The five most overrated presidents

Brion McClanahan Author, The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution
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About a year ago I wrote a piece for The Daily Caller entitled “The Five Most Underrated Presidents” in which I argued that John Tyler is the best president in American history. With the election over, I thought I’d revisit this idea by writing a piece about the most overrated American executives. Most of these men are near the top — typically in the top five — of “historical” American presidential rankings. So, they have to be great, right? Wrong.

Most of the polls are biased in favor of American presidents who personify the active, “bully-pulpit” blueprint Americans seem to think the Constitution established. That is the problem. With the exception of Washington (and even he had an episode or two where his actions were questionable constitutionally) and Jefferson, most of the men at the top of these rankings blatantly and knowingly violated the Constitution during their presidencies. Is that what Americans want? Do we want elected kings with limitless power? With that in mind, here are the top five most overrated presidents in American history:

1. Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln is typically regarded as the most important man in American history and his aggregate score places him higher than George Washington in virtually all “historical rankings.” With the Steven Spielberg film ready to hit theaters this week and with Barack Obama (see number five) openly claiming that he is the next Lincoln, perhaps it would be better for Americans to understand the real Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was called a dictator and a tyrant by many Northerners for his blatant abuse of the Constitution. Among his detractors were former president Franklin Pierce, famous American authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, abolitionist Lysander Spooner and a host of newspapermen and congressmen who viewed his unconstitutional acts — suspending habeas corpus, blockading Southern ports, sending soldiers into battle without a declaration of war — with disdain. And, as African-American historian Lerone Bennett, Jr. has shown, Lincoln was hardly the savior of black America.

2. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Almost always listed as the first, second or third greatest American president, “King Roosevelt” is the antithesis of the ideal American executive, and if the founding generation thought someone like Roosevelt would occupy the executive office, the Constitution never would have been ratified. Perhaps only Alexander Hamilton would have wanted a president to have as much power as Roosevelt, but even Hamilton might have objected to such a powerful executive. As I point out in my new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Real American Heroes, Roosevelt should be castigated for his flagrant abuse of the Constitution, from the obviously unconstitutional New Deal and his so-called “bank holiday” to the creation of “dictators” — we call them czars — and the establishment of concentration camps during World War II. By 1945, 25 percent of Americans depended on the government for some form of income. Thanks, FDR.

3. Woodrow Wilson: Wilson was the model progressive president and is typically regarded as a top-five or at minimum top-ten American president. He is vastly overrated. Wilson hated the United States Constitution, thought that the president needed to be more influential in American politics, created the notion that the president should act like a prime minister by initiating legislation (unconstitutionally) and dragged the United States into World War I to “make the world safe for democracy.” Just 20 years later, the United States was involved in a larger and more destructive and bloody war. How did that work out? He nationalized the economy during World War I, advocated the establishment of the Federal Reserve, had over 100,000 people arrested for “sedition” (speaking out against the war) and generally trampled American liberty. The war paved the way for dictatorial powers, and FDR emulated Wilson’s domestic programs during World War II. It is no coincidence that two of the bloodiest military conflicts in American history took place under progressive presidents. That alone should place them near the bottom of historical rankings.

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).