Robert W. Merry
Who would you pick?
What do they have in common? They all emerged at times when the country needed a new direction, and all set the country upon that new, needed course. Lincoln broke the nation’s political logjam, saved the nation from disintegration and ended slavery. Washington ensured that the delicate flower of American democracy could take root in the New World soil. FDR transformed the nation in the face of its worst economic crisis, then transformed the world in the face of a dark global crisis (placing America at the heart of world power). Jefferson expunged from American politics the aristocratic tendencies of the Federalists and initiated his country’s westward expansion. Jackson fashioned a political ethos—governmental restraint, low taxes, strict construction of the Constitution—that became a significant part of the American debate up to our own time. And TR injected progressivism into the body politic to address some of the contradictions and dislocations of the nineteenth century industrial revolution (and thus created a healthy counterweight to the Jacksonian ethos).
Who are the greatest American presidents, and what can they tell us about our own time? How do we define greatness in the presidency, anyway, and who gets to pick the executives included in that hallowed circle? Or is it all just a mystery, fodder for those intermittent academic polls on presidential performance and animated discussions of political and historical junkies?
We take up this discussion with a purpose. Seldom has the American republic been more acutely in need of truly effective presidential leadership than it is right now. The country is in drift, beset by seemingly hopeless political clashes that are gumming up the gears of democracy. Its foreign policy lacks definition and coherence, while domestic issues kick up controversies of such intensity that the country can hardly move. This isn’t all Obama’s fault, though his philosophical adversaries would have us blame it all on him. But his job is to effectively address the nation’s ills, and he has proved himself incapable of doing that.
(This first appeared in 2014.)
We must not lose sight of the fact that we live under a presidential system, which means that great crises get solved through presidential leadership or not at all. So, with that in mind, let’s play the Great White House Rating Game and identify, say, the six greatest presidents of all time.