Hindsight 120: Rating Our Modern Presidents On Inauguration Day

Since today we’ll see at least a mostly-peaceful transfer of power, with Joe Biden taking office following a presidential election and transition period which can charitably be described as irregular, perhaps it’s appropriate to look back in history to see, from a conservative perspective, where outgoing President Donald Trump rates.

Pretty well, we think.

We’re going to categorize the presidents of the last 120 years, marking the beginning of our examination not from Inauguration Day in 1901 but rather September 14 of that year when President William McKinley died from a gunshot wound he suffered at the hands of Leon Czolgosz, a left-wing lunatic calling himself an anarchist. It wouldn’t be fair to include McKinley as a 20th and 21st century president with so limited a time in office.

Our four categories: Positive Change Agents, Competent Managers, Determined Wreckers, and Abject Bums. We won’t rank the members of these categories: they’ll appear in chronological order of their tenures in office.

Positive Change Agents

1. Teddy Roosevelt: The modern conservative perspective on Roosevelt has been that he was overrated, and that as a progressive Republican he was essentially a modern-day RINO. But TR needs to be evaluated on the basis of his time, and there is a major similarity between the early 20th century and today in an important respect: then, as now, critical industries were falling into what was seen as oppressive and harmful monopolies. Roosevelt engaged in a vigorous dose of trust-busting which ultimately resulted in the breakup of Standard Oil, Ma Bell and U.S. Steel, and while that seems icky from a free-market perspective, viewed in the context of 2021 it isn’t bad at all. Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon are every bit the predatory monopolistic companies the trusts of the early 20th century were, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for a modern Teddy Roosevelt to come along and break them apart in the name of an open economy. Roosevelt was also an early adopter of peace through strength and the first to assert America’s status as a world power without fighting a war to do it. Roosevelt’s later wrecking of the GOP and splitting the vote to allow Woodrow Wilson is a black mark on his escutcheon we won’t hold against him for the purposes of this piece; we’re merely evaluating him for his time in office.

2. John F. Kennedy: Kennedy is the lone liberal to make this category, though in a modern context there isn’t a whole lot that can be recognized as left-of-center. He was a little bit weak in dealing with Soviet aggression, particularly at the beginning of his term – Khrushchev ate his lunch in Vienna, and that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis – but he also understood the dangers of the DC swamp and acted to reform it. Kennedy also understood the value of market economics and instituted a wave of tax cuts which fueled an economic boom. His legacy wasn’t a perfect one, but he did inspire and set in motion the mission to the moon, which still stands as the greatest achievement of mankind; getting there first proved that capitalism is superior to communism, and for that achievement he belongs on this list even despite his short time in office.

3. Ronald Reagan: Reagan stands as the best president of the modern era mostly for his having established a clear, understandable formula for American success. That being his three-legged stool: fiscal conservatism, social conservatism and a vigorous emphasis on national defense and anti-communism. Reagan had a vision of a victory in the Cold War at a time when most of the so-called experts were more interested in managing America’s loss of it. And like Kennedy, Reagan’s tax cuts – and deregulation – led to an economic boom. No presidency is perfect, and Reagan had a deficit problem a Democrat Congress wouldn’t let him solve. The Iran-Contra scandal, which arose mostly because that Democrat Congress refused to fund our efforts to fight communism in Central America, was less a black mark on Reagan’s record than a necessary evil the times required.

4. Donald Trump: At the end of the day, we’re probably going to look at Trump and realize it was always a long shot to get a second term from him; you can’t be the kind of change agent he’s been and manage to get re-elected. Trump’s mistakes were plentiful: he didn’t hire well and was repeatedly stabbed in the back by disloyal and incompetent underlings, he allowed bureaucrats to botch the COVID response and he went overboard on Twitter and allowed it to become a distraction after it had been an asset to getting him into the White House. But like Reagan he gave us tax cuts and deregulation which sparked an economic boom, and most importantly Trump recognized the damage American policy toward China was doing and changed course dramatically.

