Presidential scholars believe that although he’s not even halfway through his term, Donald Trump might be the nation’s worst president in history.
To commemorate this year’s President’s Day holiday, the New York Times assembled a panel of 170 presidential historians to come up with their list of America’s best and worst presidents. The panel concluded that not only is Donald Trump the worst president to ever occupy the White House, but that his predecessor, Barack Obama, is the eighth best president in history. Another recent Times column went back in history to see how some of America’s least popular presidents fared in their first year in office.
A column by Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz compared the administrations of historically disliked presidents like Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush and found that while these presidents may have ended their tenures with a bad reputation, their first years in office were mostly positive.
Even though Nixon became known for the Watergate scandal that eventually prompted his resignation, he ended his first year in office as a champion of working-class voters, advocating for a universal basic income that would guarantee an American family of four approximately $10,000 a year in basic income (in inflation-adjusted dollars). Nixon also signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law in January of 1970, which laid the groundwork for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the near future.
George W. Bush’s presidency will likely be remembered by future generations as the presidency that ushered in a great destabilization of the Middle East with his launching of the Iraq War in 2003 and the Afghanistan War in 2001, and for creating the economic conditions that led to the Great Recession of 2007-2009 (including racking up trillions of dollars in debt from two unfunded wars in the Middle East and the passage of three separate tax cuts). However, after his first year in office, George W. Bush had the highest rating in Gallup Poll history with 90 percent approval following the September 11, 2001 attacks. That’s even higher than President Harry Truman’s approval rating after the end of World War II.
Even the universally disliked Andrew Johnson, who was eventually impeached by the House of Representatives (but acquitted in the Senate by just one vote) began his presidency on a high note by attempting the difficult task of re-integrating former Confederate states into the Union while still allowing them to maintain their Tenth Amendment rights. However, that plan quickly turned on its head, with Johnson supporting discriminatory measures implemented by racist Southern leaders — many of whom were veterans of the Confederacy. Congress overturned Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Bill, which gave former slaves citizenship, and subsequently had to serve as a counter to his racist policies in the post-Civil War era.
However, given his first year in office, Donald Trump seems to be on a path to becoming one of the most loathed presidents of all time, after consistently low approval ratings and a pattern of unpresidential behavior. Prior to Donald Trump ascending to the nation’s highest office, Bill Clinton had the worst rating of any first-year president, clocking 49 percent approval as of January 1993. Trump, however, had just 39 percent approval as of January 2018. The lowest Donald Trump sank in public opinion polls was a 35 percent approval rating. Even after George W. Bush’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina, he still enjoyed a 42 percent approval rating.
In just one year, Trump managed to shatter presidential norms of decency and decorum and become the face of incompetency after a slew of firings, resignations, and an ongoing investigation. He has launched attacks on longstanding democratic institutions like the judicial branch, law enforcement, and the free press.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
Trump embarrassed the United States on a global stage after the G7 summit in Germany. German chancellor Angela Merkel — also the de facto leader of the European Union — said America was no longer a trusted global leader with Donald Trump as its president following his refusal to sign onto a climate change pact agreed to by almost every other country in the world.
“The times in which we can fully count on other are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days,” Merkel said at a campaign event. “We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.”
Trump also severely mismanaged disaster relief in Puerto Rico, with almost 1 million Americans still without electricity five months after Hurricane Maria. Trump even threatened to wage nuclear war on Twitter, telling North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un that he had a “much bigger” nuclear button than the despotic leader who had just conducted a nuclear test.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
Trump’s White House has also been incredibly turbulent, having the highest turnover rate of any White House in four decades. By the end of 2017, almost a full third of senior staffers in the Trump administration had either been fired, reassigned, or resigned on their own. This includes White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus (fired), Senior Advisor Steve Bannon (fired), Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci (fired after just ten days on the job), National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (resigned), Press Secretary Sean Spicer (resigned), advisor Sebastian Gorka (resigned), and many others.
Recently, Trump outwardly ignored the American system of checks and balances, refusing to implement sanctions Congress overwhelmingly passed against Russia in response to U.S. intelligence officials concluding that there was Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. While Donald Trump has three more years to rehabilitate his image, Sean Wilentz isn’t optimistic that will happen, given his response to Russian interference and his remarks about predominantly black countries being “shitholes.”
[Trump] is the first president to fail to defend the nation from an attack on our democracy by a hostile foreign power — and to resist the investigation of that attack. He is the first to enrich his private interests, and those of his family, directly and openly.
He is the first president to denounce the press not simply as unfair but as “the enemy of the American people.” He is the first to threaten his defeated political opponent with imprisonment. He is the first to have denigrated friendly countries and allies as well as a whole continent with racist vulgarities.
Trump will face his first electoral test as president in this November’s midterm elections, when a sitting president’s party typically faces huge losses in Congress.
Michael Boone is a freelance journalist and columnist writing about politics, government, race, and media. He graduated from Texas Southern University’s School of Communication, and lives in Houston’s Third Ward.