Presidents may linger in the collective American consciousness for many reasons. Perhaps they were embroiled in controversies like Nixon, Clinton, or Trump. Maybe, like Kennedy, their time in office was defined by the tragedy that befell them, as humans tend to remember negative events more accurately than positive ones. Certain presidents may be remembered for the unique characteristics and context they brought to the country's highest office: Washington was the first to hold the office, while Obama was the first Black man to do so.
To be remembered forever by the general population is rare. Research has found that most presidents will be forgotten from the average American's recall within 50 to 100 years after their time in the White House; however, time does add a brighter sheen to a president's legacy in the relatively immediate future: presidents are likely to be remembered more fondly after they've left office, than when they were in it.
According to Gallup, retrospective approval ratings usually exceed a former president's final and average approval ratings while they were in office. Lyndon Johnson is the only exception to this trend, with a retrospective approval rating lower than both. Johnson's legacy was irrevocably tarnished by the Vietnam War, which was deeply unpopular during his tenure, and remains so today.
But how are past presidents remembered according to the experts—the historians and professors, for example—who dedicate their professional lives to remembering a president's legacy and efficacy? Stacker drew on C-SPAN's most recent June 2021 ranking of 44 U.S. presidents to better understand how professional observers of the presidency rank each president's time in office.
According to C-SPAN, the survey was devised by academic advisers with a 1-10 scale of "not effective" to "very effective" based on performance in 10 categories: public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, congressional relations, ability to set an agenda, the pursuit of equal justice for all, and overall performance within the context of the times. In 2021, 142 respondents participated in the survey.
While no retrospective approval rating is available yet for Trump, his legacy is still being written. In December 2022, the House committee responsible for investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack recommended four criminal charges against Trump, including conspiracy to defraud the United States, obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to make false statements to the government, and insurrection. It remains to be seen how the general public will reflect on Trump in the context of his transgressions following his presidency.
Historians, however, have weighed that Trump is not the worst president in American history. Trump's best category, according to the C-SPAN survey, was public persuasion, while his worst was moral authority. Continue on to learn who experts rank as the worst president of all time and who are consistently ranked among the best.