Competent Managers

1. Warren G. Harding: Historians commonly say that Harding, who died in 1923 after serving only a little more than two years as president, is one of the worst American presidents, but that’s more of a profession of political bias than real history. The fact is Harding, who succeeded the insane tyrant Woodrow Wilson, did a great deal to pull America out of the awful state Wilson left it in. He began a program of federal budget cuts and drawdowns in the size and scope of government that was desperately needed after World War I, he negotiated the Washington Naval Conference, which was at the time perhaps the most significant disarmament treaty in world history, he kept America out of the ill-fated League of Nations, and he presided over an economic boom thanks to tax cuts and deregulation. When Harding died he was tremendously popular as a result. After his death a number of scandals involving his subordinates, the most famous of them being the Teapot Dome scandal that in a modern light seems pretty tame, surfaced and those were used to declare Harding a bad president. We would take a Warren Harding over what’s coming with a smile.

2. Calvin Coolidge: Coolidge almost reaches the status of Positive Change Agent due to his singularly fabulous work in shrinking the size and scope of the federal government, but while he’s definitely our kind of president we can’t quite go that far. Coolidge’s foreign policy was a bit on the myopic side, which planted the seeds of authoritarian tyranny elsewhere, and a number of items that went unaddressed during his time in office culminated in the disaster of the 1929 stock market crash. Nevertheless, Silent Cal understood that smaller government is better, and he meant it, and he made it work.

3. Harry S. Truman: We’re being exceptionally generous here, because on economics Truman was an unmitigated disaster, and his management of the Korean War was questionable at best. Having said that, Truman escapes the Abject Bums category for one very good reason; he had the fortitude to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and end World War II in a favorable light. Yes, those bombs killed staggering numbers of people, but raids with incendiary bombs on other Japanese cities were more destructive of human life. And the Japanese simply would not have surrendered without his decision to go nuclear – something that was bound to lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in an invasion, and a likely partition of Japan a la Korea and Vietnam once the Soviets jumped in as they were bound to do. Otherwise, though, no – as much as people like to tout Truman, he was not a good president.

4. Dwight D. Eisenhower: Eisenhower is the definition of “competent manager,” and he gave America The Fifties just as Coolidge and Harding gave us The Twenties and Reagan The Eighties. Ike wasn’t much of a reformer, and it was the Republican Congress during Truman’s time which pulled the country out of the war economy Truman was trying to maintain. But Ike managed to keep things relatively stable economically, and even with sky-high tax rates the economy managed to take off anyway thanks to immense pent-up post-war demand. He also acted to promote civil rights, particularly in the South, even sending in troops to enforce the law. His management of the Cold War, including salvaging the outcome in Korea, was quite satisfactory. And Eisenhower’s warning about the growth of the military-industrial complex continues to resonate through the ages.

5. Richard Nixon: There’s certainly a lot not to like about Nixon, though what everybody remembers is Watergate. By modern standards that is a nothingburger of a scandal, and its elevation to something by which an otherwise successful president would be brought down seems puzzling in retrospect other than to serve as an example of the partisan bias of historians and media types. Nevertheless, Nixon was a bit of a victim of economic reality, namely that at the time of his presidency America had become too dependent on foreign oil and suffered the consequences of it in the 1970’s.  He was a victim of social conditions in the country, as when he took office America was a mess. He was also a victim of circumstance having been left a mess of a war in Vietnam by his predecessor. Nixon’s management of that war, amid a media which was North Vietnam’s best ally, really deserves a great deal of credit; people don’t realize it but we actually had the thing won before Watergate corroded his presidency. The opening to China was another achievement poisoned by subsequent poor management. Nixon’s time in office was really an exercise in crisis management, and it could have gone a whole lot worse.

