New testimony linking President Joe Biden to a “pay to play” bribery scheme raises the question of how history will assess his tenure in office.
Admittedly, it is risky to compare the performance of modern presidents against their predecessors. Because it is hard to place current events in historical context, snap judgments can prove embarrassing later.
For example, during the presidency of George W. Bush (served 2001-2009), some commentators ranked him as the worst American chief executive in history. In hindsight, however, that assessment seems absurd, even to liberal academics. The 2021 C-SPAN Presidential Historians Survey ranked him 29th of 44.
More recently, some commentators have characterized Donald J. Trump (2017-2021) as the worst president. But this assessment disregards some clear successes, particularly in economic and foreign policy.
Nevertheless, the record so far suggests that, barring unforeseen events, Biden will rank as one of the worst presidents of all time.
How Surveys Rate the Presidents
In addition to C-SPAN, other organizations, such as Siena College, publish presidential rankings. They pose questions to people they consider experts (mostly historians and other academics) and then tabulate the results.
Unfortunately, these surveys are deeply flawed. This is true for two reasons: the questions and the answers.
First, the questions are largely disconnected from the president’s job description as it appears in the Constitution. Most questions do not address constitutional duties such as general law enforcement and serving as military commander-in-chief. Instead, they reflect liberal obsession with factors like “vision” and “economic management.” And while the framers designed the presidency as a check on Congress, the surveys give presidents better scores if they go along with Congress.
Second, the answers are skewed by liberal bias. For instance, in the 2021 C-SPAN survey, academic historians listed Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) third among presidents for “economic management,” while ranking Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) 15th. But history shows that FDR’s conflicting economic policies failed to pull the economy out of the doldrums after years of trying, while Reagan’s policies quickly converted a recession into an economic boom.
What About Biden?
As you might suspect, Biden ranks poorly if you use criteria based on the Constitution. Remarkably, however, he also ranks poorly even if you use the kind of criteria that appear in the surveys. Let’s examine his performance on some of those criteria.
America has been fortunate in having mostly honest presidents. Nevertheless, historians mark down even innocent presidents when scandals arise on their watch. That is a major reason Warren Harding (1921-1923) and Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) are not ranked higher.
The Biden administration already has been marred by several scandals, and unlike the cases of Harding and Grant they may implicate the president himself.
Enforcing the Law
The Constitution commands the president to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Although the published surveys do not emphasize this factor enough, it affects the ratings indirectly. The outstanding example of this is the very poor ranking of James Buchanan (1857-1861) because he failed to enforce federal law against the seceding Southern states.
Just as Buchanan permitted the secessionists to leave the Union in violation of law, Biden is permitting millions of foreigners to enter the Union in violation of law. The results, if not corrected quickly, may be as profound as the results Buchanan’s derelictions threatened to become.
This is only one incidence of the Biden administration’s contempt for the rule of law. Others appear below.
The C-SPAN survey asks whether presidents furthered “Equal Justice for All”—another example of liberal bias. (A more constitutionally-rooted question would be whether the president enforces the law generally.) It is difficult to see how Biden does well even on this imperfect measure. Although some past presidents have weaponized the government against political enemies, weaponization under Biden has reached a new peacetime high. Anyone with an honest historical sense knows that this is a very alarming development and certainly not in conformance with “equal justice.”
This factor appears in most of the published surveys—as it should because the Constitution grants the president, either expressly or by implication, wide foreign policy powers.
Although the condition of the world stems from many causes, it is impossible to disregard the fact that after Biden was inaugurated the world became a more violent and dangerous place. The growth of Communist Chinese influence and the Russian-Ukrainian war are two aspects of this change.
This is another criterion that appears in published surveys. Arguably it is an illegitimate question because (1) economic management is not among the president’s constitutional responsibilities, (2) the president’s power over the economy is limited by the power of Congress, the Federal Reserve, and administrative agencies beyond his reach, and (3) the question pre-supposes that it is government’s job to “manage” the economy.
In deference to the surveys, however, let’s consider Biden’s performance.
In the short time he has been in office, the national debt has risen from less than $31 trillion to nearly $34 trillion. If Congress had not rejected lavish additional spending and the Supreme Court had not invalidated his student loan scheme, the debt level would be even higher.
There is also the much-under-reported Medicare scandal. During his self-declared COVID-19 emergency, Biden ordered Medicare to pay the full cost of excessive COVID-19 test kits, with no co-payments for people who ordered the tests. This has led to fraudsters bilking the government for untold millions.
These and other irresponsible policies predictably triggered a round of inflation of the kind Americans had not seen since the 1970s. They also have resulted in continued workforce under-participation.
Admittedly, Biden shares the blame for inflation with Trump and the state governors, nearly all of whom made bad economic decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Abuse of Power
In the past, major presidential abuses of power occurred primarily in time of war. These included Abraham Lincoln’s (1861-1865) suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, Woodrow Wilson’s (1913-1921) suppression of dissent, and FDR’s incarceration of Japanese-Americans.
But Biden’s administration has been guilty of widespread abuses of presidential power during a time of peace. These include:
– the discriminatory application of justice, referred to above,
– sweeping executive orders that invade state and congressional prerogatives and impair liberty—including several orders voided by the courts, and
– “arguably . . . the most massive attack against free speech in United States’ history,” as documented by Judge Terry A. Doughty in his preliminary opinion in Missouri v. Biden (pdf).
Historians sometimes cite Richard Nixon’s abuses as a reason for marking him down. As Judge Doughty’s opinion demonstrates, Nixon’s abuses pale in comparison with Biden’s.
Moral Leadership v. Demagogy
“Moral leadership”—as opposed to demagogy—is unmentioned in the Constitution, but a feature of published presidential ranking systems. Again, Biden scores poorly.
Failing to respond to corruption is a sign of poor moral leadership. So is purporting to transfer student debt obligations from those who benefited from them to those who did not. (Preventing such transfers was one reason the Constitution was adopted.
Historians often mark down Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) because of his intemperance in attacking opponents, but Biden has been at least as divisive. Recall his notorious Aug. 25, 2022 MAGA speech, in which he called mainstream political opponents “extremists” and “semi-fascists.”
The Siena College survey includes a distinct category for presidential “intelligence.” This probably should not be a separate factor, because a president’s cognitive abilities show up in his performance on other measures, such as foreign policy and administrative skills.
Still, the Siena College survey allows participants to demote presidents for supposed cognitive weakness. And academics sometimes mark down Reagan and George Washington (1789-1797) for alleged cognitive decline late in their presidencies.
Biden, of course, has exhibited signs of cognitive decline from the very beginning of his presidency. This reduces his ability to control his subordinates. Subordinates not subject to control often run wild, knowing the man at the top will get the blame for anything that goes wrong.
The Constitution specifies that the president is commander-in-chief of the military, so it is surprising that not all surveys address it. They should.
The Biden administration has been responsible for several embarrassing military lapses. One was the debacle accompanying American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Another was the inexplicable failure to shoot down a Communist Chinese spy balloon before it had photographed much of the country.
Of more long-term import is Biden’s politicization of the military—a frightening development almost unique in American history.
This mismanagement has affected readiness in several ways, including recruitment problems.
Of course, a full historical assessment of the Biden presidency will have to await completion of his term. At this point, however, he seems headed for a ranking among the very worst of American presidents.
Robert G. Natelson, a historian and former constitutional law professor who is senior fellow in constitutional jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver, authored “The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant” (3rd ed., 2015). He is a contributor to the Heritage Foundation’s “Heritage Guide to the Constitution.”