The scores, rendered by over 140 independent historians looking at 10 criteria like “crisis leadership” and “performance within context of times,” range from 897 (out of a possible 1,000) for the top-rated president, Lincoln, to Buchanan’s 227. Mr. Trump got 312.
It’s too early to draw a dispassionate view of Mr. Trump’s single term. Normally it takes at least a generation for the appraisals of historians to become rooted in more reasoned judgment. In a poll conducted by Arthur Schlesinger in 1962, Dwight Eisenhower, just a year out of office, tied with the forgettable Chester Arthur for 20th out of the 29 presidents measured. Likewise, in a survey done two years after leaving the White House, Ronald Reagan placed 28th out of 37 presidents.
But time has been good to Eisenhower and Reagan, as historians have come to focus more on the triumphs of their leadership: Eisenhower’s deft foreign policy management, ensuring that the Cold War didn’t become hot, and Reagan’s productive partnership with his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, resulting in an easing of superpower tensions. In the new C-SPAN poll, Eisenhower and Reagan ranked — at fifth and ninth — in the top 10 with Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Thomas Jefferson, Kennedy and Barack Obama, who bumps Lyndon Johnson from 10th (in 2017, Mr. Obama placed 12th).
For Mr. Trump, whose administration was marked by chaos, discord and division — much of his own making — it may take longer for greater even-handedness to take hold. But will he prove, like Eisenhower and Reagan, to climb the list with time as his record inspires re-evaluation and, ultimately, absolution?
It’s not likely. Presidents are principally measured by the most consequential aspects of their administrations, those that resonate in history and define the times in which they governed. Mr. Trump will be hampered by two central crises of his tenure. He treated the first, the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in the deaths of over 600,000 Americans, as an inconvenience. Offering hollow promises that it would magically disappear in the interest of keeping the economy growing and his re-election chances alive, he largely allowed the virus to spread perniciously.