Sorry it took so long. I only wish I had made the poll last longer, because I missed a lot of traffic almost immediately after the poll closed. Oh well, no big deal.
With 30% of the vote, Bill Clinton got the most votes in my “Who is the best president of the last 40 years?” poll. The full results are listed below (since they won’t be on my sidebar forever):
Nixon: 3 (3%)
Ford: 1 (1%)
Carter: 13 (16%)
Reagan: 16 (20%)
Bush I: 1 (1%)
Clinton: 24 (30%)
Bush II: 2 (2%)
Obama: 19 (24%)
Total Votes: 79
I got slightly less than half as many people to vote in this poll, largely because I had unusually high traffic during the last poll from my interview with Dr. Daniel Fincke of Camels With Hammers.
I have to say, the only shocking result for me was how many votes Obama got. I kind of expected Clinton to win, but I really figured Carter would get the second most votes for a Democrat. I couldn’t be less shocked about the results regarding the Republicans.
Republicans are pretty solidly behind Reagan. Even in a recent Gallop poll, Reagan was the most popular post-WWII Republican.
While my poll did not go back so far, I want to point out that Republicans are brain dead for thinking Reagan was a better president than Eisenhower. Ike may arguably be the best president of the 20th century, with only FDR and Teddy Roosevelt (the latter also a Republican) giving him any real competition.
Democrats and liberals frequently split their votes on who the best president from the post-WWII era is between FDR, Kennedy and now Clinton. Kennedy should not even be in the running; anyone who thinks he was the best president during any time period is arguably giving him the sympathy vote.
[Interesting note on Kennedy: Republicans used to be afraid that Kennedy would be a mouthpiece for the Pope and the Catholic Church. Now, millions of them vote for Rick Santorum.]
But enough focusing on presidents who weren’t even on my ballot… over the last 40 years, it’s hard to pick a “best president.” We’ve had a long run of corrupt criminals and ineffectual failures. In many ways, one has been presented with the sort of gambit voters for the last 40 years have been faced with every four years: picking the least horrible candidate.
Again, I didn’t vote in this one, and frankly, I won’t pick one. I will speak on each, however, and provide what little insight I have by narrowing down who I would consider the best (not that it’s all that important).
Nixon is a highly under-rated president. He did a lot of important things which are overshadowed by the bad.
He began the initial troop withdrawals from the Vietnam War, though he had expanded the conflict into Cambodia. He had arguably one of the best Secretaries of State in the modern era with Henry Kissinger, and their strides towards peaceful ties with China were impressive (even while it was still under Chairman Mao, as opposed to his more reasonable successors, like Deng Xiaoping). His South American policies, namely the suppression of Salvador Allende and the subsequent rise of the tyrannical Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile turned out to be a disaster, but Nixon was successful in making progress in peace deals with the Soviets.
Domestically, he did a fair job of handling an economy experiencing high inflation, high interest rates, and high deficits due to the Vietnam War. His decision of ending the gold standard has turned out to be sound (despite crackpot Ron Paul supporters’ claims to the contrary), but his institution of price controls resulted in meat shortages and years of failed government control over many industries.
Nixon formed the EPA from the ground up, and it was during his presidency that man first walked on the moon. He enacted the first major federal affirmative action program (Philadelphia Plan of 1970). He endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment before and after it passed both houses, though it failed to be ratified by the states.
Oh, and he spied on his opponents, intimidated and blackmailed people, created the “War on Drugs,” and was the only president in history to resign. It’s hard to overlook those aspects of his presidency.
Ford was not much of a president. He was the first president sworn in, who was not on any prior presidential ticket, having been appointed by Nixon after his initial VP, Spiro Agnew, resigned over tax issues. Ford pardoned Nixon, heralding a new era of government not being held accountable. Still, this forgiveness also went to good use, when Ford signed Presidential Proclamation 4313, which decreased and in some cases dropped criminal charges and punishments for draft dodgers.
He narrowly edged out Ronald Reagan for the 1976 Republican nomination, and lost to Jimmy Carter. The only other remarkable aspect of his presidency was two separate assassination attempts against him, both by women (and maybe the incident of him falling down while debarking from Air Force One, which helped launch Chevy Chase’s career).