Determined Wreckers

1. Woodrow Wilson: We’re going to go ahead and say Wilson was the worst of the presidents included in this list, in that he did more damage than any of the Abject Bums did. Wilson had some 175,000 political prisoners filling up America’s jails, many of whom didn’t belong there (though lots of them did), he instituted something called War Socialism during World War I, he was perhaps the most vigorous racist in American presidential history, he wasted an obscene amount of effort on the ill-fated League of Nations and his management of the Versailles Treaty was nothing short of abysmal. Wilson ran America more or less as a socialist dictator while denouncing socialism and imprisoning socialists. So naturally the media and the academic historians consider him a great president.

2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: FDR was more destructive than Wilson, but then he had four terms, rather than two, in which to impose his destruction. Roosevelt was a practitioner of what he called “bold, persistent experimentation” with the American economy, which translated in real life as nonstop uncertainty and destruction of the private sector. While Teddy Roosevelt was a trust-buster, FDR was an economic centralizer, putting incumbent corporations essentially in charge of their sectors of the economy and crushing small business. In doing so he turned a steep economic recession into a prolonged Great Depression that really didn’t even go away when World War II came. And FDR doesn’t get a lot of credit for his management of World War II, either; Pearl Harbor was one of the most pronounced failures of military readiness in American history, and it was followed by the disaster of the Philippines. That the war turned around on FDR’s watch is a tribute to the American people, not him.

3. Lyndon Baines Johnson: There is nothing to like about Johnson, the creator of the modern welfare state and the abjectly failed Great Society. We were tempted to place him in the Abject Bums category, except for the fact that Johnson was as consequential as he was awful. He committed the federal government to a program of economic redistributionism, and he did it for one reason, and one reason only: as he said to a Southern governor aboard Air Force One, “I’ll have those ni****s voting Democrat for two hundred years.” It was Johnson who created the modern Democrat plantation, and it was Johnson who set the tone for the destruction of our cities. He also gave us the Vietnam War, which he proceeded to micromanage to death and put us in great jeopardy of losing the Cold War.

4. Bill Clinton: Below, we’ll lay a great deal of criticism on George H.W. Bush for his mismanagement of China following the Tiananmen Square Massacre, but nobody is more to blame for the existential problem of China than Bill Clinton, who absolutely sold this country out to the Chinese Communist Party. Clinton was all about selling America out, as he proved with his crooked influence-peddling “charitable” foundation after he left office. Clinton’s eight years were marked by non-stop moral turpitude and the sullying of the office, and he shouldn’t get credit for things like his crime bill – which was a disaster for the black community in this country – and welfare reform, which was a Republican idea he glommed onto. Clinton put us into a needless war in the Balkans, he gave us Black Hawk Down in Mogadishu and he set the stage for 9/11 by not doing anything about the burgeoning Islamic terror threat.

5. Barack Obama: While Wilson and FDR set the tone as the legendary wreckers of America as founded, Obama was far and away the most determined of the wreckers. He was the first president – arguably, as this could be said of Wilson in his time – to actively disdain the country which elected him. Wilson liked America; he just hated our Constitution. Obama hated everything about us and set about to effect a “fundamental transformation.” Which he did, greatly morphing the DC swamp into what’s now known as the Deep State, weaponizing the law enforcement and intelligence apparatus against ordinary Americans and creating a class of privileged elite immune from our laws. He sicced the IRS on political opponents in ways Nixon only dreamed of, and he led the Far Left not just into the Democrat Party (it had mostly been on the fringes of mainstream politics and usually wasn’t even a factor in American elections) but into its leadership. Everything which terrifies people about a Biden administration comes out of Barack Obama. And of course, let’s not forget FISAgate and the Trump-Russia hoax, which was absolutely a Barack Obama production.

Abject Bums

1. William Howard Taft: We wanted to include Taft in the Competent Manager category, as our inclination is that he was a victim of circumstance given the split between conservatives and progressives in the GOP at the time, but frankly we just can’t do it. Taft wasn’t so much a victim of circumstance as he was the victim of his own weak leadership. He followed in Teddy Roosevelt’s footsteps and took office after the 1908 election Roosevelt bequeathed to him, and then he proceeded to ruin the relationship between the two to such an extent that Roosevelt gave him a primary challenge in 1912 and after he lost he went the third-party route and secured Wilson’s election that year. Taft presided over the creation of the federal income tax, a monster which quickly got out of control, and he began a pattern of complete mismanagement of American policy in Latin America which set the stage for the region to become a Cold War battleground. You’ll notice the wreckers were all preceded by Abject Bums. That’s not a coincidence, it’s a determinative pattern.

