Worst president ever? In one survey, Donald Trump makes even Warren Harding look good: Thomas Suddes

September 15, 2018

Worst president ever? In one survey, Donald Trump makes even Warren Harding look good: Thomas Suddes

Some bystanders rate Donald Trump America’s worst president. But ratings are fluid, as shown by ratings given the last Ohioan in the White House, Marion’s Warren G. Harding.

One of the best-known sets of presidential “ratings” was skippered by the elder Arthur M. Schlesinger, and published in 1962 in The New York Times Magazine. It rated Abraham Lincoln as our greatest president. In contrast, it classified Presidents U.S. Grant (1869-1877) and Warren Harding (1921-1923) as “failures,” the survey’s lowest rank. Grant, a celebrated Civil War commander, could plead “political inexperience,” Schlesinger wrote, but Harding had “worked intimately with the Ohio Gang” – crooked Statehouse pals – “which had accompanied him to Washington.”

Truth is, Harding, a Republican, gets something of a bad rap. For instance, he freed Socialist Eugene V. Debs from prison by commuting Debs’ ten-year federal sentence to time served. Woodrow Wilson’s “liberal” administration had prosecuted Debs because of an anti-war speech he made in Canton’s Nimisilla Park in 1918.

And Harding’s Cabinet had some solid members. Still, when your interior secretary goes to jail on corruption charges (for letting private oil companies exploit what were supposed to be the U.S. Navy’s petroleum reserves), and your attorney general (one-time Ohio Statehouse lobbyist Harry M. Daugherty, a native of Washington Court House) is twice tried on other corruption charges, it’s hard to bracket Harding’s presidency with, say, Lincoln’s and George Washington.

C-SPAN’s 2017 Presidential Historians Survey, which surveyed “a cross-section of 91 presidential historians,” also ranked Lincoln No. 1. But Harding moved up. In 1962, he’d been bottom of the list. The C-SPAN survey ranked him fourth from the bottom.

Third-worst in the C-SPAN survey was Franklin Pierce (1853 to 1857); second-worst was Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, (1865 to 1869); and the worst was James Buchanan (1857 to 1861), whose dithering helped usher in the Civil War.

And in 2018, a “Presidents & Executive Politics Presidential Greatness Survey” asked 320 current and recent members of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents & Executive Politics Section to rank presidential greatness.

When that survey was first taken, in 2014 – before Trump’s presidency – Harding was ranked 42nd, with only Buchanan rated worse. In 2016, though, the Electoral College made Trump president, so he was included in 2018′s “Presidents & Executive Officers” poll.

Result: Harding, second-from-last in the 2014′s ratings, ranks fifth-from-last in this year’s (39th). Rated worse: Andrew Johnson (40th); Pierce (41st); William Henry Harrison, president for a month in 1841 (42nd); and Buchanan (43rd). Also ranked worse than Warren Harding in this year’s survey – and, at 44th, ranked our worst president to date – was Donald Trump.

So, let no one claim the Trump administration hasn’t accomplished much. Because, along with Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, William Henry Harrison and James Buchanan, Donald Trump is helping make Warren Harding’s presidency look good. And that takes some doing.

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In 2016, while Ohio was giving Donald Trump 51.7 percent of its statewide vote, he drew 76 percent of the vote in the Morrow County precinct where Harding was born in 1865 (North Bloomfield Township East). Countywide, Trump drew 71 percent of Morrow’s vote; in the 12th Congressional District overall, he drew 53 percent of the vote.

And last month, in the special 12th Congressional District election to fill an unexpired term, the eventual victor, Rep. Troy Balderson, a Zanesville Republican, whom Trump campaigned for, drew 73 percent of the Harding birthplace’s vote.

Districtwide, though, Balderson drew 104,328 votes (50.1 percent) to the 102,648 votes (49.3 percent) cast for Democratic candidate Danny O’Connor and the 1,165 votes (0.6 percent) cast for Green Party candidate Joe Manchik.

On November’s ballot, O’Connor and Manchik are challenging Balderson for a full, two-year U.S. House term. Trump fans may think Balderson’s 1,680-vote August margin was a vote of confidence in Trump, who’d campaigned for Balderson.

Actually, a 1,680-vote margin gave Balderson an edge of just of 2.8 votes per precinct in the 12th District’s 591 precincts. If Democrats get their act together (rare, but possible), then, come January, Democrat Danny O’Connor, not the GOP’s Troy Balderson, might be speaking for the 12th District at the U.S. Capitol.

Thomas Suddes, a member of the editorial board, writes from Athens.

To reach Thomas Suddes: tsuddes@cleveland.com, 216-999-4689

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