The United States of America doesn’t feel very united. In fact, the nation feels deeply divided, and many people blame that on the president. Fans of the current president blame the division on his predecessor, Barack Obama. And those who supported Obama blame Donald Trump for the division. Both have proven to be very polarizing presidents. But how do they compare to the most polarizing presidents in American history?
Read on to get the details on the presidents who divided the country the most, according to the experts who contributed to the Brookings Institution’s 2018 Presidents and Executive Politics Presidential Greatness survey.
15. George W. Bush began an era of hyper-partisanship
Experts tell the Brookings Institution that George W. Bush makes the list of the most polarizing presidents, landing in 15th place. According to The Washington Post, Bush campaigned on promises to unite rather than divide. “It’s ironic then that what Bush’s presidency ushered in was a period of hyper-partisanship,” the Post explains.
Bush’s presidency divided the country from the start, when he ascended to office after losing the popular vote. And Bush’s response to 9/11 — “most notably his decision to invade Iraq based on an ultimately incorrect conclusion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction — set the course for all the partisanship that followed.”
Next: This president lengthened a war and sowed division to gain power.
14. Richard Nixon purposefully divided America
Richard Nixon also numbers among the most polarizing presidents, according to the Brookings Institution. Salon reports, “Nixon was a master of the dark art of orchestrating political tensions, resentments, and animosities for maximum political gain.” The publication adds, “The divisions he sowed in America have never entirely healed.” His most polarizing move as president? Adding four years to the Vietnam War.
He assumed that he would lose his reelection bid if South Vietnam fell before the 1972 election. So, to keep voters from rejecting him as a president who lost a war, he kept U.S. troops fighting in Vietnam through his entire first term — all while hiding his intentions from the American people.
Next: Historians still can’t agree about this polarizing president.
13. Andrew Jackson remains polarizing among historians
Next on the list of the most polarizing presidents? Andrew Jackson, who divided Americans with his personality as much as his politics. Critics accused Jackson of being unpresidential — just like Donald Trump — in part because of his humble origins in a southern log cabin. The Atlantic reports that “Washington insiders reviled Jackson. They saw him as intemperate, vulgar, and stupid.”
According to the Miller Center, Jackson continues to be polarizing. Jackson’s “character polarized contemporaries and continues to divide historians. Some praise his strength and audacity; others see him as vengeful and self-obsessed.” The group adds, “To admirers, he stands as a shining symbol of American accomplishment, the ultimate individualist and democrat. To detractors, he appears an incipient tyrant, the closest we have yet come to an American Caesar.”
Next: Here’s how Barack Obama compares to the most polarizing presidents.
12. Barack Obama didn’t change the tone in Washington
According to the experts who contributed to the Brookings Institution report, Barack Obama numbers among the most polarizing presidents in American history. In 2017, The Hill characterized Obama’s approval ratings as “easily the most polarized in modern American history, with Democrats rating him highly and Republicans rating him poorly.” Throughout his presidency, Obama averaged 83% job approval from Democrats and 13% among Republicans.
A columnist for the Boston Globe speculated that Obama hardly even tried to “change the tone in Washington,” something he had promised to do as president. “From his earliest days as a presidential contender, Obama had held himself out as a healer — as a visionary who would never ‘pit red America against blue America,’ who committed himself to ending ‘a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism.'” Many voters liked the sound of those promises, but Obama’s presidency doesn’t seem to have delivered.
Next: This president was so polarizing that Congress tried to impeach him.
11. Andrew Johnson became the target of impeachment proceedings
The Brookings Institution puts Andrew Johnson next on the list of the most polarizing presidents — probably thanks to the series of events that led to impeachment proceedings against him. As U.S. News puts it, Johnson “was impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate in what was a divisive and bitter battle.”
Johnson entered office as the Civil War concluded, and sought to restore seceded states to the Union without implementing protections for former slaves. He clashed with Congress, which culminated in impeachment proceedings. U.S. News notes that the outcome — and the debate leading up to it — served to intensify divisions in America. And, as the publication reports, “Johnson’s abrasive disposition made matters worse by hardening the opposition against him.”
Next: Americans blamed this president for an economic crisis.
10. Herbert Hoover took the blame for the Great Depression
Herbert Hoover also ranks among the most polarizing presidents, according to the Brookings Institution. The group notes that two other presidents — Grant and Carter — who governed during economic crises didn’t divide the country. (They presided over the White House during the Panic of 1877 and the oil crisis and stagflation in the 1970s.) But Hoover “fell towards the more polarizing end of the scale.”
