ICYMI: Who are Your Favorite U.S. Presidents?

NOTE: This post was original post on President’s Day February 18, 2013.

This is not meant to be a list of the five best presidents. It is not the five most effective presidents. It is surely neither of these. They are my five favorites.

Abraham Lincoln:

This may be an easy one for many. For me, as a political theorist, Lincoln is the most interesting. I love studying and contemplating how his views on slavery, always thoughtful and complex, changes over time. Most importantly, Lincoln asserted the primacy of the U.S. Constitution and insisted that it be viewed as a document which represented Enlightenment principles and not just an agreement of political expediency.

Lyndon Baines Johnson:

LBJ is not likely on the favorite list of many. Johnson represents some of the best and the worst of the American Presidency. It was Johnson that achieved landmark Civil Rights legislation in 1964, 1965, and 1968. The War on Poverty and the Great Society represent my dream domestic agenda. The Great Society aimed to bring about social change by empowering and organizing the poor. Education and social action. Political empowering those in poverty, particularly the black poor, led to a backlash against the Great Society. While many still whine about the Great Society, it was never allowed to get off the ground.

The thing which ultimately killed the Great Society, and destroyed both Johnson and the image of Johnson, was the Vietnam War. What a sad waste on so many levels.

John Adams:

Much of the greatness of Adams has little to do with his Presidency. If we were to list the five greatest political figures in American politics we would have to include Jefferson and Madison. However, I will be leaving them off this list.

Adams was the first president of the partisan-era. Like Johnson, he made horrible mistakes like the Alien and Sedition Acts. Yet he resisted, at the cost of most political capital, the calls for war with France. In the end, Adams failed at the political games which Jefferson would master.

Woodrow Wilson:

I do not think that I would have actually gotten along with President Wilson. Yet, I have to claim him. He is the political scientist as President. As a result, I am not sure if political scientists are meant to govern. Despite his flaws (segregation, the imprisonment of Debs and others during the war), Wilson was driven by his commitment to democracy. We have ruined Wilsonianism over the last 50 years, but it was a noble dream.

Wilson also successfully brought about much of the progressive agenda. This laid the groundwork for the progressive agenda of today. Much of that agenda is part of the bipartisan consensus of today.

Barack Obama:

This may bring about considerable eye-rolling. This is “my” President. I supported him from the beginning of the primary season. My Obama sign went up in front of my Rexburg home in the Fall of 2007. It was the first-time my candidate made it out of the primaries. I had rooted for Howard Dean in 2004, Bill Bradley in 2000, Steve Forbes in 1996, and Bob Dole in 1988. It was also the first time that I voted for the winner in the general election (Dole, Gore, Kerry).

Mostly importantly, this is the president that I most identify with. He is mocked for being too much like a professor. He is considered to be the most liberal President. Oh, he is not all that liberal. However, he is the president that achieved the closest thing to universal health-care. He has fully embraced gay rights. He drives the right crazy. For all of these things, I am proud.

Obama is also a post-baby boomer liberal. I do not much relate to the Democrat Party politics of the 1960s and 1970s. I have connected to Obama much more in style than I have in specific positions.

Who are your favorite Presidents? Why?

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Chris Henrichsen has moved Approaching Justice off of Patheos. Find his latest posts and the new Approaching Justice. Thanks!

  • Lela G

    Mr. Jefferson, without a doubt.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Jefferson was on my short list…:)

  • http://inmedias.blogspot.com Russell Arben Fox

    George Washington, because if one considers the ritual and traditional place which a head of state generally holds in a polity, then Washington’s job was arguably more complicated, uncertain, and difficult than that of any subsequent president, including Lincoln. He pulled off that job as ably as probably any person ever could. I also admire the profound intentionality of the man: he determined that he would live a life of virtue, rigor, and public admiration, and he did so, by disciplining his self-interest and passions to the common good as he perceived it, in the spirit of the greatest classical republicans. There’s much that he stood for that I disagree with, and I doubt we would be able to relate to one another personally, but I’m convinced that he was our greatest president, and he’s my favorite.

    I also like, to varying degrees and for inconsistent reasons, Jefferson, the presidencies of Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, both Roosevelts (but especially FDR), Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Carter, Bush I, and Clinton. I voted for Obama in 2008, and while I’ve grown dissatisfied with him in many ways, I much prefer him in the White House than Romney. In a choice between two Wall-Street-dependent, imperial-war-machine-addicted, political stooges, his approach is far more sane and responsible and egalitarian. No doubt I will end up liking him more in retrospect.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      I have come to love Washington more over the year, particularly as I become more immersed in the founding era. Truly a virtuous character and at the same time a skilled leader…a rare combination.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Russell, I understand your reservations with Obama. However, don’t you think we could apply those same reservations to quite a few of the Presidents on both of our lists?

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis E. Parshall

    I think Herbert Hoover ranks highest in my personal list. I know he’s blamed for the Depression and I’m not qualified to dispute that, but I’ve run into him in other ways. His commitment to and achievements in feeding millions of people around the world in both famine and wartime means he deserves honor and respect.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      I would put Hoover on a list of Presidents who led great lives…despite having lackluster presidential administrations. Hoover and Carter would be on such a list. I also do not think we can blame Hoover for the Depression, though he responded to it poorly.

  • Jana Ditton

    I like your picks minus LBJ, for the reasons you stated, and I truly believe he had knowledge of, if not a hand in the JFK assassination. My list includes Teddy Roosevelt (a trust-buster after my own heart) and Ulysses Grant. I’d put Clinton and Carter on a list of “Presidents who have done more good for the country after they left office” list as favorites on that list. :)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      I do not buy at all that LBJ had a role in the assassination of Kennedy.

