February 16th, 2009
12:32 PM ET

The test of time

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/02/16/art.bush1.gi.jpg caption="Historians have ranked Bush the seventh worst president."]

Steve Brusk
Senior National Editor

Perhaps former President George W. Bush can take solace from the example of Ulysses S. Grant.

The first historical ranking of Presidents has been released since Mr. Bush left office last month, and his initial score is not a kind one. The C-SPAN Historians Presidential Survey puts Bush in the bottom tier of Chief Executives, at #36, slightly ahead of Millard Fillmore.

But Bush has made it clear he wasn’t worried about the first judgments on his presidency. At his final White House news conference, he said “there is no such thing as short-term history.”

Saying, “I don’t think you can possibly get the full breadth of an administration until time has passed,” Bush said he believes the longer view will look more favorably on his handling of Iraq and the economy. The C-SPAN survey of 65 presidential historians ranked him #40 on the economy, ahead of only Herbert Hoover and survey bottom-dweller James Buchanan. His International Relations rating was #41.

Bush’s defenders often point to the example of Harry Truman, not popular as he left office but now judged the fifth greatest president in our history.

And the new survey shows how time can change perspectives. For better than 100 years, Grant has been considered one of the poorer presidents, a victim of corruption, poor relations with Congress and an ineffective record. In C-SPAN’s first survey of historians in 2000, Grant was ranked near the bottom at #33. But this time, Grant made the biggest jump, rising ten spots to #23.

New focus on his record after the Civil War, and even a bounce from all the attention on Abraham Lincoln may have helped Grant. (Lincoln was again at the top of the survey). Howard University historian Edna Greene Medford told C-SPAN’s Washington Journal that “Grant won the war for Lincoln” and that the totality of his career may be improving his presidential stature.

Ronald Reagan saw a slight improvement, but one that now puts him the top ten. He moved from #11 to #10. George H.W. Bush moved up two places, to #18.

Former President Bill Clinton, considered by many historians a tough commander in chief to judge, rose in the new survey from #21 to #15. George Mason University Scholar in Resident said on Washington Journal Clinton’s numbers show “it is difficult to get a fix on a President who has just left office, particularly if he is a polarizing figure.”

But not all recent presidents fared as well. Jimmy Carter dropped from #22 to #25. Rice University Historian Douglas Brinkley told C-SPAN controversy over Carter’s Middle East comments in recent years hurt his standing, and cost him points in the areas where he was rated the strongest.

And a president’s place in history doesn’t always improve with time. Many of the presidents judged poorly in their time remain near the bottom in the view of experts. A James Buchanan revision seems unlikely in any future surveys.

The view of history isn’t always perfect…with many judgments subjective and superficial matters even years later affecting perceptions. But in a world where instant analysis sometimes isn’t fast enough (one columnist last week even raised the question if President Obama’s presidency is already a failure amid the stimulus debate, less than 30 days in), there’s great benefit in stopping for a moment to reflect on the test of time.

Bush (43, that is, not 41) said as he left office the standard for history should be “did a president’s decisions have the impact that he thought they would, over time? Or how did this president compare to future presidents, given a set of circumstances that may be similar or not similar”?

Future surveys will help tell if Mr. Bush’s comparison is ever any kinder.

soundoff (94 Responses)
  1. Marina

    To judge a US president without judging the people and electorate system that place him there is basically a useless exercise.

    It never ceases to amaze me that a country of such vast wealth and resources is basically comprised of a vast population of historically challenged, unworldly individuals who consistently confuse Hollywood personifications with actual leadership abilities.

    After all is said and done one fact stands out: A nation gets the leader it deserves...but unfortunately, with the USA, the rest of the world also suffers the consequences of every consecutive US leader and his policies.

    I really hope your latest choice works out...for ALL our sakes!

    P.S. Why don't you let the rest of us residents of the world participate in this "competition"... You might be surprised by the results...

    February 17, 2009 at 6:04 am |
  2. JTR

    Is anyone in the media willing or intellectually capable of challenging the only thing more incompetent than Bush during the past 8 years – the Congress he worked with.

    February 17, 2009 at 4:36 am |
  3. Kom

    I think it is too early to judge President Bush's true ranking and impacts in History.

    February 17, 2009 at 1:14 am |
  4. Kimberly Blacksmith

    As a kid from a military family, I am so happy to see Barak Obama, and his team, renew our country’s sense of patriotism. Our country can feel the optimism, sensing that our country is on the cusp of greatness, once again.

    Encouraged by the man, the mind and his principles Americans are stepping up to the plate demonstrating civic responsibility and pride in their country.

