Is Bill Clinton one of the best presidents in history?

September 6, 2012

Bill Clinton's face doesn't appear on Mount Rushmore, and he doesn't have a monument bearing his name in Washington, D.C. That much we know.

But judging by the reaction to the former president these days, it seems some are ready to mention him in the same breath as some of those bronze and stone statues.

Clinton served up the best-reviewed speech of the 2012 convention season on Wednesday, cementing his status as perhaps the preeminent force in American politics nearly 12 years after his presidency ended.

A stunning 69 percent of Americans in a Gallup poll released this week rated him favorably -- a number higher than ever been before, even at the height of his presidential popularity. And his address Wednesday will likely only add to the growing nostalgia for his terms in office.

Given that popularity, it's pretty reasonable to ask whether Clinton will be remembered as one of the greatest presidents ever.

And while he's not there yet, it's trending strongly in that direction.

Opinion polls of the best commanders-in-chief tend to favor more recent presidents. A 2011 Gallup poll asked Americans who the best president ever was, and Ronald Reagan and Clinton filled two of the top three slots -- ahead of consensus great presidents including George Washington, John F. Kennedy and both Roosevelts.

Presidential scholars, however, have generally ranked Clinton in the teens out of the 43 presidents (Wikipedia recaps all of these surveys here). A 2010 Siena poll pegged Clinton as the 13th-best president, while a 2009 CSPAN poll put him at No. 15. Scholars certainly have plenty of impact on history's list of the greatest presidents, but these surveys don't really measure the broader public's opinion.

The best somewhat-recent measure might be a 2007 Rasmussen poll (an automated survey) that asked Americans to rank each past president's favorability.

In that poll, Washington and Lincoln were rated favorably by more than 90 percent of Americans, and the top dogs read like you might expect: Washington, Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy, John Adams, James Madison, Reagan, etc.

Clinton ranked very much in the middle back then, with a 55 percent favorable rating and a 41 percent unfavorable rating.

Since then, though, the Clinton brand has skyrocketed, and his 69 percent favorable rating in the new Gallup poll would land him just outside the top 10 of the most well-regarded presidents in the Rasmussen poll. (Other recent polls, we should note, confirm Gallup's finding that about two-thirds of Americans view Clinton positively.)

The most important thing to remember in all of this is that it's much easier to be an ex-president than a president, and time out of office does wonders for improving a former chief executive's image.

Even George W. Bush, who left office with horrible numbers, has seen them rebound into somewhat respectable territory. And while Reagan is now regarded among the best presidents, his approval ratings during his time in office were generally lower than Clinton's. (A good chart of this can be found here.)

So it's not surprising that Clinton would continue to get more popular as time goes on. He left office at the tender age of 54, after all, and thus has had plenty of time to use his political gifts in an arena in which it is much easier to succeed. In addition, the economic tough times right now make Clinton's time in office seem like a dream to many.

At the same time, Clinton's in-office sex scandal will always color perceptions of him, and it will be hard for many people -- specifically Republicans -- to ever get past that. So we've got to wonder how much higher his ceiling is.

For now, it's safe to say that he's not yet on the same level as the Reagans of this world. A Gallup poll earlier this year showed 60 percent of Americans regarded Clinton's presidency as at least above average, and 18 percent regarded it as outstanding.

For Reagan, those numbers were 69 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

Beyond that, Clinton isn't close to the same level as Washington, Lincoln and the Roosevelts, and it's far too early to be talking about him in monumental (see what we did there?) terms.

But his popularity is certainly knocking on the door of that elite club of top 10  best-regarded presidents in history. From there? We'll see.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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