Since the 2020 Presidential campaign is underway, it is a good time to examine our most effective presidents.
Please note, this is not a list of the 10 best; or 10 most ethical, presidents. Instead, it is a tally of the 10 most effective presidents. Namely, those chief executives who did the most and achieved their goals.
Consequently, some of the individuals on this list were very unethical men who engaged in questionable policies. In fact, some of these guys were racists, liars, cheats, warmongers, slave owners, and horrible human beings.
Our first president George Washington (Virginia) does not appear on this list because his status as father of the country sets him apart. In addition, Washington was the only president to operate largely outside the political system. Thus, I consider comparisons between Washington and other presidents are unfair and inaccurate.
America’s 10 Most Effective Presidents
James K. Polk (D-Tennessee) 1845-1849
Polk is number one because he is the only president who achieved his goals. Polk’s goals were to extend the United States to the Pacific, annex Texas, annex the Oregon territory, and avoid war with the British Empire. Polk achieved all those goals.
Impressively, Polk was the man who took the United States to the Pacific. However, Polk’s methods waging a questionable war on Mexico were unethical. Nor were some his motives; extending slavery to the Pacific, noble.
Additionally, Polk avoided war with the British Empire but secured to the Oregon territory (Oregon, Idaho, and Washington State) for the United States. Without Polk, California, Texas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Idaho, Washington State, and New Mexico would have never been part of the United States.
America would not be America today without James K. Polk’s legacy.
Thomas Jefferson (R-Virginia) 1801-1809
America’s third president was among the country’s most effective. Specifically, Jefferson more than doubled the size of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase.
Moreover, Jefferson achieved his foreign policy goals of avoiding war with European powers and preventing an American alliance with the British Empire. Instead, Jefferson established a neutrality with Britain and a peace with Europe that lasted for over 110 years until World War I.
Jefferson implemented several other successful policies. He established the professional military with the US Military Academy at West Point. Plus, Jefferson jump-started American industry with an embargo on imports that encouraged Yankee entrepreneurs to build factories in New England. Other notable achievements include the Lewis & Clark expedition to the Pacific, and cutting the size of the national debt.
Most importantly, Jefferson was the first president to successfully and peacefully transfer power from one party to another. To explain, Jefferson was a Republican, who replaced a Federalist John Adams (Massachusetts). Something that had never happened before. Thus, Jefferson, established one of the most important precedents in our history.
Notably, Jefferson radically changed America’s national ideology from a centralized government under the Federalists to small-government democracy. This one of the first such transitions in human history that did not involve a bloody revolution.
Finally, Jefferson was one of the few Presidents to establish a lasting political change. His Republican Party dominated national politics for 30 years. Note: Jefferson’s Republican Party is not today’s Republican Party which began in the 1850s.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) 1933-1945
Like Jefferson, FDR radically changed America’s ideology and national direction.
In particular, Roosevelt established the American welfare state through the New Deal and Social Security. By establishing a limited welfare state, FDR probably kept socialism out of America.
Moreover, FDR created the modern activist presidency with his governing style. During World War II, FDR created the military industrial complex, laid the groundwork for worldwide American empire, and invented the modern interventionist US foreign policy.
If that was not enough, FDR created many of the world’s most important international institutions. The United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Therefore, FDR helped instigate the modern international monetary system through the Bretton Woods Conference.
Finally, FDR created the modern Democratic Party by forging an odd coalition of labor unions, leftwing intellectuals, African Americans, and white ethnics. Thus it is not surprising that FDR literally died from exhaustion at the beginning of his fourth term in 1945.
Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) 1861-1865
Winning the Civil War; and smashing the Southern Slave Power, are just the beginning of Lincoln’s accomplishments.
Other Lincoln achievements include issuing America’s first successful paper currency, created modern government finance by issuing bonds, launching the transcontinental railroad, ending slavery by ensuring passage of the 13th Amendment, and creating two new states (Nevada and West Virginia).
Plus, Lincoln helped create the second Republican Party; the first was Jefferson’s which collapsed in 1828, which endures to this day. Impressively, the Republicans were America’s dominant political party, from 1860 until the Great Depression began in 1929.
Finally, Lincoln popularized a new concept of freedom, justice, and equality that forms the basis of American politics and human rights around the world to this day. Thus, Lincoln more than any other created America’s national ideology.
Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-Texas) 1963-1969
Although he’s widely hated because of the Vietnam War, LBJ was a surprisingly effective President. Johnson’s accomplishments include Medicare, Medicaid, Civil Rights Legislation, nonwhite immigration, and oh yeah landing a man on the moon.
Interestingly, America will soon be a nonwhite majority nation because of LBJ’s Immigration & Naturalization Act of 1965. More than any other President, Lyndon Johnson made America a multiracial society, a policy that has reverberations to this day. LBJ’s goal of a color blind America is still the policy of both major political parties and the federal government.
Basically, no President was better at getting congress to pass his agenda than LBJ. Not even FDR comes close. Unfortunately, LBJ’s abuse of that power in the Vietnam War had tragic consequences.
Richard M. Nixon (R-California) 1969-1974
Even though he was the first President to resign, Nixon was surprisingly successful. Some of Nixon’s triumphs include; ending the Vietnam War, normalizing relations with China, the START Treaty with the Soviet Union, tax credits for the poor, forming the EPA, and desegregating southern schools.
