This is a good question, and one that gets asked less than you might think. It being President's Day, let's go through the list since 1945 and see who comes out looking best. My report card may surprise you.
I'm not a big fan. Truman allowed hawks in his administration, led by Dean Acheson (with Paul Nitze at his side) to escalate and militarize the Cold War, including moving forward with development of the hydrogen bomb, which kicked off the nuclear arms race. He also went along with Douglas MacArthur's disastrous decision to invade North Korea after the U.S. had retaken the south, which brought China into the war and led to a long and bloody stalemate. On the other hand, he did well on domestic issues, so overall I'd give Truman a C.
Ike was not bad on domestic issues. He didn't mess too much with New Deal programs, built the Interstate Highway System, backed expanded education and science spending after Sputnik, and deployed force in Little Rock against racists. As a general, he was rightly skeptical of the militarists in his administration. Unfortunately, he didn't keep some of these folks, like the Dulles brothers, on a short enough leash and supported an aggressive use of covert force in developing countries, including CIA-backed coups against democratic leaders in Iran and Guatemala, and setting in motion the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion plan. Ike gets a C.
This is the president who nearly incinerated the world thanks to his reckless Cuba policy -- starting with the Bay of Pigs invasion and continuing with Operation Mongoose -- that led Moscow to deploy nuclear missiles to that island. It's hard to live that down and, anyway, JFK wasn't around long enough to get much legislation passed whatever his lofty rhetoric. He gets a D.
LBJ boosters are hard at work these days reminding us of his profound domestic accomplishments, from Medicare to the Voting Rights Act. If he weren't also the president who chose escalation over withdrawal in Vietnam -- after lengthy deliberations that should have led to the opposite decision -- he'd probably get an A. Instead, LBJ gets a C.
He made peace with Russia and China, signed the Clean Air Act, created the EPA, ushered in Affirmative Action, and expanded the War on Poverty. Impressive for either a Republican or a Democrat. If only his administration didn't unleash the most brutal bombing of the Vietnam War, invade Cambodia, and overthrow the democratically elected president of Chile. Oh, and if only he weren't a paranoiac who spied on dissidents and presided over Watergate, ushering in the modern age of distrust of government. Nixon gets a D.
Nice guy,but he pardoned NIxon and kept Henry Kissinger on. Ford gets an Incomplete.
He didn't pass a single major piece of domestic legislation and only got Camp David by bribing both countries with billions of aid that has kept flowing to this day. He was clearly out of his depth as president. Carter gets a D while in office, and an A ever since.
Led America into the current era of fiscal irresponsibility with his historic tax cut and huge military spending increases. Started the modern Republican war on government, with across-the-board attacks on regulation and vandalistic appointments of people like James Watt. Escalated the Cold War with Star Wars and a bevy of new nuclear weapons systems. Attacked Nicaragua with a proxy army that had a taste for killing and torturing civilians. I could go on. Screw that morning in America nonsense about restoring national confidence. Reagan gets an F.
One term presidents are arguably failures by definition, and Bush is no exception. But he definitely did some good things, including gracefully handling the end of the Cold War and having the courage to raise taxes to reduce deficits. If only we still had Republicans like H.W. around. Unfortunately, Bush failed to respond forcefully to a major recession, which is why he lost office and why he gets a C.
He raised taxes, expanded the EITC, balanced the budget, presided over income gains for all groups (briefly), and enacted any number of modest positive changes. But he failed to pass healthcare reform, his main domestic initiative, caved to the right at a number of junctures, signed a bad welfare law (when it could have been better), and gave his enemies the nails to crucify him by empowering the Special Prosecutor when he could have nixed reauthorization of that law. We all know the rest of the story. Clinton gets a C+.
Yes, Bush expanded Medicare to include prescription drugs and he greatly increased foreign assistance to combat AIDS and other global health problems, perhaps saving millions of lives. Still, this nightmare president has to get an F for all the obvious reasons.
Obama learned too slowly that his vision of "One America" was a naive pipe dream in modern Washington, and missed opportunities for more gains during the early period of his administration. On the other hand, he did pass the holy grail of healthcare reform, enacting a flawed law that will be improved over time -- just like Social Security and Medicare have been improved. Obama also signed into law major reforms of Wall Street, and has enacted lots of smaller changes, like regulating credit cards, cutting out student loan middlemen, and more. He's also made good on his promise to get the U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama gets a B.
Okay, that's the rundown. Obama gets the highest grade. He's the best president since FDR in my book, albeit one of the least popular, according to opinion polls. Is he a great president? Ask me again in three years.