Carter had an interesting presidency, and he is high in the running for best of the last 40 years. He did something for everyone, really. For conservatives, he was a big deregulator. He deregulated the American beer industry and removed the ban on the sale of malt, hops and yeast for the purposes of home brewing, measures which had been in place since prohibition. Carter essentially opened the doors for the American microbrew. He also helped deregulate the pricing of air travel. He signed measures that reduced and eventually eliminated all price controls on airfare.
Had Ted Kennedy not quashed it, Carter would have been responsible for providing comprehensive healthcare coverage to Americans. He encouraged Americans to conserve energy and famously installed solar panels on the White House. He called the need to cut back on energy “the moral equivalent of war,” as price hikes in retaliation for the Yom Kippur War in 1973 were imposed artificially by the newly formed OPEC. He also pulled the US out of the 1980 Olympics, an unprecedented move, in reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
All in all, Carter wasn’t that awful, but he wasn’t popular in his time, and it is only now (in retrospect, when compared to his successors) that some people are starting to rethink his presidency as perhaps being a minor success, though not stellar.
Reagan… what more can I say about Reagan that hasn’t already been said about pancreatic cancer… all I can say is, it’s a shame Hinckley was such a shitty shot.
Reagan’s VP, George H.W. Bush, is in the same boat as Carter. I think he should be a finalist in the running for the best president in my poll, and like Carter, he was an unpopular one-term president in his time. He’s famous for telling us to “read his lips,” and then raising taxes… but his tax policy was sound, as he was just doing his job as a fiscal conservative.
The Reagan years had accrued a heavy debt due to billion-dollar deficit spending, and Bush I’s failure to gain public support for raising taxes has more or less doomed the Republican Party and US credit. What’s more, Bush I suggested many cuts that would have balanced the budget and reduced the deficit by $500 billion over five years, but Republicans in Congress rejected the plan.
Still, that makes Bush I’s greatest failure the American people who elected (or rather, re-elect) him. Bush I also pushed for NAFTA (which was passed in Clinton’s first year). This policy has taken heat over the years, but there’s little evidence I have seen that it was particularly damaging (though if you’re a low-income worker, you will probably always hate NAFTA for opening the door to international free trade that caused most factory jobs to cross our borders and eventually go overseas).
The Brady Bill was also passed under Bush, pushed through with support from both Reagan and Reagan’s Press Secretary, James Brady, who was shot during the near-successful assassination attempt on Reagan. Welfare benefits increased under his watch, largely to handle the increase in poverty and homelessness resulting from the atrocious Reagan administration. He signed into law acts which helped both the physically disabled and increased the amount of legal immigrants who could enter the US.
He had a rather successful (though occasionally a bit misguided) set of foreign policies, including a very brief, effective skirmish with Iraq that didn’t bog us down for years, like his son’s boondoggle. Military action in Panama also successfully forced Manuel Noriega, a former US ally who was notorious for facilitating drug smugglers, to surrender to US forces, thanks in no small part to The Clash’s “I Fought The Law” played at high volumes on infinite loop outside the Vatican Embassy, where Noriega was holed up.
Bush I also famously puked in the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister (which arguably made him amusingly more popular at a time when many feared the economic rise of Japan).
Still, an above-average presidency could not endear Bush I to the American people like Clinton’s charisma and saxophone. Bush I’s tax policies made many Republicans feel betrayed, and Clinton easily won the presidency in 1992.
Clinton’s administration was marked by a strange combination of largely conservative policies and harsh attacks from the Right. Republicans were aggressive early on, constantly investigating his every move. From the Whitewater real estate scandal to his extra-marital affair with Lewinsky (his denial of which prompted an impeachment), Clinton’s presidency was constantly under legal attack from Republicans.
Still, his policies were largely moderate or conservative. He continued Bush’s work on the Brady Bill and NAFTA, signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act (the largest Federal obstacle to gay marriage being recognized nationwide), and enacted the now infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military.
Clinton gets, and deserves, quite a bit of credit for the economic boom that occurred during his presidency. His mantra had been “It’s the economy, stupid,” and the policies of his administration largely opened the door for the internet’s exploding popularity and influence. Clinton was the first in years and the last to date to not only balance the budget, but even run a surplus. Coupled with the success of the previous fiscal responsibility of George H.W. Bush, the longest uninterrupted period of economic growth occurred under Bush I and Clinton.
