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In historians' Presidents Day survey, Biden vs. Trump is not a close call

President Biden is rated highly in a survey of historians on presidential greatness — but he's in a tight race with former President Trump, who is ranked last.
Jim Watson and Brendan Smialowski
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden is rated highly in a survey of historians on presidential greatness — but he's in a tight race with former President Trump, who is ranked last.

President Biden is in a tight race to keep former President Donald Trump from reclaiming the White House, recent polls show. But that's not how 154 historians and presidential experts see it: They rate Biden in the top third of U.S. presidents, while Trump ranks dead last.

The 2024 edition of the Presidential Greatness Project Expert Survey has Biden in 14th place, just ahead of Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan. Trump comes in 45th, behind fellow impeachee Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan, the perennial cellar-dweller in such ratings due to his pre-Civil War leadership.

"While partisanship and ideology don't tend to make a major difference overall, there are a few distinctions worth noting," said political scientists Brandon Rottinghaus of the University of Houston and Justin S. Vaughn of Coastal Carolina University, who first published their greatness survey in 2015.

Experts responding to the survey who self-identified as conservatives rated Biden No. 30, while liberals put him 13th and moderates ranked him 20th. All three of those same groups ranked Trump, whose presidency was marked by his flouting of historical norms, in the bottom five.

On the survey's 0-100 scale of "overall greatness," a rating of 50 means a president was average, while zero means a president is considered a failure. Only the top three presidents — Abraham Lincoln at No. 1, followed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and then George Washington — scored above 90. The drop-off was sharp from there, with no one else above an 80 rating. Roughly half the presidents were rated below 50.

Trump's overall rating was 10.92, easily the worst showing, while Biden's 62.66 had him tied with John Adams. Some of Biden's appeal could be due to the person he followed in the Oval Office: Trump was seen as "by far the most polarizing of the ranked presidents, selected by 170 respondents," according to a summary of the survey.

The survey emerges as these two contenders for the 2024 presidential race are running against distinctly different headwinds. While historians might prefer Biden, polls show a lack of confidence in his handling of key policy areas, and he is routinely criticized over his age. And Trump appears to be romping his way to another Republican nomination to lead the U.S. despite facing 91 felony criminal counts and lingering disapproval over his one-term presidency.

In a sign of partisan divide, the academics wrote, "Republicans and Conservatives rank George Washington as the greatest president," while Democrats, moderates and independents slotted the nation's founding president in second or third place.

"There are also several presidents where partisan polarization is evident — Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Obama, and Biden — but interestingly not for Bill Clinton," the survey's authors said.

In fact, Clinton fared a bit better among right-leaning respondents, who put him at No. 10, than among liberals and moderates, both of whom had Clinton as the 12th-best president.

Measuring presidential greatness is, of course, both subjective and selective. Historians routinely reanalyze leaders' successes and failures — and in today's polarized political climate, those qualities can look very different, depending on whom you ask. It can also be difficult to extract distinct criteria for presidential greatness, other than helming the United States during critical moments in history — such as helping found the country or keeping the nation together.

For instance, the survey's greatest leader, Lincoln, is praised for preserving the Union and ending slavery. But Washington, who fell from second to third place in the new survey, was a practitioner of that abomination. Even Roosevelt, credited with both enacting New Deal policies that reshaped the country and leading the U.S. through the bulk of a world war, is also criticized for ordering the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The survey's goal is to give historians and experts on the presidency a chance to state their opinion of where today's leaders stand in a broader context. To do so, Rottinghaus and Vaughn sent requests to current and recent members of the Presidents and Executive Politics section of the American Political Science Association.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer, reporter and editor, and a leader on NPR's flagship digital news team. He has frequently contributed to NPR's audio and social media platforms, including hosting dozens of live shows online.