Worst. President. Ever?

It certainly seems to me that George W. Bush is the worst president in the modern era, if not ever. But I also realize that this impression is shaped by the fact that I have no memories of Nixon or Ford, and my only memories of Carter are peanuts, hostages, gas lines, and Camp David. While my political awareness grew during Reagan’s presidency, even then I was younger and more foolish than I am now. At the time, I may well have thought Reagan was a terrible president; certainly, I thought he was a bad president, but I don’t recall ever thinking he was the worst ever. Ditto for the elder Bush, who seemed like a well-intentioned but misguided president who didn’t accomplish much one way or the other. And I suspect that conservatives never truly thought of Clinton as the worst president ever, though I can imagine that they might have thought so of Lyndon Johnson (who I admire simply by virtue of his Great Society achieving a permanent 4-5% reduction in the poverty rate.)

In any given era, there’s almost surely a contemporaneity bias: when the current president is from the other party, he probably seems worse than he actually is, if for no other reason than simple frustration. As time passes, our memories tend to impart some generosity — we recall the good more than the bad, exacerbating the gap between our perceptions of how bad the opposition president is today relative to opposition presidents of days past. In short, whenever voters are faced with a president of the opposite party, they are almost surely biased towards concluding that the current one is worse than past presidents we disliked.

These and related musings lead me to wonder whether I could come up with a quantitative yardstick: what would it take for George W. Bush, based on a particular objective metric, the popular vote, to be declared the worst president, ever?

As it turns out, this is actually a more complicated question than you might think. America has had ten defeated incumbents, but in two of those cases a credible 3rd party candidate lowered the incumbent’s vote total substantially (1912: Wilson v. Taft with Teddy Roosevelt in the mix; 1992: Clinton v. G. H. W. Bush, with Ross Perot in the running). So just looking at the incumbent’s percentage of the vote may be misleading. Also, when the third party candidate is ideologically closer to one candidate than the other, as was true in both cited cases, looking at the margins may also be misleading.

Moreover, some of the least popular incumbents choose not to run or were prevented from running by their party. Lyndon Johnson is a notable example of the former and Franklin Pierce is an example of the latter. So the data are censored because the least popular incumbent presidents didn’t run; we only observe data conditional on the incumbent believing that he had a chance. Vote totals are also not observed for presidents with failed second terms, such as Nixon. So I haven’t quite determined the exact number below which George W. Bush could be declared worst president ever, but I’m working on it.(*)

However, in the course of looking at the least popular presidents, I did come across the following quote from Lyndon Johnson, dated March 31, 1968:

What we won when all our people were united just must not be lost in suspicion, distrust, selfishness, and politics among any of our people.

Believing this as I do, I have concluded that I should not permit the presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year. With America’s sons in the field far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day. I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to my personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office – the presidency of your country.

Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party, for another term as your president.

Remind you of anyone?


(*) The preliminary threshold is 39.6%. Bonus mention in the next post on this topic for the first commenter to figure out the source of this number.