Ranking the presidents: Why Obama debuted at No. 12 on the list

Former President Barack Obama has an impressive first showing in C-SPAN's 2017 Presidential Historians Survey.

Nati Harnik/AP/File
An Abraham Lincoln look-alike, interacts with members of the audience before an election rally by Republican vice presidential candidate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016. The 2017 Presidential Historians Survey ranks Lincoln as No. 1.

Just in time for Presidents' Day, the presidential rankings are in.

According to C-SPAN’s Presidential History Survey 2017, former President Barack Obama is the 12th best presidential leader in United States' history. 

Using a database of C-SPAN programming, 91 historians and presidential scholars evaluated the 44 presidents by giving them a score between one and 10 on 10 different leadership qualities such as “economic management,” “crisis leadership,” “moral authority,” and “vision/setting an agenda.” 

Mr. Obama did best in the “pursued equal justice for all,” category with an overall average of 83.2, placing him third behind Abraham Lincoln (first) and Lyndon Johnson (second). His worst performing category was “relations with Congress,” with a score of 37.8, placing him fifth from the bottom, just beneath William Harrison and Richard Nixon. 

This is the third such ranking, with previous C-SPAN surveys published in 2000 and 2009. 

As No. 12, Obama falls below Johnson (10th) and Woodrow Wilson (11th), and above James Monroe (13th) and James K. Polk (14th). 

Abraham Lincoln has consistently ranked as the best US president for the three surveys, followed by George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

“Once again the Big Three are Lincoln, Washington and FDR – as it should be,” says Rice University historian and survey adviser Douglas Brinkley in a press release. “That Obama came in at number 12 his first time out is quite impressive. And the survey is surprisingly good news for George W. Bush, who shot up a few notches.” 

Other historians are surprised Obama wasn’t higher on the list.

“Although 12th is a respectable overall ranking, one would have thought that former President Obama’s favorable rating when he left office would have translated into a higher ranking in this presidential survey. I am especially surprised that he was ranked at 7th in moral authority, despite heading a scandal-free administration,” says Dr. Edna Greene Medford, a history professor at Howard University and survey adviser. “But, of course, historians prefer to view the past from a distance, and only time will reveal his legacy.” 

Even though a president’s time in office has passed, their ranking is history is anything but absolute. 

Along with George W. Bush's improvement, Dwight Eisenhower also moved up three spots to claim No. 5. Andrew Jackson is the biggest loser of the 2017 survey, who moved down five spots to number 18.

Thus, Obama could one year break into the Top 10 as his presidency continues to be compared against future and past presidents. He is currently lagging 18 points behind 10th place Johnson. Obama, Bill Clinton (15th), and George H.W. Bush (20th) are the only living former presidents to make the Top 20.

“There tends to be kind of an upward mobility, particularly if you are a president who had no major scandals,” Professor Brinkley tells NBC. “If the Trump presidency is problematic, people may judge Obama even higher yet.” 

James Buchanan is listed as the worst president, with Franklin Pierce and Andrew Johnson earning next lowest spots. It does not bode well for their legacy that all three of these presidents were also put in the bottom three in 2000 and 2009. And along with John Tyler and Warren G. Harding, these three presidents are rated lower than William Henry Harrison who only served as president for one month.

“You never want to be lower than William Henry Harrison,” says Brinkley. “If you're below Harrison, the thought is that that you really damaged the executive branch during your tenure in office.”

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