Former President Barack Obama appears in C-Span’s Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership for the first time, and he has placed just outside of the top 10 in the overall ranking. On Friday, the television network released the results of its survey of 91 historians, its third following versions in 2000 and 2009.
Members of the advisory team for the survey had varied reactions to Obama’s placement. “That Obama came in at number 12 his first time out is quite impressive,” Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University, said in a statement. Edna Greene Medford, a history professor at Howard University, had a different take: “Although 12th is a respectable overall ranking, one would have thought that former President Obama’s favorable rating when he left office would have translated into a higher ranking in this presidential survey.”
The top slots in the overall rankings are unchanged since the 2009 survey: Abraham Lincoln at No. 1 (he also earned the top rank in 2000), George Washington at No. 2, Franklin D. Roosevelt at No. 3 and Theodore Roosevelt at No. 4. Others in the top 10 are Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson.
At No. 12, Obama falls in between Woodrow Wilson and James Monroe. As for recent presidents, Bill Clinton continued to occupy the No. 15 slot, and George W. Bush improved three spots, to No. 33. That president “has benefited somewhat from the passing of the years,” C-Span said in a statement.
The biggest change in the overall ranking was Andrew Jackson, who fell to 18 from 13. The seventh president of the United States was a populist to whom some have compared President Donald Trump. Last April, the United States Department of the Treasury announced it is replacing Jackson on the front of the $20 bill with abolitionist Harriet Tubman. (Jackson will now appear on the reverse side.)
The historians ranked James Buchanan last, as they had done in previous years.
The survey is based on 10 leadership qualities, each of which has its own individual presidential ranking: public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision/setting an agenda, pursued equal justice for all and performance within context of times. Obama did very well in one of those categories (No. 3 for pursuing equal justice) and very poorly in another (No. 39, near the bottom, for relations with Congress).
Obama’s rankings could change in the future, those behind the survey said in the statement. “Of course, historians prefer to view the past from a distance, and only time will reveal his legacy,” Medford said.
C-Span’s is not the first presidential survey to include Obama. In 2012, toward the end of the president’s first term, Newsweek ranked him as the 10th best president since 1900, behind Clinton and Reagan. In 2015, the Brookings Institution put him at No. 18.