It appears public attitudes are largely in line with scholars' conclusions. The Pew Research Center published an interesting report today on which president from the last 40 years Americans believe did the best. Obama came out on top:
- Barack Obama: 35 percent
- Ronald Reagan: 23 percent
- Donald Trump: 17 percent
- Bill Clinton: 12 percent
- George W. Bush: 4 percent
- George H.W. Bush: 3 percent
- Joe Biden: 3 percent
Not surprisingly, the partisan divisions are enormous, with Democratic voters largely split between Obama and Clinton, and Republican voters largely split among Reagan and Trump.
I always like kicking around arbitrary conversation pieces like these, so here are some more-or-less random observations about the rankings:
* Given his record of successes, Obama is the obvious choice among presidents from the last 40 years. In fact, what's striking to me isn't that he finished first, it's that he didn't finish first by a wider margin.
* Including Biden on this list doesn't seem altogether fair, since he hasn't yet been in office for a full year.
* Obviously, Trump's diehard followers helped put him in third place on this list, but historians and scholars realize that he belongs at or near the bottom of lists ranking American presidents.
* There were notable age gaps in the Pew survey: Clinton did far better among Democrats over the age of 65 than Democrats under the age of 30. There was a similar dynamic for Reagan among GOP voters.
* George H.W. Bush's record is filled with blemishes, but his response to the collapse of the Soviet Union should put him in a better position than these results show. In fact, I'd probably rank him first among all Republican presidents since Eisenhower (though the competition is admittedly weak).
* I've argued that the rehabilitation of George W. Bush's reputation is problematic, and the fact that he received more support than his father is absurd.
* Clinton has traditionally fared better in surveys like these, but it's Obama who's taken on more iconic qualities as the defining Democratic leader of his era.
As for our most recent former president, I can only assume that Trump will soon issue a press release accusing the Pew Research Center of rigging the results of this survey.