Ranking the 21st Century Presidents

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By Ryan Chou

In the first 21 years of the 21st century, America has gone through five presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden. Each has their own trademark actions. Three of them are Democrats, and two are Republicans. Their decisions had major impacts on both the United States and world, but not all presidents are created equal. How do they stack up against each other? Because Joe Biden has only been in office for just under 5 months, he will not be included in this ranking.

1. Barack Obama:

President Obama was not a perfect president, and he was nowhere near some of the “greats” like FDR and Lincoln. However, a number of key policies along with character put him at the top of this list. While it did make healthcare more expensive, the Affordable Care Act gave coverage to 23 million Americans. He wasn’t Teddy Roosevelt, but the Clean Power Plan and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act made moves to protect the environment and combat climate change. Not only that, but he refused to build the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would have had horrible consequences for the environment. Yes, it probably meant missing out on some jobs, but protecting all Americans from unhealthy, eventually life-threatening climate change should take greater priority. In domestic issues, Obama repealed the Defense of Marriage Act, which paved the way for the legalization of gay marriage, increased the accessibility of mental healthcare, and strengthened gun background checks. However, he also takes some hits, notably in international affairs. Yes, he made progress in improving relations with Cuba to levels that haven’t been seen since before the Cuban Missile Crisis and killed Osama Bin Laden, but the hundreds of drone strikes he ordered in the Middle East on civilian targets enter the territory of war crimes. Also, partisanship rose significantly and he didn’t really live up to the “change” and “hope” he promised, but both of these were more because of the Koch brothers funneling billions of dollars into creating the Tea Party movement. Compared to every other president in history, Obama might only be a slightly above average president, but compared to the 3 others being compared to, he’s the best we’ve had.

2. Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton coming below Barack Obama might sound surprising. After all, while he was president, the economy was booming with a budget surplus, but I don’t really give him credit for that. He got lucky by coming into the presidency when e-commerce was blowing up, and passing legislation to keep it going is just a given. Not only that, but his reluctance to regulate finance services helped contribute to Wall Street crimes, making way for a finance crisis that would show up under the Bush administration. Crime fell to a low that hadn’t been seen since the 70s under him, and the Brady Bill and 1994 Crime Bill both helped bring down gun crimes by 40%, but the federal prison population blew up, with most of the new inmates being in for drug crimes. The infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy meant gay rights really weren’t at the top of his list, and he failed to negotiate health care reform with Congress. Some of his environmental legislation was good, with the passing of the Safe Drinking Water Act and protection of millions of acres of land. Sadly, his foreign policy was a mess. He did virtually nothing to stop the Rwandan genocide, passed NAFTA, which ended up outsourcing American jobs and shreding environmental regulations, and his only real silver lining here was his moves to stop Serbian human rights crimes. 

3. George W. Bush 

If the remaining two presidents on this list were at least OK, Bill Clinton would be at the bottom of this list, but George W. Bush didn’t meet this benchmark. His initial leadership after the 9/11 attacks were respectable, but that gets drowned out by his invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, which were started under false pretenses and killed millions of innocent civilians. Economically, tax cuts blew up income inequality and drove the country closer to its financial crises in 2007-2009. Domestically, he failed to respond properly to the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, violated the privacy of Americans with the Patriot Act, and supported the ban on gay marriage. Bush’s presidency is also full of questions over just how much influence Dick Cheney had in the administration, and whether Cheney was in power more than Bush. 

4. Donald Trump

Trump’s presidency was riddled with corruption, scandals, inefficiencies, broken promises, and national embarrassments. He did little to ease the accelerating political polarization while he was in office, and, if anything, increased partisanship with his rhetoric and demonization of political rivals. His refusal to accept the results of the election led to an unprecedented attempted coup of the United States government not seen since the Civil War, attacks on the free press, and the transformation of the Republican Party into the Party of Trump, significantly damaging the very heart of American democracy. In foreign policy, his involvement in Israel and North Korea both fell through, and he sent America into a trade war against China that ended up crippling US farmers. His tax cuts promoted offshoring, economic inequality only increased under his presidency, and even before the pandemic, troubling signs of an incoming recession were looming, with federal interest rates facing cuts and economic growth slowing down by the second half of his term. In the environment, he pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accords, dropped carbon emission regulations on coal plants with the Affordable Clean Energy Act replacing the Clean Power Plan, and cut funding to the EPA, all of which hurt the fight against climate change. When faced with the unique challenge of a global pandemic, he failed to take it seriously, chose not to follow the pandemic playbook, and went completely against the evolving knowledge about the virus, citing it as uncredible and resulting in hundreds of thousands of Americans dying. 

I can’t say we’ve had the JFK of the 21st century yet, but so far, the ranking goes: Obama, Clinton, Bush, and Trump. 

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