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JFK Ranked as Greatest U.S. President

Nixon, Clinton ranked as worst presidents ever

by Mark Gillespie


PRINCETON, NJ -- It may be the world's most exclusive club -- with only 42 members. While the nation goes through a vetting process to decide who will be the 43rd member of the club, Presidents Day gives historians and the public a chance to look back at those who have held the office of president of the United States.

Kennedy Regarded as Greatest President Ever
A new Gallup poll conducted February 14-15 shows Americans consider John F. Kennedy to be the greatest president ever, even though he held the office for less than three years before his assassination in 1963. Twenty-two percent of those polled selected Kennedy, up from 12% in a similar Gallup poll conducted in February 1999. In that poll, Kennedy ranked second behind Abraham Lincoln, who received support from 18% of the public in both polls. While there is no way to be sure, Kennedy's surge may be due to the extensive media coverage surrounding the death of his son, John F. Kennedy Jr., in an airplane crash last summer. A great deal of that coverage was devoted to the Kennedy family's years in the White House, and may have helped boost the esteem in which Americans hold the late president.

Others receiving high levels of support as America's greatest president include Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was named by 12% of those polled. Ronald Reagan was selected by 11%, and 5% named George Washington or Bill Clinton. It should be noted that Roosevelt's highest level of support came from those over the age of 65 -- 40% of those in that age group named Roosevelt. Kennedy was the leading choice of those under 65, and Ronald Reagan's highest level of support came from those between the ages of 18 and 29 (15%).

Disgraced Presidents Ranked as Worst Ever
When Americans are asked to name the worst presidents ever, two names stand out: Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Nearly one in four Americans (24%) selected Nixon, who resigned in disgrace in 1974 during the Watergate scandal. One in five (20%) selected Clinton, who is only the second president ever to have been impeached by the House of Representatives (Andrew Johnson was the first, in 1868). As might be expected, Republicans tended to select Clinton -- 38% of those who identified themselves as Republicans chose the current president. Democrats, meanwhile, overwhelmingly selected Nixon as the worst president ever.

Bill Clinton's Legacy
While Clinton is regarded as one of the worst presidents by a significant percentage of Americans, it should be noted that -- perhaps paradoxically -- he is also ranked in the top five as one of the greatest presidents ever. In the same Gallup poll, 62% of Americans approve of the way he is handling his job as president; his approval rating has rebounded slightly from last year's low of 53% in May, near the end of the Kosovo crisis.

When Americans are asked how they feel history will consider Clinton, 37% of those polled believe he will be considered outstanding or above average -- down slightly from 40% in a similar Gallup poll conducted in February, 1999. Another 34% believe he will be rated as an average president, while 28% predict he will be considered below average or poor. The impeachment scandal has apparently had a modest effect on these ratings; in 1997, 16% of Americans said history would rate Clinton as below average or poor, compared to the 28% who feel that way today.

Survey Methods
The results below are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,050 adults, 18 years and older, conducted February 14-15, 2000. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Who do regard as the greatest United States president?


  Feb 2000 Feb 1999
John Kennedy 22% 12%
Abraham Lincoln 18 18
Franklin Roosevelt 12 9
Ronald Reagan 11 12
George Washington 5 12
Bill Clinton 5 12
George Bush 3 5
Harry Truman 3 4
Theodore Roosevelt 3 3
Jimmy Carter 3 3
Thomas Jefferson 3 2
Dwight Eisenhower 3 2
Other 3 1
Richard Nixon 2 2
None * 1
No opinion 4 2

Which U.S. president would you consider the worst president?


  Feb 2000
Richard Nixon 24%
Bill Clinton 20
Jimmy Carter 10
Ronald Reagan 8
George Bush 3
Gerald Ford 2
Harry Truman 2
Dwight Eisenhower 1
Ulysses S. Grant 1
Warren Harding 1
Abraham Lincoln 1
Franklin Roosevelt 1
Other 12
None 1
No opinion 12

How do you think President Clinton will go down in history -- as an outstanding president, above average, average, below average or poor?

  Outstanding Above average Average Below average Poor No opinion
  % % % % % %
2000 Feb 14-15 8 29 34 12 16 1
1999 Feb 8-9 11 29 27 13 18 2
1998 Jan 24-25 8 23 37 16 14 2
1998 Jan 23-24 7 23 41 14 14 1
1997 Jan 31-Feb 2 6 30 47 8 8 1

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