Even Nixon’s failures are impressive. Tricky Dick came paralyzing close to implementing a Basic Income and Single-Payer healthcare in America.
In particular, no President was more successful at foreign policy than Nixon. However, Nixon’s failure to create a lasting Republican majority probably doomed his presidency but not his party.
Ronald Reagan (R-California) 1981-1989
Like FDR and Jefferson, Reagan changed the national agenda. In fact, few Presidents have been more successful at popularizing his ideas than Reagan.
Interestingly, few Presidents have been more in tune with the times. The intelligentsia mocked Reagan’s hard line on Communism. Yet Reagan proved prophetic when a bankrupt Soviet Union disintegrated ending the Cold War.
Other Reagan achievements included avoiding war in the Middle East, backing Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker’s efforts to curb inflation; which triggered an economic boom, and working successfully with Congress.
It is doubtful, neoliberalism could have survived; or become America’s dominant ideology in the 1990s, without Reagan. Modern conservativism; for better or worse, was Reagan’s creation.
Finally, few Presidents have been better communicators than Reagan. Even leftists listened to him.
Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri) 1945-1953
Truman is an interesting case because he was spectacularly successful at foreign policy but a failure at home.
Dramatically, Truman laid the groundwork for America’s cold war victory with the Marshall Plan. The plan probably ensured the survival of democracy and capitalism in Europe and indirectly led to Communism’s down fall.
By forming aggressive alliances against Communism, Truman contained the USSR. At home, Truman had a few successes, desegregating the military and creating civil rights, for instance. However, he did not pass a piece of significant social legislation.
Truman probably saved the Democratic Party by holding the line against both Southern Racists and Communist sympathizers in 1948. In addition, by holding firm and winning in 1948, Truman turned back a Republican resurgence and ensured the New Deal coalition’s survival into the 1990s.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (R-Kansas) 1953-1961
Few Presidents have changed America more dramatically than Ike. His interstate highway system reshaped the nation’s landscape. No president has been more successful in public works than Eisenhower, not even FDR.
Beyond, Interstates Eisenhower’s moderation preserved the New Deal, provided an opening for Civil Rights to flourish, and possibly prevented World War III in the 1950s.
Like Polk, Eisenhower was effective because a commitment to a few big projects. However, Eisenhower, failed miserably in one of his personal crusades reducing the power and influence of the military-industrial complex. Yet Eisenhower’s argument over the military-industrial complex’s influence over American life endures to this day.
Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York) 1901-1909
Like Eisenhower, TR was successful at a big engineering project the Panama Canal. Moreover, like FDR and Reagan, Roosevelt changed the national agenda.
Committing the federal government, to curb power, and placing reform at the center of the national agenda. For better or worse, TR ended the Gilded Age by attacking the trusts and the rich. The first Roosevelt started conservation and changed the way America views resources by forming the US Forest Service.
Roosevelt failed to limit the power of Big Business but he put the brakes on its growth. In addition, Teddy ushered an age of effective trust busting and restraint of corporate power that lasted for nearly a century. Plus, most of Roosevelt’s radical policies like income taxes and social security became national policy.
Finally, it was TR who established the concept of the president as a celebrity who uses the bully pulpit and the media to change the national dialogue. Roosevelt failed to implement reform, but he changed the conversation.
What Makes Presidents Effective?
These 10 Presidents were effective in different ways; FDR, Reagan, and Teddy Roosevelt were communicators who changed the country by creating a dialogue with the American people.
LBJ was a litigator who knew how to pass the legislation he wanted. No other president has been as an effective a lobbyist as LBJ. Though, FDR came close in 1933.
Meanwhile, Jefferson, Polk, FDR, Truman, Lincoln, and Eisenhower were men of action who changed the face of the country and the world with dramatic actions. Their success came from a willingness to take dramatic steps and stick with them even light of opposition. For instance, Jefferson agreed to the Louisiana Purchase without Congressional support.
Finally, all the effective presidents had one thing in common. They concentrated their efforts a few big goals they knew were doable. Polk, understood he could not solve the problem of slavery so he ignored it. Westward expansion was doable so he concentrated on that.
Finally, all the effective presidents had one thing in common. They concentrated their efforts a few big goals they knew were doable.
Polk, understood he could not solve the problem of slavery so he ignored it. However, westward expansion was doable so he concentrated on that.
Similarly, Johnson understood full single-payer healthcare (Medicare for All) was impossible but he could get health insurance for seniors (Medicare) and the poor (Medicaid) passed. Meanwhile, Eisenhower understood Congress would fund interstate highways; but not high-speed rail so he asked for interstates.
Only time will tell if our next President will be as effective as those on our list. History, however, teaches one thing, dramatic times and cataclysmic events make for Great Presidents.
The Cold War shaped Reagan’s presidency, the Civil War made Lincoln great, Theodore Roosevelt was a product of social upheaval of the late 19th Century, FDR’s success results from the Depression and World War II, and conflicts with the British and French empires made Jefferson so effective.
Since, it looks as if the world faces such events again, another dramatic and disruptive president is likely. Voters will decide if that president will arrive in 2021 or 2025.