4. Teddy Roosevelt: Uncle Teddy was the first progressive president and the first to believe the executive branch was the “bully pulpit.” His Square Deal was the model progressive legislative program and gave subsequent presidents the idea that they needed a legislative agenda — Wilson’s New Freedom, FDR’s New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal, Eisenhower’s Dynamic Conservatism, Kennedy’s New Frontier, Johnson’s Great Society, etc. Teddy took guidance from the intellectual father of modern liberalism, Herbert Croly. Croly argued for an imperialist foreign policy (TR delivered), the fusion of government and corporate America (TR delivered) and a more active central government (TR delivered). In fact, Teddy Roosevelt paved the way for the more powerful presidents who followed.
5 (tie). Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama: Obama has already been placed in the top tier of historical rankings and he still has one term to go. Americans have been swept up in Obama-mania and because of the historic nature of the 2008 election (which said more about the American electorate than Obama himself), the 44th president is bound for a permanent place in the American pantheon of “great presidents.” He doesn’t deserve it. From trillion-dollar deficits to continually high unemployment to presidential kill lists and a non-ending war in the Middle East, not to mention Obamacare and the erosion of our civil liberties, Obama should rank in the bottom five, not the top tier. He is every bold progressive president on steroids and HGH.
Johnson wasn’t much better. The Great Society and the expensive war in Vietnam forced the country to abandon the gold standard and led to the inflation of the 1970s. We are almost there again. His “war on poverty” was an abject failure (poverty is at the same level today as it was in 1964), his bully “treatment” in American politics made Americans believe that the president should be a partisan political knee-capper rather than a leader and his demonization (the infamous Daisy ad) of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election bordered on insanity. The American people rejected Johnson’s policies outright in 1968. If only we could get that lucky again. Still, his Great Society ideals have never vanished, much to the detriment of the Constitution, individual liberty and American principles.
Brion McClanahan holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of South Carolina, and is the author of four books, most recently The Politically Incorrect Guide to Real American Heroes (Regnery, 2012) and The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012).