The 1948 Schlesinger poll ranked Warren G. Harding, Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Zachary Taylor as the five worst presidents in American history. In the 1982 Siena poll, the list was the same, save for Andrew Johnson taking Taylor’s spot in the bottom five. Future iterations of the poll saw little turnover among the worst of the bunch, with Johnson, Buchanan, Harding and Pierce perennial presences.
“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,” Levy says. “Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding – they earned their spots at the bottom.”
In a bid to determine which presidents are viewed as the least successful in American history, U.S. News averaged the results of three recent scholarly surveys – the latest rankings from Siena College and C-SPAN, as well as a Presidential Greatness poll conducted by researchers at the University of Houston and Boise State.
Some of the results are unsurprising. Buchanan, Harding and the usual cast of presidential underachievers aren’t far from the bottom. But other administrations appear to have aged better with time. George W. Bush and Richard Nixon each fell into the bottom 10 in 2014, the last time U.S. News updated its Worst Presidents methodology. But both have climbed out from the dregs of American leadership, with Bush now tied for 11th-worst and Nixon placing 16th-worst.
“There is certainly precedent for movement. Bush is one example,” Levy says. “Sometimes we see presidents who – if we get to know them differently, as we’ve gotten to know the second Bush, even the first Bush somewhat as years go on – they climb a bit.”
The first Bush, for example, was seen as out of touch and unsympathetic to working folks at the end of his term in 1992, yet as time has passed his stewardship of America’s role in ending the Cold War has earned him praise. Similarly, his son was widely criticized for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, yet he has grown in stature since for showing his personal side through his paintings and other pursuits.