The top 20 presidents in US history, according to historians

Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton both made the top 20.

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Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton both made the top 20.
source
White House/Pete Souza

  • Abraham Lincoln was voted the best president in US history in a survey.
  • Nearly 100 historians and biographers rated 43 US presidents on 10 qualities of presidential leadership.
  • Notable best presidents include George Washington at No. 2, Thomas Jefferson at No. 7, and Barack Obama at No. 12.

It should come as little surprise that for the third time in a row, historians agreed that Abraham Lincoln was the best US president.

For C-SPAN’s third Presidential Historians Survey, nearly 100 historians and biographers rated 43 US presidents on 10 qualities of presidential leadership: public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision, pursued equal justice for all, and performance within the context of his times.

Scores in each category were then averaged, and the 10 categories were given equal weighting in determining the presidents’ total scores.

Notable top presidents include George Washington at No. 2, Thomas Jefferson at No. 7, and Barack Obama at No. 12.

While some historians weren’t shocked that Obama didn’t rank higher overall on the list – “That Obama came in at No. 12 his first time out is quite impressive,” Douglas Brinkley of Rice University said – others were surprised by his lower-than-expected leadership rankings, including No. 7 in moral authority and No. 8 in economic management.

“But, of course, historians prefer to view the past from a distance, and only time will reveal his legacy,” Edna Greene Medford of Howard University said.

Here are the top 20 presidents, according to historians surveyed by C-SPAN.


20. George H. W. Bush

Best leadership quality and rank: international relations, No. 8


19. John Adams

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Wikimedia Commons

Best leadership quality and rank: moral authority, No. 11


18. Andrew Jackson

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Wikimedia Commons

Best leadership quality and rank: public persuasion, No. 7


17. James Madison

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Wikimedia Commons

Best leadership quality and rank: moral authority, No. 9


16. William McKinley Jr.

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Public domain

Best leadership quality and rank: relations with Congress, No. 10


15. Bill Clinton

Best leadership quality and rank: economic management, No. 3


14. James K. Polk

source
Wikimedia Commons

Best leadership quality and rank: crisis leadership and administrative skills, both No. 9


13. James Monroe

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Wikimedia Commons

Best leadership quality and rank: international relations, No. 7


12. Barack Obama

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REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Best leadership quality and rank: pursued equal justice for all, No. 3


11. Woodrow Wilson

Best leadership quality and rank: vision, No. 7


10. Lyndon B. Johnson

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Wikimedia commons

Best leadership quality and rank: relations with Congress, No. 1


9. Ronald Reagan

source
Wikimedia Commons

Best leadership quality and rank: public persuasion, No. 5


8. John F. Kennedy

source
JFK Library

Best leadership quality and rank: public persuasion, No. 6


7. Thomas Jefferson

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Wikipedia

Best leadership quality and rank: relations with Congress, vision, both No. 5


6. Harry S. Truman

source
Getty Images

Best leadership quality and rank: crisis leadership, pursued equal justice for all, both No. 4


5. Dwight D. Eisenhower

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via We Are The Mighty

Best leadership quality and rank: moral authority, No. 4


4. Theodore Roosevelt

source
Reuters

Best leadership quality and rank: public persuasion, No. 2


3. Franklin D. Roosevelt

source
Wikimedia Commons

Best leadership quality and rank: public persuasion, international relations, both No. 1


2. George Washington

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Wikimedia Commons

Best leadership quality and rank: economic management, moral authority, performance within the context of his times, all No. 1


1. Abraham Lincoln

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Wikimedia

Best leadership quality and rank: crisis leadership, administrative skills, vision, pursued equal justice for all, all No. 1