a good idea to me!”

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Whether he's seriously proposed it or not, what's for certain is that Trump seems convinced he deserves it, judging by the number of times throughout the past four years that he's proclaimed himself "the best president of all time."

There isn’t, apparently, physically any more room for a fifth president on Mount Rushmore. However, even if there were, would the current occupant of the White House accompany the most illustrious of his predecessors or would he rub shoulders with those branded the worst to pass through the White House?

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What makes a good and bad president?

Although comparing the ability, achievements, or personalities of the presidents isn't an exact science, US historians have been ranking the presidents for decades, periodically revising their lists to incorporate new ones and evaluate any new information that may appear about those who left their mark years ago.

Sadly, for Trump, in the first of these surveys in which he features, he's very far from the top. In fact, in the ranking created by Siena College in 2018, the current president is third from bottom, only trailed by James Buchanan (1857-1861) and Andrew Johnson (1865-1869).

Warren Harding (1921-1923), however, has benefited from the addition of Trump to the list, moving up one spot with regard to a 2010 poll. This will come as some relief for the family of the 29th president, who was recently found to be mired in a nasty legal battle to exhume his body in order to allegedly confirm the kinship of one of his grandchildren. The scandals even follow him to the grave.

Pictures of Presidents James Buchanan (left) and Warren Harding (right)
Presidents James Buchanan (left) and Warren Harding (right)

The Siena College poll – the sixth since 1982 – was created based on the responses from 157 academic experts who evaluate the performance of the 45 presidents according to 20 categories. In these, Trump only escaped the bottom five in the "Luck" and "Willing to take risks" categories.

What do presidents do to make such a bad impression?

Both in the rankings from Siena College and the private, non-profit cable TV channel C-Span, the same presidents traditionally always appear at the bottom: Harding, Buchanan, and Johnson.

Harding was the first president of the decade known as the "The Roaring Twenties". These were particularly lively years for his cronies and his subordinates, who, taking advantage of the Republican president's fondness for poker and fleeting romances, squeezed the public office for their own benefit until they were no longer able to.

"I am not fit for this office and should never have been here," Harding said in a moment of lucidity. He died of natural causes before completing his term.

Andrew Johnson is often blamed for marring the legacy of his predecessor during the era known as Reconstruction that followed the US Civil War (1861-1865). It is often argued that his opposition to those in Congress who sought to guarantee the rights of the newly freed former slaves helped to establish a regime of segregation and submission of the African American population in the defeated Confederate states. And, if that weren't enough, he was the first president to be impeached.

James Buchanan, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, is vilified for his failure to oppose the extension of slavery to the new states that were created with the country's expansion westward and for standing idly while rebellion brewed in the South, which finally broke out with the election of Lincoln.

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Can the 45th president redeem himself?

While Harding, Johnson, and Buchanan’s reputations seem set in stone, can Trump recover his current ranking on the Siena College list?

The economy has always been this president's best weapon. In fact, it's an area where he's managed to surpass his Democrat rival Joe Biden in the opinion polls. However, when historians review his performance, they might not share Trump's own assertion that he is responsible for the "best economy in the history of our country."

Unlike others who came to power in the midst of crisis, the Trump inherited an economy that had recovered from the economic crash of 2008 and was on an upward trajectory. To his credit, he gave a new push to this upward trend with his tax cuts, although some argue this mostly favoured the wealthiest.

When historians look back at his tenure, this will be little debate that Trump has not shied away from comments (and tweets) that have entrenched societal divisions rather than sought to heal them. The regular changes in his cabinet and the string of scandals, which include the impeachment process, may also not reflect well on him in the generations to come.

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However, the millstone around the neck of the current White House is the response to the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest health crisis since the 1918 Spanish flu. With more than 200,000 deaths, the world's leading power tops the list of countries with the highest number of COVID-19 victims.

"The presidents at the bottom were the ones who failed to safeguard us and adequately lead us during periods of crisis, or tainted the office through scandal and incompetence," explained Don Levy, director of the Siena College Research Institute, to the journal US News and World Report last December. "Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding – they earned their spots at the bottom."

Will Donald Trump remain at the bottom of this list or, if he's elected for a second term, can he turn it around?

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