Clinton might be the easy choice for best president of the last 40 years, and he’s almost undeniably the best two-term president since Eisenhower.
Then we have George W. Bush… oh boy. In most ways, Reagan was much worse than Bush, but in other ways… the things I would like to say about W would land me on a list of some sort.
Bush made torture part of US policy. He suppressed and intimidated many who opposed his policies. He ran up record deficits, bogged America down in two wars, signed the unconstitutional PATRIOT ACT into law, and, oh yeah, just sat there with a dumb look on his face as the US was under attack. He banned Federal funding of stem-cell research, holding medicine back by years. He basically handed the EPA over to the oil companies. He ignored the victims of hurricane Katrina. He essentially ruined twelve years of progress at the federal level and embodied the very idea that government can’t do anything right, both in word and action.
Bush did have some successes. He took an active interest in Africa, and experts on the matter say he did more for the continent than any president before him. He was also notable for his support of the space program. Still, his presidency does not exactly put him in the running for any awards except “Worst Human Being Alive.” His legacy may be doomed, because unlike Reagan (who was deified until the very end by Republicans), Bush II was not popular, even on the right, by the end of his presidency. Most clear-thinking individuals see him as one of America’s great mistakes.
Then you have Obama, whose presidency has so far been comparable to Clinton. Whether this is an indication of his ability to get re-elected or be remembered as an effective leader is still up in the air, but my instincts say he will probably be remembered in certain circles as better than Clinton, and amongst the general population as being Bill’s less-horny clone.
Obama suffers from the same problem Clinton did: he is a moderate centrist who frequently backs conservative policies, yet conservatives are so bitter (perhaps at his ability to be a more effective Republican than their failed candidate) that they are blinded by hate to his handful of successes. And Obama has had successes, even though he has let many liberals down (like myself, not that I voted for him).
His economic policies have been very sound, despite the chorus of conservative screeching to the contrary. Unless things nosedive between now and the election, he will have successfully navigated a recovery from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression… in three and a half years. If so, this would be unprecedented.
He also oversaw the largest healthcare overhaul in US history, while keeping all the power in the hands of private insurers (in the model of Republican governors like Mitt Romney’s model in Massachusetts). He also oversaw the killing of some guy named “Osama bin Laden.” Many of the things Republicans attribute to Obama (like TARP and massive deficits) were policies signed into law by Bush II and out of Obama’s hands.
His primary liberal accomplishment has been the ending of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” allowing gay people to serve openly in the military. He also helped create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, with the help of stalwart financial sector reformers like Elizabeth Warren.
However, he has kept Guantanamo Bay open, he kept alive the Bush II tradition of infringing upon civil liberties for the sake of “national security,” he continues to prosecute California medical marijuana dispensaries, and he has not kept a handful of other campaign promises (notably regarding the environment and corporate regulation).
Still, Obama has already had a more successful presidency than any Republican in the last 40 years except George H.W. Bush. Like Carter, Obama is notable for not having done much that is too objectionable (though there are those who say his indefinite-detention and unmanned drone policies are problematic, to say the least).
I think, if you look over the last 40 years, it’s down to Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and maybe (if one is being generous) Barack Obama. Between those first three, it’s almost impossible to tell which was the best president. It really comes down to what you value, and which of them did more that you personally support.
Or, as is likely the case with those who votes for the likes of Reagan, Clinton, Obama or maybe even Carter, it might be a matter of who you like as a person more (Bush I was not a likeable guy… but you have to be foolish to question his actual credentials and results). For most of those who pick someone like Reagan or Obama (or perhaps even Clinton, in some cases), what you’re seeing is largely emotional devotion, not to the actual man or his policies, but the idea of him, to the ideals people wish these presidents embodied, rather than the actual policies.
Personally, I still cannot pick a “favorite.” I think it comes down to Carter, Bush I and Clinton, with Obama possibly making the list after his presidency is over and his legacy is better understood, but of the first three… I couldn’t even try to say which was better. I would have loved to see a second term out of Carter, and it’s hard to tell what the American landscape would look like if Reagan had died in 1981 and Bush I had taken over at that point (he could then only run once more in 1984, since he would have been president for over 2 years in the first term).
Who did/would you pick, and why?