The Unsweet 16: America’s Worst Presidents EverPhoto by Mark Wilson/Getty Politics Lists Presidents
Because we find ourselves in the middle of March Madness, it is required by the content gods that we put nouns in a bracket to determine which are the best and/or worst nouns. This is unabashedly progressive Paste politics, which means that the most on-brand thing we can do is describe in historical detail how evil America can be. The rubric for “worst” here will weigh America’s founding sins of slavery and genocide as the most egregious, and complicity in destabilizing events will be given additional weight over general incompetency and/or ineffectiveness—the third tier of the grading system.
We (I) will seed this like the NCAA hockey tournament, with 16 presidents given either a 1, 2, 3 or 4 seed—and they will be ranked best to worst within each seed—so that the best 1 seed plays the worst 4 seed in the first round, the second best 1 seed plays the second worst 4 seed, etc…
Here’s the bracket:
And here’s how the presidents rank, 1 through 16:
Quick note: since the parties have flipped over the years, instead of a D or R, I will use L (liberal) or C (conservative) in their place so as to maintain ideological consistency over the 180 years spanning bad presidencies.
16. Bill Clinton — L, 1993—2001
The central fissure in the Democratic Party is basically over Bill Clinton’s legacy—between those (mostly in power) who want to eschew substance for a celebrity culture driven by pro-Wall Street politicians, and a grassroots base hungry for real, meaningful policy change on literal life and death issues, embodied by the widespread support for both Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Bill Clinton repealed Glass-Steagall, which was one of the first things we did in the wake of the Great Depression. That law ensured that banks couldn’t gamble with your checking and savings accounts, and is one of the main structural responsibilities for the 2008 crisis. Clinton’s pro-Wall Street policies imbued America’s largest casino with bipartisan super powers they had never fully enjoyed, and they took their new largesse and used it to wreck the economy less than a decade after Clinton left office.
Clinton also oversaw one of the largest prison expansions in human history, thanks to Joe Biden’s 1994 Crime Bill.
— Best Posts (@onlygoodposts1) July 31, 2018
We remember Bill Clinton as a good president because the economy was booming in the 1990s, but that was due far more to the Industrial Revolution-style event we were undergoing with the advent of the internet than anything Clinton did. A golden retriever could have overseen widespread economic growth at the height of the first internet bubble. Bill Clinton’s legacy is jerking the Democratic Party to the right, ending any hope for a truly liberal party in America…until now. What you are currently witnessing on the left is a broad rejection of neoliberal Clintonian economics. Bill Clinton helped sow the seeds for our modern economic malaise as much as anyone over the last forty years, and us millennials who grew up in the 1990s now largely approving of socialism over capitalism is Bill Clinton’s ultimate legacy.
15. Jimmy Carter — L, 1977—1981
Sorry liberals, we have bad presidents too. Think of it this way: these folks aren’t further down on this list for a reason. Carter was a bad president because he, not Clinton, began the Democrats’ initial move to the right, and away from the 1960s Great Society and 1930s New Deal Democrats who promised widespread change using government intervention on the biggest issues of the day. While Carter did important things, like establishing the Departments of Energy and Education and facilitating the Camp David Accords, he escalated tensions with the Soviet Union after their invasion with Afghanistan, sporting a new doctrine centered around a pledge to go to war with them in the Persian Gulf. This was unnecessarily reckless, because around the end of Carter’s presidency, Cold War expert Bruce Blair described the relationship between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. as such:
[The relationship] had deteriorated to the point where the Soviet Union as a system—not just the Kremlin, not just Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, not just the KGB—but as a system, was geared to expect an attack and to retaliate very quickly to it. It was on hair-trigger alert. It was very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents. The false alarm that happened on Petrov’s watch could not have come at a more dangerous, intense phase in U.S.-Soviet relations.
The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is the most well-known near nuclear event in U.S.-Soviet history, but the early 1980s were when tensions were at their highest between the two nuclear powers. Stanislav Petrov is a name not enough people know, as he saved the world from certain nuclear destruction on September 26th, 1983. Per Petrov:
“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it. “A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike’.”
Had Petrov not gambled that this was a false alarm and not a preemptive U.S. nuclear attack, Jimmy Carter’s overwhelmingly positive post-presidency would not be able to overshadow the legacy of his bellicose Soviet policy.
