Champlain College Historian Weighs In on Presidential Leadership Ranking Survey

Presidents portraits

As the nation marks Presidents Day 2017, C-SPAN has released the results of its third Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership, in which a cross-section of 91 presidential historians ranked the 43 former occupants of the White House on 10 attributes of leadership.

As in C-SPAN's first two surveys, released in 2000 and 2009, Abraham Lincoln receives top billing among the historians. George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Theodore Roosevelt retain their top five status, while Dwight Eisenhower moves into the top five for the first time.

As he has for the two previous surveys, Champlain College Professor Willard Sterne Randall joined historians, biographers and observers of the presidency to share his opinions in the survey held when the occupant of the White House has changed in this millennium. The 91 experts were asked to evaluate all the past presidents for their qualities of leadership and rank them. "The 10 categories don't change, but our view of our leaders can. It seems to be shaped by the times we're living in as well as what we have learned about them since the last evaluation," Randall said. 

"This is the third time C-Span has asked me to take part. Each time I try to drop everything, as much as possible, for a month or so and take a fresh look. I never look back at the last survey. I bone up on Presidents I have known less about. I try to figure out what qualities really matter and then I weigh them against the circumstances, especially the crises, each president has faced.," Sterne noted. "Many presidents look better in the rearview mirror of history than you remember from their own time. Sometimes the results are surprising. Presidential ratings can go up or down, but there's always room at the bottom."

Willard Sterne Randall Randall is an American historian and author who specializes in biographies related to the American colonial period and the American Revolution. He teaches American history at Champlain College. His books include biographies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and Ethan Allen.

In the 2017 Survey, former President Barack Obama enters the ranks for the first time in the #12 position. Notably, his leadership category ratings range from #3 for "Pursued Equal Justice for All," to #39 for "Relations with Congress." His predecessor, George W. Bush, has benefitted somewhat from the passing of years: His ranking at #33, is up three places from our 2009 survey. Dwight Eisenhower also advanced three spots since 2009, moving to the #5 position from #8 overall. Bill Clinton remains unchanged at #15.

The biggest presidential loser from the C-Span 2009 survey is Andrew Jackson, who was #13 in 2009, and who now stands at #18 overall.Three presidents continue to hold the same bottom rankings as they did in 2000 and 2009: James Buchanan remains in

Three presidents continue to hold the same bottom rankings as they did in 2000 and 2009: James Buchanan remains in last place at #43, preceded by Andrew Johnson (#42), and Franklin Pierce (#41). Note that they rank even lower than William Henry Harrison, who served for only one month. The most-average U.S. president, as rated by our historian participants is Ulysses S. Grant, who ranks 22 out of 43 presidents.

A team of academic advisors has guided C-SPAN for each of its three surveys: Dr. Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History at Rice University; Dr. Edna Greene Medford, Professor of History, Howard University; and Richard Norton Smith, presidential historian and biographer. The team approved the 10 criteria, the same used in C-SPAN's 2000 and 2009 Surveys, consulted on the list of invited participants, and supervised the reporting of the results.

Full rankings for each of the 43 presidents are available at here.

C-SPAN's academic advisors devised a survey in which participants used a one ("not effective") to ten ("very effective") scale to rate each president on ten qualities of presidential leadership: "Public Persuasion," "Crisis Leadership," "Economic Management," "Moral Authority," "International Relations," "Administrative Skills," "Relations with Congress," "Vision/Setting An Agenda," "Pursued Equal Justice for All," and "Performance Within the Context of His Times." Surveys were distributed to historians, biographers, and other professional observers of the presidency, drawn from a database of C-SPAN's programming, augmented by suggestions from the academic advisors. Participants were guaranteed that individual survey results would remain confidential. Survey responses were tabulated by averaging all responses in a given category for each president. Each of the ten categories was given equal weighting in the total scores. Overseeing tabulations, as they did for the past two surveys, were C-SPAN co-CEO/CFO Robert Kennedy and Dr. Robert Browning, a political scientist who serves as Executive Director of the C-SPAN Archives.

About C-SPAN
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Founded in 1878, Champlain College is a small, not-for-profit, private college in Burlington, Vermont, with additional campuses in Montreal, Canada, and Dublin, Ireland. Champlain offers a traditional undergraduate experience from its beautiful campus overlooking Lake Champlain and over 90 residential undergraduate and online undergraduate and graduate degree programs and certificates. Champlain's distinctive career-driven approach to higher education embodies the notion that true learning occurs when information and experience come together to create knowledge. Champlain College is included in the Princeton Review's The Best 384 Colleges: 2019 Edition. For the fourth year in a row, Champlain was named a "Most Innovative School" in the North by U.S. News & World Report's 2019 "America's Best Colleges,” and a “Best Value School” and is ranked in the top 100 “Regional Universities of the North” and in the top 25 for “Best Undergraduate Teaching.” Champlain is also featured in the Fiske Guide to Colleges for 2019 as one of the "best and most interesting schools" in the United States, Canada and Great Britain and is a 2019 College of Distinction. For more information, visit