President’s Day is Monday. We observe this day in February because it happens to be the birth month of George Washington, our first president, and Abraham Lincoln, the man many historians regard as our greatest president ever.
I’m not going to pretend to be a presidential scholar, but from what I know of our nation’s history, I would have to agree that Lincoln, our 16th president and the first Republican to reside in the White House, makes a pretty strong case for finishing at the top of the all-time rankings. After all, Honest Abe’s leadership did keep our divided nation together through a Civil War and actions he took would eventually help lead to the abolition of slavery.
Pretty tough to top those two accomplishments, but how about the presidents that we know a little more about - those that have served during our own lifetimes?
No matter what year you were born, the presidents that have been in office during your lifetime have all had a very influential hand in shaping our nation - some for the better and some for the worse.
With that thought in mind, I’ve decided to have a little fun this week and share my personal rankings of the 11 presidents that have been in office since the day I was born. I should preface my rankings by saying that President Eisenhower left office two days after my birth and my mother has told me that she and I watched President Kennedy’s inauguration together from her hospital room.
1. John F. Kennedy - Even though I was only two days old, JFK’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you” inaugural address must have had an impact on me because I’ve always found myself fascinated by his presidency. Because he was assassinated less than three years into office, Kennedy didn’t get to finish everything he started, but he was very instrumental in moving our space exploration program forward. He expedited positive change in the area of civil rights and he’s credited with the development of the Peace Corps. JFK broke a long-standing religious barrier when he became our country’s first Catholic president and his stint in the White House, which became known as the Camelot years, had Americans feeling good about America.
A civics teacher once told me that from a historical standpoint, JFK probably died at the right time of his presidency because he would never have to deal with the political and civil unrest of the mid and late 1960s associated with our military involvement in Viet Nam. I’m sure my teacher was right.
2. Dwight Eisenhower - When I think of President Eisenhower, I think of his picture being on the 6-cent stamp when I was a kid. America prospered and made significant economic gains during the presidency of the popular WWII military commander, and he provided solid leadership during the early years of the Cold War. He created our interstate system and ended segregation of our armed forces.
3. Ronald Reagan - I was a financially-struggling college student for nearly six of President Reagan’s eight years in office (yep, it took me awhile to get my degree), so I never fully experienced or appreciated his theory of trickle-down economics. Reagan, who would have turned 100 this month, was indeed a great communicator and maybe the most popular president of my generation. His presidency goes hand-in-hand with the break up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. I believe his refusal to properly address HIV/AIDS in those years when we were still learning about the disease is a scar on his presidency.
4. Bill Clinton - Despite President Clinton’s moral flaws, “Slick Willy” still goes down as one of the most successful presidents of the 20th Century. In my adult lifetime, America’s never experienced more economic prosperity than the 1990s. When you look at the financial shape of our country today, it’s easy to forget that our federal government actually had a significant budget surplus when President Clinton left office. He never got health reform going but did get significant pregnancy and medical leave legislation passed. He embarrassed our nation with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but still left office with a high approval rating.
Have to mention that Nebraska won three national championships in football during the Clinton presidency.
5. Lyndon Johnson - President Johnson was not popular when he left office, mainly because of Viet Nam, but he successfully carried out civil rights and voting rights reform initiated by JFK. Medicaid and Medicare bills also came about during his watch.
6. George H. Bush - Remember when he campaigned for president at the Glenwood Fire Station? Had an approval rating of over 80 percent after the Gulf War in 1991, but still went on to lose the election to Bill Clinton in 1992 - unbelievable. It was easy to like this guy and First Lady Barbara Bush.
7. Gerald Ford - Not much to say about the only president never elected to an office higher than U.S. Congress. Was appointed vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned and became president when President Nixon resigned in disgrace. Maybe best known for pardoning Nixon after taking office and falling down a flight of stairs while getting off of Air Force One.
8. Richard Nixon - “Tricky Dick” is remembered primarily for the Watergate scandal, but he did open up and improve dialogue with China and the Soviet Union during his time in office and he ended our involvement in Viet Nam.
By the way, two national championships in football for Nebraska during Nixon’s presidency.
9. Barack Obama - Now halfway through his first (and maybe last) term as president, President Obama’s time in office has been a disappointment as our economy continues to struggle. Health-care reform, a campaign issue that helped get him elected, has proved costly for Obama and his party. Many people are already calling Obama a one-term president, but I would warn that a year or two is a long time in presidential politics - just ask George H. I wouldn’t count Obama out, just yet, especially if the stock market continues to climb and the economy shows substantial improvement in the next 18 months.
10. (TIE) Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush - These two both deserve a last-place ranking.
President Carter, the peanut farmer from Georgia, was going to bring change to Washington as an “outsider,” but struggled to get anything substantial accomplished. It seemed like it was one foreign policy problem after another - most notably the Iran Hostage Crisis and the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan. The economy struggled under Carter and it wasn’t surprising that he only served one term.
It is interesting to me that Carter has been a role model “ex-president” through his work with Habitat For Humanity and international mediations, but he is often considered the outcast of the Ex-Presidents Club.
As for “W,” even staunch Republicans have to shrug their shoulders when asked to name significant accomplishments of his administration.
From “Mission Accomplished” and Hurricane Katrina to the collapse of our financial market, America’s first presidential administration of the 21st Century was ineffective, putting it nicely. He did implement the “No Child Left Behind” education initiative, but I’m not sure if that should be classified as a positive.
Oh, by the way, Nebraska football experienced its first two losing seasons in over 40 years during George W’s presidency. Just a coincidence, right?