      Clinton represents too much of what I do not like about the Democratic Party, though I think he was a good president and an awesome politician (something I greatly admire…because I lack it).

  • Joe Barbuto

    Bill Clinton ranks towards the top of my list. Politically, I identify with his perspectives more closely than any other pol out there. Admittedly, I prefer the 2013 Bill Clinton to the 1996 version. I also have a great deal of respect for Harry S. Truman. A haberdasher from Missouri with a high school education became POTUS. That’s pretty amazing – and he had to make some of the most difficult decisions of any president in history. I think that Woodrow Wilson is underrated. That probably has to do a lot with the time period in which he served. A lot of that era is overshadowed by WWII and FDR. Finally, and this one might be a surprise … Herbert Hoover. One of the most brilliant men to serve in that capacity, he really got the short end of the stick from FDR. I believe that FDR once admitted privately that Hoover had about as much to do with the great depression as he (FDR) did. FDR refused to embrace him in any way or manner, and he was practically black-listed from the White House until Truman called on his services many years later. It makes me wonder what we missed out on during the FDR years? Anyhow, that’s my take.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Joe, Truman is really one of the amazing Presidents. However, I have never really connected with him. Not that that matters. :)

      Mostly, I am bothered by the dropping of the atom bombs.

  • Joe Barbuto

    Certainly it has to be one of the most difficult decisions any president ever had to make. I can’t imagine being given that responsibility to contend with.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Joe, you are much more likely to be President than I am. Start imagining.

  • Joe Barbuto

    Maybe president of a boat club… assuming that I will one day be able to afford a boat.

    • Jana Ditton

      I am curious for anyone commenting and Chris as well. Did any of you follow Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States? It changed my mind about a lot of Presidents. Thinking about Harry Truman after watching that series makes me ill. The original Dubya.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

        Jana, I am not even aware of the series. That said, Truman did integrate the military and he started the Dems on the path to bring a pro-civil rights party.

  • Jana Ditton

    It’s a very good series. I recommend it even though I don’t always recommend Stone. This series was legit.

  • http://www.smallsimple.wordpress.com Eric Nielson

    Calvin Coolidge – small fiscally conservative government.

    George Washington – We owe a lot to this hero.

    Abraham Lincoln – standing for what is right.

    Ronald Reagan – A Calvin Coolidge wanna be. If not for the cold war…what might have been.

    Thomas Jefferson – I don’t know, you asked for 5.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Eric, I think the Cold War made Reagan. I remember you mentioning before that you were cool with Calvin.

  • Adam Stout

    5 Favorites…
    Nixon: The Frost-Nixon interviews were just too blasted interesting to overlook.
    Reagan: Family would disown me if he didn’t make the list. My first dog was named Reagan (for Republicans from Idaho, that’s a HUGE compliment).
    W.: “My” first president. Have you read Decision Points yet? Definitely worth it. He was also the first president I ever studied in depth.
    TR: Fascinating biography and personality. He excelled at the politics game and obviously had a blast doing so.
    Andrew Jackson: From his sordid past to his foul-mouthed parrot, how can one not enjoy studying him?

    **Obligatory kudos to Hoover for donating his presidential salary, in its entirety, to charity.**

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Adam, that your in Democrat on the list was Jackson makes me laugh. Jackson is truly an interesting character, but he is one of my least favorites. I am not saying that he was not a strong or effective President, but I just loathe the guy.

      In a sense, I dislike Nixon…but I feel a strange sadness for him. I come from a Nixon Republican family, a dying breed.

      • Adam Stout

        The partisanship in the list was unintentional, but I’m laughing now, too.

  • Joe Barbuto

    If you are looking for an interesting read, I recommend “The Presidents Club” by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. You learn a lot about the politics and characters of the men who were POTUS through their interactions with and attitudes towards other presidents. I really enjoyed it, and it changed my perspective about many of these guys.

  • Fred

    Only 5! Wow! That’s hard! I tried to look at greatest in terms of accomplishment and impact on American society. Some men who were great at other things (Grant for example) were lousy Presidents. Some presidents (like JFK) unfortunately never got a chance to fulfill their potential.
    There were others that had we listened to them (Wilson) we would have been much better off.

    Anyway, here’s my five:

    1. Abraham Lincoln- Without question. He kept the country in one piece and ended slavery. In doing so, he created a modern America and truly united us a nation.

    2. FDR- A promising politician who was struck down by polio. However, he didn’t give up and willed himself to walk with braces. From his wheelchair, he led America through the Great Depression. His calm demeanor gave America confidence. In addition to that he led America through World War II with skill and determination.

    3. George Washington- He defined the office. All Presidents to this day follow his example. The Presidency would not exist as we know it without him. Washington is the presidency and the presidency is Washington. They are inseparable.

    4. Theodore Roosevelt- I don’t really see him as a Republican. He was the founder of Progressivism. In terms of everday impact, very few Presidents have left as big of a legacy as TR. It’s with us everyday when we go to safe workplaces, or visit a national park, or have safe food and water.

    5. Gerald Ford- I know this an odd choice but I feel Ford is underrated. He walked into a terrible situation after Watergate, put the economy on track and reinstilled American confidence in the the government and the Presidency. I even agree with his pardon of Nixon. I think Nixon deserved to go prison, but that a trial would have taken away the energy the country needed to move on. Ford probably pardoned Nixon knowing it would cost him another term. In other words, he put country above his own political future. Also, America’s only non elected President.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Fred, I must admit to also having a soft spot for Gerald Ford. I really think he was the right person for the transition after Watergate.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Also, your point about TR is an interesting one. It is interesting to see far-right figures like Glenn Beck actively vilify TR. Yet, Republican centrists like David Frum are trying to revive him as a Republican figure to admire.


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