    At no other time in history has there been such a wealth of experience, political expertise or qualified statesmen, on both sides of the aisle. Between Barak Obama, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary, Clinton, Former President Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, Tim Geithner, Harry Ried, Nancy Pelosi, Robert Byrd, Dick Durbin, Charles Schumer, Barbara Boxer, John Edwards, Bob Dole, Former President Jimmy Carter, Chris Dodd, Former Predisent George Bush, SENIOR, Tom Vilsack, Teddy Kennedy, Tommy Thompson, Collin Powell, Madeline Albright, Henry Kissinger, Fred Thompson there is a solution for anything ailing this country.

    If these great minds could cohesively shape political action then True Democracy, Renewed Patriotism, Respect of the World, and Doing the People’s Business will be the result. “Government by the People…, For the People!”

    Kimberly Blacksmith
    Des Moines, Iowa

    February 17, 2009 at 12:29 am |
  5. Michelle S.

    AND, Bravo to Gene from Vermont!
    I would also like to see Mr. Bush #43 brought up on charges. I completely agree that stupidity and ignorance are no excuse for his actions while in office.
    Unfortunately, the Obama administration doesn't want to look back.
    Isn't it funny how, when the Democrats are in office, they are forgiving and move on, but when the Republicans are in charge, they want to impeach first and ask questions later.
    Do you really think that Bush ever even bothered to read the Constitution?
    If so, he butchered it beyond recognition in my opinion. I have never felt so "IN THE DARK" as a citizen as when he was President.
    I wish Obama would grow a pair and tell those who are so anxious to call him a failure, just where to get off! He is being WAY TO KIND!

    February 16, 2009 at 10:12 pm |
  6. Als

    Bush crimes is still being revealed. Bush bankrupt the American people right under our nose. He is the worst Pres of all times. Its going to take the hand of God to get us out of the Bull-sh!!!!!!!!!!!!!we are in . Other nations still hate our guts because of what he did..

    February 16, 2009 at 9:56 pm |
  7. Lisa

    History? If our economy don't get straighten out we all are going to be history. Bush has left this country in bad shape but he will never see it because as I see all the time the rich can not relate to poor people and their struggles. So let him hold on to his fantasies. Some of us live in the real world and from our perspective he is no better than a thug – thoughtless, careless and frankly my dear watson, he just don't give a damn.

    February 16, 2009 at 9:54 pm |
  8. pam

    Let it rip from the mouth of Paul Begala,! It’s so refreshing to read a little bit of irony spoken in such common language. The column written by Paul this morning said it all about the usual hypocritical loud mouth politician who professes simple solutions filled with buzz words for complex issues. The usual tickler of fewer taxes and an expanded trade agreement to solve all of our present day financial doldrums isn’t leadership. It’s stupidity at a time that our nation needs leadership from the abyss. These non thinking political jockeys have in past environments been allowed to just say anything and the public accepted it, especially if politicians said it in unison and repeatedly. The old paradigm of talking heads saying anything, especially stuff that doesn’t make sense, really won’t work anymore and that’s what Paul nicely alluded to in his article. The only thing that he didn’t say openly was that talking head elected politicians need to get their stuff together or simply shut up and move out of the way! I loved it when Paul let data talk the talk about the government welfare Palmetto State which “gets $1.35 back from Washington for every dollar it pays in federal taxes, according to 2005 numbers, the latest calculated by the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit tax research group.” A simple fact stated but quite profound for the State led by an ultra conservative tax cutting governor.

    February 16, 2009 at 9:48 pm |
  9. Dan

    Hatred is a terrible thing. Impartial (if there is such) history will be the judge not a bunch of bloggers who probably can't even name ten presidents.

    February 16, 2009 at 9:41 pm |
  10. jsm63

    I think fomer President Bush is going to have a hard time making the case he should be viewed more favorably. I'm not sure any President has failed at so many things, and at so many levels. With the exception of not being attacked again, America is worse off by almost every conceivable metric by which you would measure current quality of life and future opporutunity. HIs vision has been generally wrong, his strategies unsound, and his tactics absolutely horrid. Not the stuff of greatness....

    February 16, 2009 at 9:39 pm |
  11. stephen Webb

    Of course it will (change)! The GOP is re-writing Bush 43's legacy already, so that the truth will become more and more muddied as time goes on! He may end up being a "good" president as the years pass!