14. Woodrow Wilson — L, 1913—1921
Some will be aghast at the inclusion here of a (controversial) liberal hero who created the federal income tax, the federal reserve system, and signed the Clayton Antitrust Act. Given that Wilson’s policies are far closer to the new left than Bill Clinton’s left, his negatives must be pretty bad to put him ahead of Clinton on this list, right?
Wilson allowed his Cabinet to segregate their departments, and he continued those policies into the levers of government under his control. Woodrow Wilson even went so far as to screen The Birth of a Nation at the White House—a famous white supremacist film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan.
What really vaults Wilson off the bubble and into this bracket is sowing the seeds for World War II by humiliating Germany with the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. Wilson’s solution to a defeated Germany in June 1919 was to cut 13% of their territory, 10% of their population and set up an idealistic (and U.S. self-interested) postwar Europe that fell apart immediately when the Senate failed to ratify U.S. membership in the League of Nations (now known as the United Nations). It was from these ashes which Hitler’s Germany arose from.
13. Richard Nixon — C, 1969—1974
Hot take: you can make a solid case for a successful Nixon presidency. He ended the war in Vietnam, cooled tensions and opened relations with China, created the Environmental Protection Agency, enforced desegregation of southern schools and signed an Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union. The reason he’s in here is because of the massive amounts of war crimes he committed prior to ending the war in Vietnam, and because he is the spiritual father of the new Republican Party, as best described by Lee Atwater, who worked on both Reagan presidential campaigns, ran George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign and sat on the board of Black, Manafort (yes, that one), Stone (that one too), and Kelly (it was one of the most influential D.C. lobbying shops of the last 40 years):
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N———, n——
, n———”. By 1968 you can’t say “n——”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this”, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N—— , n——”. So, any way you look at it, race is coming on the backbone.
12. Warren Harding — C, 1921—1923
One policy I stuck to in sorting this out is what I called the Kobe doctrine: volume matters. The more time to do damage, the bigger advantage you have, and that is why this man who is a staple of bad president lists ranks a little lower than some may have him. Many fault Harding for dying two years into his presidency (William Henry Harrison, who died 31 days into his presidency, is also a consistent feature of worst president lists, which is preposterous in my book). Harding is also maligned for actually being a bad president. He was well-regarded…until the truth of his comical corruption came out after his death. Harding appointed friends (and his brother-in-law) to all sorts of vital government positions. Albert Fall, Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, became the first cabinet official imprisoned over crimes they committed while in office. Harding’s Attorney General, Harry Daugherty, was also his campaign manager/Washington lobbyist. Trump isn’t the only one on this list who saw the presidency as one big cash grab.
11. Zachary Taylor — C, 1849—1850
Taylor was only president for sixteen months, but like Harding with the Kobe doctrine, he got up enough shots in his limited time to make it in to this tournament. Taylor had vague beliefs and never served in political office prior to becoming president, as he made his fame through his battles as a Captain in the War of 1812 and a Colonel in the Mexican-American War in 1846. Taylor became president two years later, and had a largely forgettable presidency, thanks to his demonstrated lack of interest in politics. His most famous policy is why he makes this list, as he helped create the Compromise of 1850 that admitted California to the union, but also kept slavery open as a possibility in the new territories—and it enacted a more forceful Fugitive Slave Law—which required law enforcement in non-slave states to aid in the capture and return of “fugitive slaves” to their slave-owners.
America had several opportunities to deal a serious blow to slavery before we fought a bloody Civil War over it, and every president who exacerbated those tensions by siding with white supremacy finds themselves on this list.
10. Ronald Reagan — C, 1981—1989
Speaking of racism, Ronald Reagan packaged the evil put forth by Richard Nixon into a sunny disposition, fossilizing the racist backlash to the Civil Rights Act into the GOP. His administration also treated the HIV/AIDS epidemic as a joke because of how hard it hit the gay community, all while nearly 40,000 Americans died on Reagan’s watch in a rapidly accelerating crisis without any help from the federal government. Additionally, Ronald Reagan introduced a bankrupt “trickle-down” economic theory that the GOP assumes to be a fact like gravity to this day, and the Democrats formed a similar ideology in neoliberalism. This kind of supply-side nonsense is nothing more than a cash transfer from damn near everyone to a handful of extremely wealthy folks making over $718,000 per year.
1946-1980: Virtually everybody in the U.S. saw their post-tax income double, apart from the very wealthy.