2. Herbert Hoover: Hoover was the Mitt Romney of his day. Everybody thought he was the consummate executive who knew how to run things; Hoover’s management of the Great Flood of the Mississippi was seen as a marvel. But as president, the arrogance of his “expert” management exacted a heavy toll. Hoover responded to the 1929 stock market crash, which everybody knew was coming – Coolidge warned about it in the newspaper column he began writing after leaving office – with both crippling economic tariffs that closed off the world economy and super-tight economic regulation that Roosevelt ultimately repackaged as his New Deal. It was a disaster, and while FDR bears the majority of the responsibility for the Great Depression, Hoover was its father.

3. Gerald Ford: Ford pardoned Nixon, which is what he’s best known for, and he presided over the loss of the Vietnam War when Democrats in Congress refused to hold up their end and fund military aid to the South Vietnamese government. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost needlessly as a result, and while that blood is mostly on the hands of those Democrats it’s a failure of Ford’s. He goes down as one of the true RINO presidents, utterly without a meaningful accomplishment. Perhaps he never had much of a chance at one given the circumstances with which he took office, but he should have gotten out of the way in 1976 and let Reagan run against…

4. Jimmy Carter: Carter ran as the conservative Southern Democrat and therefore the answer to Nixon, who was no longer the question. And as president he was the pinnacle of weak leadership. He completely botched Iran and its revolution and gave us the hostage crisis as a result. He presided over the collapse of our military readiness, something which might have been disastrous had he a second term. His economic record was an abject shambles. And Carter was stupid enough to actually use the word “malaise” to describe the American condition, something a president should never say. That he’s been a preachy anti-American leftist following his presidency only punctuates his poor performance in office.

5. George H. W. Bush: You might like to say Bush 41 was a Competent Manager, but he wasn’t. He took office following eight super-successful years of Reagan, presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union thanks to Reagan’s leadership, and proceeded to squander that legacy. Bush promised a “kinder, gentler America” which was an insult to Reagan, and was rewarded with a Democrat Congress bound and determined to bend him over and force him to go back on his no-new-taxes pledge. Which they easily made him do. Bush 41’s greatest achievement, the amazing victory in the Gulf War, amounted to nothing. It was needless and over time only made things worse. And when the Cold War was ending in victory for the free world, Bush decided to welcome a bloodthirsty Chinese Communist regime, red in tooth and claw following Tiananmen Square, to the party under the stupidly naive idea that trading with them would turn them all into Jeffersonian democrats. That began the hollowing out of our industrial base.

6. George W. Bush: Bush 43 at least managed to get re-elected, unlike his father, but only because Ross Perot was too old to run again and John Kerry was probably the easiest opponent imaginable. While Clinton bears much of the blame for 9/11, the fact was that Bush 43 had eight months to do something about our lack of readiness against the Islamic terror threat and didn’t, and then after the Twin Towers fell his idea was to go to Afghanistan and turn it into Belgium and then to invade Iraq to do…what, we’re still not sure. Meanwhile the economic appeasement of China which began under his father and took flower under Clinton only got worse. Like 41, Bush 43 insulted Republican voters by championing “compassionate conservatism,” as though conservatives aren’t compassionate. He did nothing about illegal immigration as the country was swamped by illegals and working class Americans found themselves unable to get ahead in what was otherwise a decent economy. Please, never a Bush Republican again.

We would find it quite difficult to imagine Biden lands anywhere but the Abject Bums category, though the people controlling him might well be able to exert enough force to put him into the Determined Wreckers slot. Either way, it won’t get any better over the next four years and we had better have a Positive Change Agent ready to win in 2024 – or else.

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