    February 16, 2009 at 9:38 pm |
  12. Ford

    History will judge presidents more clearly than anyone's estimation today. Most of the goods and greats dealt with severe challenges. I grew up hearing about what a terrible president Truman was....now in tretrospect he's considered one of the greats. A few years back revisionists were trying to tell us how awful the Eisenhower years were (looks like nobody listened to them), Johnson was reviled for his prosecution of the Vietnam War, Carter considered one of the worst due to the economy and Iran, and Reagan was supposedly horrible too. Years later they've all risen in common estimation. Some will view this particular poll as a validation of what they want to believe, but it's only a snapshot of current events, nothing more. The sands will continue to shift as the years move forward. I predict Bush 43 will end up somewhere in the middle – not a great, but not as bad as some would have us believe from these posts

    February 16, 2009 at 9:35 pm |
  13. RHH

    No mention of Bush presiding over the ushering in of torture as an official American policy?

    February 16, 2009 at 9:30 pm |
  14. An hisotiran

    bush can only sink lower. His rating is artificially high because they used a criteria of "promoted equality" which would automaticaly lower the rating of some of the people this list put just below bush. If you look at the other categories he ends up where he belongs – just above or in a relative dead heat with buchannan for last place. As the many many crisis his administration created for no better reasons than blind adherence to ideology mixed with greed and naked partisan aggression he will stay right down there at the bottom. If global warming is closer to the worst case scenarios, for example, he will fall below buchanna because of the damage his deliberate squashing of science and his deliberate evasion of climate based action caused. If we cannot extract ourselves from Iraq, or if qaeda has so successfully exploited bush dropping the ball in Afgahnistan and Pakistan that they manage to take control in that region and get their hands on nukes he will descend into a permenant last place.

    The biggest surprises on this list are that reagan ranks as high as he does – I would put him down in the middle at best, and that Carter is not ranked higher. most people are snowed by the right wing rhetoric about Carter. He actually did a commendable job with really catastrophic events that were way outside of his control. He opened China (no – it wasn't nixon, read the history – nixon went there, Carter formalized relations) he avoided nuclear war over Afghanistan, he brought the Arabs and Israelies to the table for the first time since 1948, he dealt with a massive destabalization of the nation due to an oil embargo that was retaliation for his predecessor's policies –AND HE WAS RIGHT about his response – if we had continued his policies of energy independence instead of follwing that chowder head reagan in the 1980s there would be no Gulf Wars, we would be driving electric cars powered from our own well insulated rooftops. Carter started that ball rolling and reagan like the dunce that he was stopped it dead so he could sipohon money to the gop from Big Oil.

    February 16, 2009 at 9:29 pm |
  15. Ray

    The review of a president should be based on his impact on his generation and one (or two) generation after. I guess it is difficult to say so-and-so's action 500 years ago for some reason is great now, because unless he foresee it impact so far down the road. He must be acting in the best interest of the country in terms of his foreseeable future, not the best interest 500 years down the road.

    For example, a president could not ignore and the value of gold (or what was valuable during his time) 500 years ago because today's international currency might not solely rely on gold. His action might cause misery in everyone's life during his and next generation. But we cannot say today that, after all gold is not that important anyway, so that president is not so bad ...

    Of course, President Lincoln saw the intrinsic value of human equality and took action to end slavery. He was great then and is great now. That is because of the, again, intrinsic moral value of humanity.

    Other presidential actions (military, monetary, diplomatic or political) may have contemporary value, but not in another few hundred years. Some others are just outright ruining lives of the time – whether they sheer ignorance or poor judgment, but should not be considered as good not matter how long later when lives might have improved (not directly due to his action anyway).

    February 16, 2009 at 9:29 pm |
  16. PA Patriot

    Bush and his neocon buddies LET 9/11 happen, so that we could go to "war" and Halliburton and KBR could reap huge profits and hoard them at the top, eventually moving their operations overseas to "friendly" Dubai, Saudi Arabia. Thank GOD they didn't figure out a way to take a third term. And I'm a registered Republican!

    February 16, 2009 at 9:28 pm |
  17. dale

    Forget Bush...I thought Sarah Palin was an even bigger threat to America.

    February 16, 2009 at 9:23 pm |
  18. CosmicConservative

    Being old enough to remember when Ronald Reagan left office, I think it worth mentioning that this same survey listed Ronald Reagan DEAD LAST at the time.

    Historians are overwhelmingly liberal and suffer Bush Derangement Syndrome at a much higher frequency than even most academics.

    This will change. In fact I would say W did better than I expected from this crowd.

    February 16, 2009 at 9:19 pm |
  19. T

    George W. Bush will be remembered as the worst. He corrupted the government, willfully violated our laws and principles, and violated the Constitution of the United States.