— Bloomberg Opinion (@bopinion) March 24, 2019
So much of the modern dystopia you see around you can be traced back to the Reagan revolution. Perhaps there is no better descriptor of Reagan’s ineffective, racist and punative policies than his ubiquity throughout anti-War on Drugs hip-hop songs, like Killer Mike’s Reagan.
9. John Tyler — C, 1841—1845
How many presidents have also served in the Confederate legislature? Welcome to the beginnings of why President Tyler makes this list. He also was a historically ineffective president, becoming the first president to see his veto get overridden by Congress. Tyler accomplished almost nothing other than aiding the fight to protect the institution of slavery as president, then he quickly joined a secession attempt built around slavery. To steal a turn phrase from a popular former Florida gubernatorial candidate: that’s not me saying it, that’s the racists saying it. Per Mississippi in the first line of their secession decree:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.
8. Donald Trump — C, 2017—
I couldn’t in good conscience make this man any lower than a two seed. The presidents who died in office would be more fit to be presidents after their deaths than the 45th president. While his evils have not yet risen to the level of “leading America into a Civil War over the preservation of slavery,” he is a modern version of that old kind of Andrew Jackson politician. Trump has built child concentration camps on our southern border to house the children he split up from their parents, and has funneled refugee children into centers with a history of neglect and sexual abuse, as well as actual CIA-like blacksites. Puerto Rico is still reeling from Hurricane Maria. The list goes on and on. Trump has been an abject disaster, just not as big as the ones ahead of him on this list.
7. Millard Fillmore — C, 1850—1853
Fillmore succeeded Zachary Taylor after his death in 1850, helping push the 1850 compromise and the Fugitive Slave Act across the legislative goal line. He also nearly started a war with Spain in 1850 when Americans joined Venezuelan adventurer Narcisco Lopez in expeditions to Cuba to overthrow Spanish rule (Southerners wanted Cuba to be a part of America due to its importance to the slave trade). Fillmore said he believed slavery to be evil, but he also didn’t believe that the state should do anything to stop it, so it doesn’t matter what he personally believed. He de facto supported the institution of slavery, as demonstrated by the Compromise of 1850. Given this cognitive dissonance between belief and action, it should be no surprise that Fillmore also oversaw a breakup of the Whig Party. Fillmore’s allies abandoned him for the American Party—more commonly known as the Know Nothings—who are the closest historical comparison we have to the modern Republican Party.
6. Andrew Jackson — C, 1829—1837
Donald Trump’s hero makes it as far up this list as you can without being able to directly point to them as an immediate cause for a Civil War or an utterly destabilizing event(s). Jackson is our second strongest two seed because he was just flat-out evil, and he helped embolden the evils of the future. The Indian Removal Act is an anodyne name for what it really was: Andrew Jackson’s state-sanctioned genocide. He despised abolitionists and spent a good chunk of his political capital fighting against the fight to eliminate slavery. No president has better embodied America’s dual bloodlust for land and people we don’t own than Andrew Jackson. For years, historians had actually ranked Jackson among the better presidents, largely focusing on the fact that he paid off the debt and expanded America’s empire. If that doesn’t demonstrate how white supremacists like Jackson helped to insert white supremacy into every crevice of this nation, nothing will.
5. Herbert Hoover — C, 1929—1933
Welcome to the show, folks. This is where the real contenders begin. While Hoover gets too much flack for his role in the Great Depression (the famed 1929 stock market crash occurred just seven months into his presidency), he still lands this high up on the list because he deserves the vast majority of the blame over his inability to stimulate the economy in a severe downturn—using a strategy of as little government intervention as possible. Sound familiar? The failure of Hoover’s presidency can be summarized by his inability to understand the basic economic principle of the Lender of Last Resort.
Take what we went through with the car companies in 2008. They needed lots of money or else they would go bankrupt, and all credit markets had completely dried up. No one was lending to anyone, let alone what kind of capital GM needed. That’s one of the reasons we have the government—to lend to people when no one will—something like a…lender of last resort. Trying to grow out of recessions and Great Depressions with government cuts and less regulation for market-based forces is a recipe for failure, as the Hoover administration spent four years proving. That should have been the end of austerity economics, and yet, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher gave a jolt in the 1980s to these discredited 1920s and 1930s ideas, and here we are again. We cannot afford to elect another Herbert Hoover in 2020.
