Politics, Economics or Short Memory? Reagan Tops Presidential Popularity Poll

Presidents Day is approaching, and according to a new poll economics and recent history may play a factor along with politics, when it comes to how Americans rank their presidents.

In the USA Today/Gallup survey on who people said is the greatest U.S. president, Ronald Reagan came in at No. 1 -- leapfrogging over Abraham Lincoln, who topped the survey the last time it was taken in 2007.

Reagan garnered the top vote for 19% of the approximately 1,000 U.S. adults who took the survey in early February. The 40th president, who served from 1981-89, was followed by Lincoln (14%), Bill Clinton (13%), John Kennedy (11%) and George Washington (10%).

Nostalgia for Better Economic Times

Granted, the poll tends to favor either living presidents or those who were recently in office, as each of the last six presidents, starting with Jimmy Carter, finished among the top 14 vote-getters.

But still, with the economy slowly recovering from its most recent downturn, many of those polled may be harkening back to times when there was more life to the economy. And if you put aside bad synth music and hair-metal bands, Reagan's go-go '80s treated many people well financially.

"People do look back at the 1980s as prosperous," said Allan Lichtman, history professor at American University. "Clinton is a bit more surprising because most authorities in the field rank him as a rather average president. However, he did preside over one of the most prosperous periods in U.S. history and has been a rather popular ex-president."

Honoring The Gipper's Centennial

And as former yuppies can attest, Reagan led the country when its economy sprung from its early-1980s recession to record gross domestic product growth of 7% in 1984. Meanwhile, within four years of Clinton taking office in 1993, U.S. unemployment fell below 5% and stayed there for the rest of his eight-year term.

Since then, the economy hasn't been as good, and while events such as 9/11, the dot-bomb bubble and the most recent financial crisis may share some of the blame for that downturn, the more recent U.S. presidents bear the brunt., when ti comes to popularity. President Barack Obama got 5% of the USA Today/Gallup votes, while George W. Bush got 2%.

That said, there may be more to the poll results than economics. Reagan, who topped previous USA Today/Gallup polls in 2001 and 2005, may have picked up votes this year because of the media attention surrounding what would've been his 100th birthday on Feb. 6.

And Lichtman notes that, while liberals are generally divided over who they consider to be the best presidents, conservatives tend to line up behind Reagan. Indeed, Reagan got 38% of USA/Gallup votes cast by Republicans, almost as high a percentage as Clinton and Kennedy received from liberals combined.

Seems Like Yesterday....

Then again, when it comes to the American public, the outcome may speak more to a shorter memory than a smaller pocketbook, according to John Woolley, a political science professor at UC Santa Barbara.

"Mostly, these results speak to the limited historical awareness of large numbers of survey respondents," he says."The fact that Clinton, Obama, and Bush appear on this list indicates that this poll is merely tapping relatively recent personal knowledge as much as anything else. I don't think it's the economy."


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libofvirginia

Reagan made secret deals with Islamic terrorists which made us look weak in their warped viewpoint and indirectly contributed to what happened on 9-11

February 22 2011 at 12:22 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
ak841

They all voted for Regan becuse that was the only Repub. pres. that wasnt a crook in the last 5o yrs.

February 21 2011 at 9:01 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
johnr75

After the carter fiasco anything would be an improvement. He has my vote, I'll take Ron any day over the the democratic crap, before and after.

February 21 2011 at 5:45 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
William

I can understand the Reagan myth, but the Supply-side economics, no taxes, de-regulate everything, and the Govt. is a problem theory that has gotten us where we are. If you do not regulate GREEd, the little guy loses, and we have lost nuch.
The republican party is no longer the Grand Old Party. The separation of classes is goimg forward at an alarming pace.

February 21 2011 at 4:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
nanbrite

Good to know that an insipid ACTOR in the early stages of Alzheimers is the "best" this nation can come up with! It's no wonder we can no longer compete as we once did in the global market place. It's a pity EDUCATION is such a low priority in the Republican agenda. I prefer a thinking human as our "best" president...Lincoln or Jefferson or FDR perhaps...but it would also be a good idea to give our present president a chance to make his mark. He's a thinking man who manages, without "airs" to work intelligently, passionately and thoughtfully and still maintain good humor and compassion.

February 21 2011 at 3:07 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Henning

He also won us the Cold War. He negotiated arms reduction, fall of the Berlin Wall. He liberated millions of people from Communism.( By the way I made more money during the Reagan years than ever before.) When Reagan was our Govenor he did a good job. Then when he became President, I felt assured that we had a real leader at the Helm. I have yet to regain that feeling again

February 21 2011 at 1:27 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Henning's comment
libofvirginia

The beatles had more to do with the downfall of the Soviet Union then Bonzo did

February 22 2011 at 12:24 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
rjj911321

and George W. Bush actually got elected to a second term! is this poll really supposed to mean anything? well it means something to me by reinforcing what I've been thinking of roughly half my country.
NOTE to gallup: next time do a survey like this using historians and academics.

February 21 2011 at 1:11 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to rjj911321's comment
libofvirginia

or real people at least

February 22 2011 at 12:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
pmarsh25

I voted for Reagan and wouldn't even put him in my top 10. It's interesting how people have forgotten that unemployment under Reagan reached 10.8%, and that he more than tripled the national debt during his time as Prez. All I can say is wow!

February 21 2011 at 9:58 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
Wm Good

People yearn for another Reagan era??? No, that isn't short memory. It just proves that no one ever went broke underestimating ( or misunderestinating ) the stupidity of the American people. Will they ever learn??? Past presidential voting says no.

February 21 2011 at 9:44 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
defroh

Have you all forgotten the illegal invasion of Nicaragua? His attempt to overthrow the government there? He was a folksy old bast**d but he ended up asleep his second term, which was run by Nancy. Walk on water? I don't think so.

February 21 2011 at 9:19 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply