Who was the worst president in the history of the US?

Yahoo UK Staff
·6 min read
US President Donald Trump arrives for the Independence Day events at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, July 3, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
Donald Trump at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, earlier this year. (AFP via Getty Images)

Words by Joaquim Utset

On more than one occasion, Donald Trump has declared his admiration for Mount Rushmore, the famous mountainside in South Dakota with the faces of four of the most important presidents in US history carved into it.

For someone who has made a living by putting his name on what he sells, the possibility of forever accompanying figures such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln on one of the most iconic national monuments has even be acknowledged by the commander-in-chief himself in a tweet.

In August this year, the president denied a report in the New York Times that White House aides had reached out to the governor of South Dakota to enquire about the process of adding another bust to the mountainside.

He then followed his denial up by saying it “sounds like a good idea to me!”

Whether he's seriously proposed it or not, what's for certain is that Trump seems convinced he deserves it, judging by the number of times throughout the past four years that he's proclaimed himself "the best president of all time."

There isn’t, apparently, physically any more room for a fifth president on Mount Rushmore. However, even if there were, would the current occupant of the White House accompany the most illustrious of his predecessors or would he rub shoulders with those branded the worst to pass through the White House?

Watch: US election - who has won since 1992 and how did they do it?

What makes a good and bad president?

Although comparing the ability, achievements, or personalities of the presidents isn't an exact science, US historians have been ranking the presidents for decades, periodically revising their lists to incorporate new ones and evaluate any new information that may appear about those who left their mark years ago.

Sadly, for Trump, in the first of these surveys in which he features, he's very far from the top. In fact, in the ranking created by Siena College in 2018, the current president is third from bottom, only trailed by James Buchanan (1857-1861) and Andrew Johnson (1865-1869).

Warren Harding (1921-1923), however, has benefited from the addition of Trump to the list, moving up one spot with regard to a 2010 poll. This will come as some relief for the family of the 29th president, who was recently found to be mired in a nasty legal battle to exhume his body in order to allegedly confirm the kinship of one of his grandchildren. The scandals even follow him to the grave.

Pictures of Presidents James Buchanan (left) and Warren Harding (right)
Presidents James Buchanan (left) and Warren Harding (right)

The Siena College poll – the sixth since 1982 – was created based on the responses from 157 academic experts who evaluate the performance of the 45 presidents according to 20 categories. In these, Trump only escaped the bottom five in the "Luck" and "Willing to take risks" categories.

What do presidents do to make such a bad impression?

Both in the rankings from Siena College and the private, non-profit cable TV channel C-Span, the same presidents traditionally always appear at the bottom: Harding, Buchanan, and Johnson.

Harding was the first president of the decade known as the "The Roaring Twenties". These were particularly lively years for his cronies and his subordinates, who, taking advantage of the Republican president's fondness for poker and fleeting romances, squeezed the public office for their own benefit until they were no longer able to.

"I am not fit for this office and should never have been here," Harding said in a moment of lucidity. He died of natural causes before completing his term.

Andrew Johnson is often blamed for marring the legacy of his predecessor during the era known as Reconstruction that followed the US Civil War (1861-1865). It is often argued that his opposition to those in Congress who sought to guarantee the rights of the newly freed former slaves helped to establish a regime of segregation and submission of the African American population in the defeated Confederate states. And, if that weren't enough, he was the first president to be impeached.

James Buchanan, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, is vilified for his failure to oppose the extension of slavery to the new states that were created with the country's expansion westward and for standing idly while rebellion brewed in the South, which finally broke out with the election of Lincoln.

Watch: How to win a US election

Can the 45th president redeem himself?

While Harding, Johnson, and Buchanan’s reputations seem set in stone, can Trump recover his current ranking on the Siena College list?

The economy has always been this president's best weapon. In fact, it's an area where he's managed to surpass his Democrat rival Joe Biden in the opinion polls. However, when historians review his performance, they might not share Trump's own assertion that he is responsible for the "best economy in the history of our country."

Unlike others who came to power in the midst of crisis, the Trump inherited an economy that had recovered from the economic crash of 2008 and was on an upward trajectory. To his credit, he gave a new push to this upward trend with his tax cuts, although some argue this mostly favoured the wealthiest.

When historians look back at his tenure, this will be little debate that Trump has not shied away from comments (and tweets) that have entrenched societal divisions rather than sought to heal them. The regular changes in his cabinet and the string of scandals, which include the impeachment process, may also not reflect well on him in the generations to come.

Live Updates
  • Nick Whigham

    Count slows as final answer remains elusive

    With all eyes are on Pennsylvania, the vote count has turned into a slow grind with election officials dealing with damaged ballots, overseas mail-in ballots, and some ballots that are separated for a pending legal fight.

    The count continues, but the fat lady is surely warming up the vocal cords.

    In Georgia, there will be a recount, but Biden still looks set to flip the state as he slowly grows his lead there.

    In Nevada, people who were contacted about irregularities in their ballot have been queuing up to "cure" their vote and ensure it is included in the final count. A path for Trump to overcome Biden's lead there looks very unlikely.

    In Arizona, Biden's lead has fallen further, but AP and Fox News have still called the state for Biden.

    Here's the current tally:

    Pennsylvania – Biden lead 14,500+

    Georgia – Biden lead 4,200+

    Nevada – Biden lead 20,100+

    Arizona – Biden lead 38,000+

    With the US network's hesitant to call this race too soon, a definitive projection on who will be the US president on January 20 is still to come. It may even take days.

    Joe Biden was due to speak in the coming hours and president Trump is clearly concerned he will try and do what he did on election night and claim victory.

    With the atmosphere at the White House described as "chaos" by journalists, it is clear Donald Trump is going down swinging.

    Check back at Yahoo News Australia for the latest updates.

  • Nick Whigham

    Biden lead jumps in Georgia

    Joe Biden has grown his lead in Georgia to 4,263 votes, after a new batch from Gwinnett County was added, which was expected to be Biden-friendly.

    There is certainly going to be a recount in the state so the bigger the buffer, obviously the better for Biden.

    "There have been recounts before, it is rare that they have a significant impact," CNN's Anderson Cooper said.

    The New York Times demographic and data analyst, Nate Cohn, said we may not have a final answer for weeks.

    "I don't think we're getting a call here for weeks, but given that we have such a good accounting of what's outstanding, it's hard to see Trump winning this without a tabulation error," he tweeted.

  • Nick Whigham

    Party rolls on in Philly, Biden lead grows

    As the count trickles in, Joe Biden is adding to his lead in the state of Pennsylvania. As of the latest count, it now stands slightly higher at 14,281. We should expect a batch of about 35,000 counted ballots to come from Pittsburgh soon.

    Meanwhile a colourful array of folks have returned to the Philadelphia Convention Centre where votes are still being counted in that city.

    Looks like fun.

    We're into the fourth day of this election party. Source: Getty

    Residents dancing in the streets

    Out in the suburbs of west Philadelphia, they were literally dancing in the streets to the news that Biden had taken the lead in the state earlier.
    'I'm Coming Out' by Dianna Ross could be heard blaring over a sound system as residents danced outside theirs homes and passing motorists honked their horns in delight.

    The city has voted overwhelmingly for Biden, and it shows.

  • Nick Whigham

    Trump is 'angry, frustrated and watching TV'

    With Joe Biden due to make a prime time appearance in a few hours, the president is not scheduled to front the media currently.

    According to CNN's White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins, he is doing what he does.

    Earlier, Collins tweeted there was a "frenzied" atmosphere in the White House and that some staff were already looking for their next job.

    "The atmosphere inside the West Wing is being described as a bit frenzied as reality sets in that Biden is only pulling further ahead. Trump's closest aides seem to be working to manage his frustration. Mark Meadows [Trump's chief of staff] is focused on Pennsylvania. And many others are looking for jobs," she tweeted.

  • Nick Whigham

    Military ballots still outstanding in Georgia

    As the president has been alluding to in tweets, there are some outstanding military ballots that could still arrive in Georgia.

    Speaking at a press conference a few hours ago, the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger said they will need to arrive by the end of Friday (local time), to be included in the count.

    "There are 8,890 military ballots outstanding that will be counted if they were returned by the close of business today," he told the media.

    Joe Biden holds a slender lead of about 1500 votes.

  • Nick Whigham

    Why haven't they called Pennsylvania yet?

    A close margin and a large number of outstanding votes are what’s making the Pennsylvania contest too early to call.

    The Democratic challenger opened a lead of more than 13,600 votes Friday morning over Trump, from more than 6.5 million votes cast. State law dictates that a recount must be held if the margin between the two candidates is less than 0.5 per cent, which it currently is.

    There are roughly 100,000 mail-in ballots still to count, which have so far favoured Biden by a rate of about about three to one.

    However, as MSNBC's Steve Kornacki points out, due to potential irregularities it's not certain the totality will get counted. That will impact the lead Biden will build.

    Additionally, there are about 100,000 provisional ballots which are the result of people requesting a mail-in ballot but then voting in person without the proper materials. They might not favour Biden in the same way, and might even favour Trump.

    If you're interested in understanding this a little better, just watch Steve:

  • Nick Whigham

    Biden could sweep remaining key states

    Here's where we're at with the key vote counts that remain ongoing. Biden now leads in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada and Arizona.

    Again, Arizona has already been called for Biden by AP. Nevada looks certain to go to him but networks are being cautious because its six electoral votes would put him at exactly 270 – the magical winning mark.

    So as Biden builds his lead in Pennsylvania, that call could be the tipping point.

    There are still Alaska and North Carolina out there. The former will go to Trump, North Carolina is closer a race but we won't know where that count is going until November 12.

    Can we call it a blue wave? Source: CNN

  • Nick Whigham

    Trump team 'backing away' from the president: CNN

    According to CNN's Jim Acosta, officials in the White House and the Trump campaign are already eyeing the exits with the writing on the wall.

    "Sources close to the White House said some senior officials inside the White House and the campaign are beginning to quietly back away from Trump, in acts of self-preservation, as the returns in Pennsylvania and Georgia indicate the President will not win reelection," he reported.

    Trump, however, reportedly wants to dig in and keep firing off legal fights until the electors of the Electoral College system meet in mid December and officially elect the next president.

  • James Morris

    Update from Trump

    The Trump campaign has just posted this statement from the president:

    “We believe the American people deserve to have full transparency into all vote counting and election certification, and that this is no longer about any single election.

    "This is about the integrity of our entire election process.

    "From the beginning we have said that all legal ballots must be counted and all illegal ballots should not be counted, yet we have met resistance to this basic principle by Democrats at every turn.

    "We will pursue this process through every aspect of the law to guarantee that the American people have confidence in our government.

    "I will never give up fighting for you and our nation.”

  • James Morris

    Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate, accuses Trump of 'recklessly inflaming destructive and dangerous passions'

However, the millstone around the neck of the current White House is the response to the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest health crisis since the 1918 Spanish flu. With more than 200,000 deaths, the world's leading power tops the list of countries with the highest number of COVID-19 victims.

"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," explained Don Levy, director of the Siena College Research Institute, to the journal US News and World Report last December. "Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding – they earned their spots at the bottom."

Will Donald Trump remain at the bottom of this list or, if he's elected for a second term, can he turn it around?