Who is the worst US President?

Author and historian Robert Strauss discusses the changing status of US Presidents and his book Worst. President. Ever.

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In his book Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents, Robert Strauss examines the reasons why James Buchanan is widely considered by academics to be the worst President in US history.

Every year academics are asked to rank the US presidents, with data going back to 1948. The changing trends of who is considered best and worst in history tells an intriguing story about changing attitudes towards previous incumbents of the White House. To learn more you should take a look at issue 81 of All About History.

Why did you pick James Buchanan as the worst US President for your book?
When you pitch things you have to have a catchphrase and when I pitched my book, it was probably like 2014 or 2015, and I said to my agent half of America hates Obama, thinks Obama is the worst President, the other half thinks George Bush is the worst President, but neither of them started the civil war, which James Buchanan did.

Portrait of James Buchanan by George Peter Alexander Healy (Image source: Wikemedia/National Portrait Gallery)

Warren G Harding was often ranked lowest amongst scholars up until about 2000, so how did his standing change?
Harding had a reputation and he did apparently father an illegitimate child in the White House or near his time in the White House and there was scandals in his administration. But once he became part of history and you would go back, you would realise that there was several things he did, that made him not the worst. One is that he avoided a world war. He was a peace time President. Another thing is that, however much you think the President affects the economy, the economy was really good when he was President. The third thing is he brought very intelligent people into his administration like Andrew Mellon, who was a banker he made the Secretary of Treasury. I think that looking back and seeing the perspective of history, you bring him up from the bottom.

Many might expect Richard Nixon to be more unpopular, but academic polling actually has him outside the bottom ten. Is his record being reassessed ?
No, I don’t think he is being reassessed. I think Watergate is really the great scandal, but there are two particular things that happened during his administration that were positive, even today. He formed the environmental office in the United States the EPA, and he opened trade with China. He recognised that China was going to become the big power and tried to open the gates there. But Watergate was terrible. He was going to win an election in a landslide, so what is he doing trying to steal records of people? I think there is an obsession with some people who have been successful that they have to be better than that. They can’t win a game two to one. It doesn’t satisfy them.

Are there any trends in how presidents have been ranked over the years that you find interesting?
In a recent CNBC poll, Dwight Eisenhower has become fifth best President. The further away you get the further you like certain people and he is one of them. So some people have risen up, like Eisenhower, but mostly its consistent at the very top, its always Lincoln, Roosevelt and Washington in some order.

Robert Strauss’ book, Worst. President. Ever., published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now

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