4. George W. Bush — C, 2001—2009
As bad as Donald Trump has been, he has yet to rise to the vast, consequential incompetency of the Bush Administration. Because apparently a majority of Democrats have no memory of the early 21st century, tons of self-described liberals now have positive views of a man they once despised who oversaw the liquidation of (at least) 40% of middle class wealth, the largest terrorist attack ever on American soil, an initial indifferent response to Hurricane Katrina drowning New Orleans, the largest expansion of the powers of the presidency since FDR, mass domestic surveillance, the longest war in American history and another war of choice that helped birth ISIS and created a power vacuum in the Middle East that is trying to be filled by an increasingly bellicose Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.
George W. Bush was a complete and utter catastrophe, and the only reason he doesn’t rank higher on this list is because we didn’t immediately descend into Civil War as a result of his incompetence. Anyone thinking positively of him is horribly misinformed.
3. Franklin Pierce — C, 1853—1857
The Civil War claimed 2% of the American population—around 620,000 people died. That would be equivalent to 6.6 million people in today’s America. As bad as our current situation is thanks to the mismanagement of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, at least we can say we have not taken up arms against each other to fight one of the bloodiest wars in human history over the “greatest material interest in the world.” Pierce doubled down on the Fillmore-Taylor tag team of pro-slavery policies that did nothing but increase tensions in an incredibly divided society.
Pierce’s signature legislation, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, essentially repealed the Missouri Compromise, which banned slavery in all states west of the Mississippi River. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was one of the main flashpoints that directly led to the Civil War, as not only did it roll back democratic progress, but it shifted power to the slave states—further increasing tensions between the North and South. Pierce joined other presidents in an attempt to annex Cuba—but he also had eyes on Canada too—meaning that he risked conflict with both Spain and Britain, all while inflaming tensions between the divided nations within his nation. Franklin Pierce’s presidency was an abject disaster that helped lead us into a bloody Civil War that still reverberates to this day, and somehow, it still could have been worse.
2. Andrew Johnson — C, 1865—1869
A Democrat who succeeded Republican Abraham Lincoln, Johnson seemed to try to do as much as he could to unwind one of our greatest presidents’ legacies as possible. Johnson’s plan to reincorporate the South back in to the union did not include protections for slaves, which led to the creation of the Black Codes—literal apartheid laws passed by the Southern states that stripped black Americans of their rights. This created a situation where Johnson’s liberal political allies would try to pass bills restricting the power of states passing Black Codes, then Johnson would veto their legislation, and his veto would subsequently get overridden. Eventually, he was impeached by the Republican-controlled House, and narrowly avoided removal in the Senate by a single vote. Johnson is one of the heavy favorites in this tournament because at one of America’s weakest moments, he seemed to do everything he could to recreate the tensions that got us into the Civil War in the first place.
1. James Buchanan — C, 1857—1861
Speaking of getting us into Civil Wars, that’s why Buchanan captured the top overall seed for the tournament. Not only was he the last president prior to the Civil War, but Buchanan also has a legacy in helping to create an ultra-powerful Supreme Court. Marbury v. Madison established the principle of judicial review in 1803, basically meaning that the last stop on the checks and balances train is at the Supreme Court. If SCOTUS says something violates the law, then there is really nothing the executive or legislature can do to overrule them. This is essentially the basis of all American jurisprudence. Despite the immense power imbued within it in 1803, the Supreme Court did not strike down a federal law again until the infamous 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford case that actually repealed the Missouri Compromise, and established that black Americans were not guaranteed citizenship by the constitution.
Buchanan personally lobbied the Supreme Court to issue a broad ruling on this case upon his elevation into the Oval Office, and so not only did he shift the Overton Window in terms of what SCOTUS has the power to do, but this ruling served as perhaps the biggest flashpoint in the build-up to the Civil War. Buchanan gets extra credit by also presiding over the Panic of 1857, an economic crash that further destabilized a quickly deteriorating union. There is simply no president who oversaw a more violent and destabilizing fissure in this country’s history than Buchanan, and any objective handicapping of this tournament should make him a heavy favorite.
Fill this bracket out, argue with your friends, then come back to Paste politics every week during the NCAA tournament to learn more about how bad these presidents were, and to see if your favorite bad president advances during this annual tradition where we all come together to bond over noun brackets, hot takery and the spectacle of a billion-dollar basketball industry exploiting its labor. As the saying goes: this is America.
UPDATE: Check out the first round results of the Worst American Presidents Tournament.
UPDATE #2: And here is our winner!
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.