What Presidents Were America’s Greatest Leaders?


What better way to celebrate Presidents Day than with a cool list? Where does your favorite rank? (C-SPAN)

Find your favorite president on our cool map!

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit, including a link to today’s MapMaker Interactive map. (Yes, it’s updated to reflect the recent election.)

Discussion Ideas

Agree or Disagree?
Agree or Disagree?

The C-SPAN survey ranks U.S. presidents on 10 key leadership roles. What are they? What are some challenges faced by leaders in those roles?


  • Public Persuasion. How effective was the president at communicating his ideas with citizens of the U.S.?
    • Franklin D. Roosevelt was the top performer in this category. What public policies did he have to communicate with U.S. citizens? How did he persuade the public to accept his leadership on these issues?



  • Crisis Leadership. Did the president face a national or international crisis? How did they show leadership in the face of crisis? How was the crisis resolved?
    • The top leaders on this list are “wartime presidents.” The U.S. did not officially engage in war during the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and James K. Polk, however, although these men ranked very highly. What crises defined their leadership?



  • Economic Management. Did the national economy grow under this president’s leadership?
    • Our most recent former president, Barack Obama, ranked very highly here. Why?



  • Moral Authority. Did Americans consider the president to live a principled life? Were his decisions guided by ethical considerations?
    • Three slave-owning presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) rank very highly here. Why?



  • International Relations. How did the president represent the U.S. on the world stage?
    • George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, near the top of the list here, are primarily associated with domestic issues. Why do historians rank them highly as international leaders?



  • Administrative Skills. How effective was the president in establishing his policies as law or administration?
    • What laws do we still have today that are associated with the administrations of Lincoln, Washington, the Roosevelts, or Dwight Eisenhower?



  • Relations with Congress. How successful was the president in having his policies supported by the House and Senate?
    • How many top leaders on this list served in Congress before serving as president? How do you think this influenced their ability to negotiate with this branch of government?



  • Vision/Setting an Agenda. Did the president have a clear focus when leading the country?
    • The vision of most top leaders in this category involved preserving the union during times of war and strife. Not so Theodore Roosevelt. How would you describe his political agenda?



  • Pursued Equal Justice for All. Did the president seek justice for all citizens regardless of their appearance, class, circumstance, or way of life?
    • The top of this list is dominated by 20th-century presidents. Exceptions to this include Lincoln, John Quincy Adams, and Ulysses S. Grant. Why are Adams and Grant ranked so highly?



  • Performance within the Context of Times.
    • John F. Kennedy is the only high-ranking president on this list who did not serve two terms. Why do you think he ranks so highly in the context of the early 1960s?


  • Do you agree with C-SPAN’s categories of presidential leadership?
    • Would you value them all equally, or weigh some more highly than others?
    • Would you add any of your own?



Sorry, guys.
Sorry, guys.


C-SPAN: Presidential Historians Survey 2017

Nat Geo: Birthplaces and Tenures of U.S. Presidents map

(extra credit!) C-SPAN: C-SPAN’s Historians Survey of President Leadership video

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