Happy Presidents’ Day!

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by Jeff Fecke • In honor of the day, for no particular reason, here are my rankings of the best and worst of the 43 Americans to serve as the head of our nation. (Note: Barack Obama gets an “incomplete” so far. Based on his early legislative prowess, he’d rank high on the list, but it’s too early to say for sure.)

Jeff Fecke is a freelance writer who lives in Eagan, Minnesota.In addition to his own blog, Blog of the Moderate Left, he also contributes to Alas, a Blog, Minnesota Campaign Report, and AlterNet. Fecke has appeared as a guest on the “Today” show, the Alan Colmes radio show, and the Mark Heaney Show. Fecke is divorced, and the father of one really terrific daughter. His debut novel, The Valkyrie’s Tale, is now available.

Best

1. Abraham Lincoln, 16th President, 1861-1865

Really, this one is easy: Lincoln led the war effort that successfully preserved a united republic, an effort that ended up ending the great national disgrace that was slavery. Some may argue that Lincoln didn’t free the slaves directly, using the Emancipation Proclamation as a weapon of war. That’s true enough, I suppose. But there’s no question that a loss by the Union would have prolonged the suffering and bondage of slaves in the Confederacy. Lincoln won the war, and the war ended slavery; for that alone, he is our greatest president.

2. George Washington, 1st President, 1789-1797

Washington doesn’t get the respect he deserves. Oh, sure, he’s father of our country, leader of the revolution, blah blah blah. He was a fine president, one who established our nation as a nation, not a loose collection of states. It can be argued that his actions in the Whiskey Rebellion suffused the idea of a strong federal government into the soul of the nation. If nothing else, his willingness to be President, not King, set the tone for most of our nation’s history.

3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President, 1933-1945

Republicans hate Roosevelt, mostly because he was so very right. Pump money into the economy to help end the Great Depression? Right. Establish a social safety net to ensure the elderly could live out their years in basic dignity? Right. Fight against Fascism and Naziism to preserve democracy? Right. All three of these were opposed by right-thinking Republicans of the time (yes, even World War II), and Roosevelt turned out to be flatly correct across the board. Nothing breeds emnity like being proven right; Roosevelt has been proven correct by history, and how.

4. James Madison, 4th President, 1809-1817

Madison led the nation successfully through the War of 1812, holding things together despite talk of secession in New England and the difficulty of getting states to cooperate. While that war was a particularly stupid and pointless one, it did establish once and for all that America was an independent nation, one that England would not be able to reconquer. Meanwhile, Madison showed flexibilty and ingenuity on the domestic front, allowing him to serve as an able and skilled — and underappreciated — leader.

5. Ronald Reagan, 40th President, 1981-1989

Reagan is a great president; that doesn’t mean he was always right or always perfect. Indeed, there were serious ethical concerns raised by the Iran Contra affair. But he managed to revitalize America after the long malaise of the 1970s, and hastened the end of the Cold War, not least because he was willing to compromise his principles to meet with, and come to agreement with, the Soviet Union. Indeed, Reagan’s presidency would have him hated by the current right, who would hate that he dared to raise taxes (boo!) and negotiate with the Russkies (double boo!) — two decisions that he was 100% right about.

Honorable Mention: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Bill Clinton

Worst

40. Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President, 1869-1877

Grant was a great general. But he was an abysmal president, who presided over a corrupt and inefficient administration, severely damaging the Republican Party and setting the stage for the “corrupt bargain” election of 1876, which effectively ended reconstruction.

41. Herbert Hoover, 31st President, 1929-1933

Hoover responded to the Great Depression just as the right tells us he should have — by pushing voluntary action among banks. It worked as well as one might expect. His big government actions involved raising tariffs to confiscatory levels, which touched off a trade war and further damaged the economy, and deporting half a million Mexican immigrants, which also managed not to improve the economy. He was crushed by Roosevelt in 1932, and rightly so.

42. Richard M. Nixon, 37th President, 1969-1974

The only president to resign the office, Nixon was corrupt, evil, and awful. The Imperial Presidency has its roots in his administration; his actions showed contempt for the Constitution, the rule of law, and common decency. From paying hush money to cover up a burglary of the Democratic National Committee to employing a terrorist who planned to bomb the Brookings Institution, Nixon was simply a train wreck from start to finish. He’s universally considered a terrible president and human being, and that’s not nearly enough opprobrium for him.

43. George W. Bush, 43rd President, 2001-2009

George W. Bush had the reverse Midas Touch: everything he touched turned to dross. Whether it was invading a country that didn’t have weapons of mass destruction to eliminate the weapons of mass destruction that country didn’t have, or strumming while the City of New Orleans flooded; whether it was becoming the first president since Hoover to actually see America lose jobs on his watch, or whether it was making a huge and unconstitutional power grab for the executive branch; whether it was torturing prisoners in Guantanamo or watching the stock market tank, George W. Bush was a disaster from the day he took office to the day he left. He was less purely evil than Nixon, but he made up for it by being staggeringly incompetent, and obviously unqualified for the job. He will be long remembered as one of the most pathetic figures ever to serve in the office; historians will laugh at us for re-electing him.

44. James Buchanan, 15th President, 1857-1861

As bad as Bush and Nixon and Hoover were, there’s no question that the worst president in American history was the feckless, overmatched, passive Pennsylvanian, who sat on his hands as the nation fell apart. Oh, sure, he held that southern secession was illegal, but he also held that there was nothing the north could do, and so he did absolutely nothing, setting the stage for the bloodiest disaster in American history.

Dishonorable Mention: Andrew Johnson, Warren G. Harding, Millard Fillmore, Jimmy Carter, William Henry Harrison

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