    He ran an administration based on lies, outlandish "legal opinions," and placing people in the judicial branch who would not investigate the wrongdoing. His goal was a government of supreme executive that totally contradicts the checks and balances of our democratic republic. This was not by chance, it was done with full malice for our way of life. Most people don't get it.

    February 16, 2009 at 9:19 pm |
  20. Don M

    No doubt, the absolute worst president ever to hold the office was Jimmy Carter, bar none.

    February 16, 2009 at 9:17 pm |
  21. Sandra Chung

    I find it amazing that with all the information on how badly Bush made a mess of things, there are still apologists that think his poor rating is due to 'media'.

    Breaking Constitutional law
    Denial of Habeas Corpus
    Denial of the Right of due process.
    Denial of First Amendment Rights
    Illegal wiretaps
    Illegally declaring war
    Obstruction of justice
    Destroying evidence
    Hindering a Federal Investigation
    The outing of CIA operatives
    Misappropriation of funding
    Failure to uphold his oath to office

    None of these have anything to do with "The Media". The responsibility of this lands squarely on Bush's shoulders, not the media.

    February 16, 2009 at 9:16 pm |
  22. Annie Kate

    I think with time Bush's ratings will go lower. We already see some of the negative effects from his presidential policies – more keep cropping up each day. While time and history has been kinder to Presidents in the long run, I think this time his rating right now will be the highest he will ever get – primarily because he did tend to run roughshod over the Constitution.

    February 16, 2009 at 9:11 pm |
  23. Jeff

    James Buchanan said preventing the South to secede from the Union is unconstitutional. Lincoln froze freedom of speech during war time, which is unconstitutional. In addition, during Lincoln's administration, most opposition press were shutdown. Geee....I wonder if the President should abide by the the Constitution or not.

    We always say, history and greatness is written and judge by the winners.

    If the North lost the Civil War, I wonder if these historians will still rank Lincoln as the greatest president and James Buchanan as the worst.

    I am sorry, but I think these historians are nothing but pawns of human history and not as outsiders who can judge impartially.

    February 16, 2009 at 9:05 pm |
  24. Sanford

    Its too early to accurately rate his overall performance as President.

    Lincoln, rated number 1 enjoyed about a 25% approval rating while in office. Not the raving reviews you would expect someone felt to be the BEST President of the US.

    Over time we will gain perspective. Some folks may change their minds, others won't.

    February 16, 2009 at 9:02 pm |
  25. RSusan

    I rather doubt your survey results. President Bush kept us safe. He deserves our gratitude and will be remembered him with kindness.
    I wish President Obama success because our future depends on it.
    More Democrats need to think of the good of our country not themselves

    February 16, 2009 at 9:00 pm |
  26. classicalgregg

    All U.S. President’s place their hand on the Bible and swear to protect and defend the Constitution. George W. Bush then proceeded to shred it. In fact he probably never even read it.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:58 pm |
  27. Al

    Any person that would rate Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton ahead of George W. Bush shows obvious bias. Both Carter and Clinton rank amongst the worst of the presidents and any "historian" that would rank them otherwise clearly is not an objective historian.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:58 pm |
  28. Mark

    Not many Bush fans here. My question is, wasn't he obviously incompetent during his first term? The guy can barely speak. How did we re-elect him? If he didn't have his daddy's connections and money, W would be selling used phone books. He believes he's going to be vindicated because we haven't been hit with a terror attack on our soil since 9-11. But his policies and ill chosen words were the perfect recruitment tool for terrorists. That they haven't struck yet proves nothing.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:54 pm |
  29. frank

    Difinetive, the worst President of all times.He helped all insurances' companies, oil campanies, and big markets, to raise the prises.$4.50 per gallon. Is redicule in United State. wat's FREE USA MEANS.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:54 pm |
  30. Pat

    The horrific events of 9/11 propelled George W. Bush's first term as President. The American people felt confident in his approach on fighting the war on terror. During his second term is when his tailspin started. Never to fully able recover, he crashed and took all of us and the economy down with him.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:48 pm |
  31. Shadow

    I believe Bush has been rated poorly largely due to the way the media has portrayed him. Which other President had to face the crisis he did within a year of their inauguration? People, the media included, will try to blame the economy on him. He wasn't the one who OK'd the subprime mortgages, that all started years before him. All I can say is thank goodness we didn't elect Al Gore.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:42 pm |
  32. Alan Miller

    It is far too soon to evaluate George W. Bush's presidency. In 1952, Truman's presidency was in such low evaluation, that even the Democrat party didn't want him to run for re-election. Yet now, he is thought of as one of the best. Even Nixon's rating has improved in recent years. Those who are blabbing now about the poor performance of George Bush, need to sit back and wait a few years. I predict that 20 years from now, historians will rate George W's presidency much higher than they do now.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:37 pm |
  33. howard

    Bush was the worst, not the 7th worst.

