U.S. election: Who was the worst president in America's history?

Yahoo News Staff
·6-min read

Written by: Joaquim Utset

On more than one occasion, President 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 lives by putting his name on everything he sells, the possibility of forever accompanying figures such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln on one of the most iconic national monuments must be intoxicating. In fact, the Commander-in-Chief himself acknowledged it in a tweet.

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

Unfortunately for him, it seems that there's physically no more room for anyone else on Mount Rushmore. But if there were, would the current occupant of the White House accompany the most illustrious of his predecessors or, on the other hand, should he rub shoulders with those branded the worst to pass through Washington?

US President Donald Trump in front of Mount Rushmore.
US President Donald Trump backs himself for the Mount Rushmore treatment. Source: Getty

Bottom of the class

Although comparing the ability, achievements or personalities of the presidents isn't an exact science, American 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 the 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.

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.

Presidents James Buchanan (left) and Warren Harding (right).
Presidents James Buchanan (left) and Warren Harding (right).

What did they 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.

Corruption wasn't what earned Andrew Johnson a spot on the blacklist of history. Lincoln's successor, this tailor, from Tennessee, is blamed for marring the legacy of his predecessor during the era known as Reconstruction that followed the American Civil War (1861-1865). It is considered 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, another of Trump's companions at the bottom of the list, is also characterized by Mr Lincoln and the Civil War. This 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 Mr Lincoln.

Can the 45th president redeem himself?

Unless some historian appears with a surprise, it will be very difficult for Harding, Johnson and Buchanan to recover their good reputations from their positions of eternal rest. This isn't the case for the current president, who the experts consulted by Siena evaluated after just one year in office. Would their opinion change if the poll were carried out now? Let's see.

With doubts about his leadership ability, the loss of US influence in the world, or a popularity rating that has never managed to get above 50 per cent despite the enthusiasm of his supporters, the economy has always been this president's best weapon. In fact, it's one of the few areas where he's managed to surpass his Democrat rival, Joe Biden, in the surveys. However, when the historians review his performance, they might not share Trump's own assertion 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 current president inherited an economy that had recovered from the Great Recession 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 these mostly favoured the wealthiest and triggered the federal deficit. In this case, without a war (George Bush) or a recession (Barack Obama) in the middle.

When it comes to the historians, the president will not be helped by his contribution to the extreme polarisation of the country either, thanks to his aggressive rhetoric that has few precedents, the constant changes in his cabinet or the endless string of scandals, including the impeachment process for asking a foreign government for a political favour.

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. After publicly denying a seriousness that he privately acknowledged, his administration has been incapable of preventing the US from being disproportionately affected by a virus that other developed countries have fought more successfully. With more than 200,000 deaths, the world's leading power tops the sad 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," Don Levy, director of the Siena College Research Institute, explained 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 earn his as well, or, if he's elected for a second term, will he turn the situation around? We could always find another Mount Rushmore.