    The consequences of having an incompetent president for the last eight long years were far worse than those of the other leading candidate, James Buchanan in the late 1850's.

    No other American president has simultaneously started a war where there was no threat to the nation, ruined the economy, rejected the science of global warming and stem cell cures, decided that laws and treaties did not apply to him, completely botched the disaster response to a major hurricane, turned a great surplus into a devastating and unprecedented deficit and caused world leaders to lose respect for the once great champion of democracy. More profoundly, this is only a partial list.

    It took the election of Abraham Lincoln to begin to undo the harm done by his predecessor. We have now begun to take the first steps to do repair the stupendous damage done during the Bush era. No one knows how long the nation will need to stabilize the economy, our reputation and the Office of the Presidency..

    Lets hope the American people will never repeat the mistake of bringing to office a person as inept, arrogant, ignorant, and remorseless as the individual who mercifully left the Office of President of the United States on January 20, 2009.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:36 pm |
  34. Jackson drednott

    No chance.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:35 pm |
  35. ken

    i think gw missed the boat on many of the details, i dont think his over arching goals will be jugded harshly. he lacked the how to but not the what to do.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:33 pm |
  36. BC

    The American Association of Village Idiots sure stand by their man, don't they? History and facts are pointless with these people. There is no question in the past 5 years that George Bush was an ant among men, and stood very, very low on the American President totem pole. While I think he should be rated lower than 36, time will probably prove him at least a couple places lower.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:32 pm |
  37. Gazork

    OK Bloggers, What situation in the USA gave rise to the need for W to be re elected?

    February 16, 2009 at 8:32 pm |
  38. Kyle

    I'd like to know more about the background of the historians themselves. I would guess that, as a collective, they have a serious liberal bias and that Presidents who advanced a liberal agenda are ranked much higher than they should be. Carter not near the bottom? Kennedy at #6? Ridiculous by just about any fair-minded standard. I was glad, however, to see Washington move ahead of FDR.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:28 pm |
  39. Frank Fuentes

    Remember that 'Every generation blames the one before'. Are we still in America? I lived here all my lfie and have never seen so much 'anger and hate' directed toward any President of the United State of American. Remember that real change comes from positive actions taken by many that believe they can make a difference to make things better for many. I did not vote for Obama but I stills would not talk about with that negative tone.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:23 pm |
  40. S.

    Reagan was termed "an affable dunce." Bush couldn't even reach "affable" but he certainly had the "dunce" part down pat. Worst. President. Ever.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:22 pm |
  41. AnotherPerspective

    It is easy to blame Bush for the current state of affairs, but I am appalled at the mud-slinging. Please do some homework. The housing crisis began during the Clinton Administration and has culminated with our recent economic woes. Did Bush do enough to reverse the economic woes? Perhaps not. But there is enough blame to go around. Last I checked, we were not attacked again on American soil after 911 under Bush's watch. Should we have attacked Iraq? Probably not. I question some of Obama's moves – he took over the Census so he can control political boundaries... He has not worked in a bi-partisan way. (Going to meetings is not the same as compromising.) Obama has made interestingly poor judgment in selecting his cabinet positions...He has not been transparent... He claims the new bill will stimulate the economy – but it looks like a lot of big spending on a democratic wish list. It is awfully costly – how will our children pay it back? Time will tell I suppose.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:13 pm |
  42. Abraham Medina

    Considering everything Geroge W did as president especially in his last 4 years on Iraq, he is the worst of the worst presidents.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:12 pm |
  43. Tyler

    as a history major i can also say that it is impossible to judge where history will rank Bush's policy. it will take years and years to see the what effects Iraq will have on the middle east. ranking him this soon is nothing more than a partisan politics move and once bush derangement syndrome has subsided, and reason prevails, bush will be placed higher on the list due to his foreign policy.

    February 16, 2009 at 8:11 pm |
  44. Kelly Cauffman

    having been around for nine presidencys, it seems that Bush 44 totally missed the mark from the beginning. Having not won the popular vote during the first election, many still believe he was never elected then but was given the Presidency. One problem after another piled up on both of his terms and he never seemed to realize what reality his presidency caused. Does he 'get it?' I dont think he does

    February 16, 2009 at 8:06 pm |
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