Hoover took office in 1929, the year the U.S. economy plunged into the Great Depression. According to History, Hoover “bore much of the blame in the minds of the American people. As the Depression deepened, Hoover failed to recognize the severity of the situation or leverage the power of the federal government to squarely address it.”
Next: This president didn’t rise to the challenge of unifying a divided country.
9. Zachary Taylor struggled to hold the nation together
Experts tell the Brookings Institution that Zachary Taylor also numbers among the most polarizing presidents. Bloomberg notes that between the 1830s and 1850s, “President after president struggled to hold together an increasingly polarized nation. None served more than one term, two died in office — and by 1860 the country was falling apart.” Taylor was one of the presidents who failed to unify a country polarized over the question of slavery.
The Miller Center reports that at the time he became president, Taylor “was the most popular man in America, a hero of the Mexican-American War.” The group adds, “the South hoped he would support states’ rights and the expansion of slavery into the new areas won from Mexico. The North pointed to his service on the nation’s behalf and hoped fervently that he was a Union man.” But Taylor considered himself independent and maintained that the president should stand above party politics. He left behind a sharply divided nation when he died 16 months into his presidency.
Next: This president was so unpopular that the White House hired bodyguards to protect him.
8. John Tyler proved too stubborn to compromise
Next on the list? John Tyler. In 2012, one of Tyler’s grandsons — CBS has the full story on their lineage — told New York Magazine that the polarization in modern politics would have been “nothing new” to Tyler. Historians would likely agree. As The Miller Center reports, “Once in the office, he refused to politically compromise his positions with Congress — a vital presidential skill. Even leaders of his own party were frustrated by his stubbornness.”
As Wisconsin Public Radio reports, many presidents have been labeled “divisive.” But Tyler became “so unpopular that for the first time the White House employed personal bodyguards, they were worried about his physical safety.”
Next: This president proved polarizing from the beginning.
7. John Adams ran a divisive campaign
John Adams comes next on the list of the most polarizing presidents, according to the Brookings Institution. And that may not be the only thing he has in common with our current president. Just like Donald Trump, John Adams ran a presidential campaign that was surprisingly vicious (and divisive).
According to Wisconsin Public Radio, “Adams’ re-election campaign called his challenger — and vice president — Thomas Jefferson a coward, an atheist and mixed-race.” Adams set the tone for the campaign, and Jefferson responded in kind. “Jefferson’s campaign hired a man, Thomas Callander, to spread, well, fake news stories about Adams — that he was crazy and trying to start a war with France.”
Next: This president ushered in the partisanship we still have today.
6. Thomas Jefferson is responsible for today’s partisanship
Thomas Jefferson also numbers among the most polarizing presidents. Like Donald Trump, Jefferson ascended to office after losing the popular vote, which made him a divisive figure from the beginning. A letter to The Wall Street Journal notes that in fact, “Jefferson’s 12-vote victory in the [electoral college] came from the 19 votes that ‘represented’ nearly one million nonvoting, enslaved African-Americans (one-sixth of the nation’s population).”
The Atlantic reports that once he ascended to the presidency, Jefferson let his “rigid ideology” keep him from solving some of the nation’s most serious problems. ” Jefferson was the father of today’s partisanship,” the publication notes. From his first days in the federal government, he plotted against his opponents. He founded a newspaper with the sole purpose of attacking the Federalists. And he used partisan tactics “to leave a legacy of states’ rights doctrine that would far outlast his lifetime.”
Next: This president made it even easier for the nation to fall into civil war.
5. Franklin Pierce precipitated the path toward war
Franklin Pierce makes it into the top five most polarizing presidents in American history. But that seems surprising when you consider the platform on which Pierce campaigned for office. As the Miller Center explains, the nation was divided over the issue of slavery and “only a bland, affable political lightweight was palatable to the electorate.”
Pierce backed the Kansas-Nebraska act, “one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in American history,” according to the Miller Center. The legislation, which allowed settlers of the new territories to decide whether slavery would be allowed, polarized Americans and accelerated the nation’s course toward civil war. Furthermore, Pierce lacked the leadership skills to take on tumultuous events and found himself dominated by other, more forceful politicians.
Next: This president’s tactic of doing nothing proved polarizing.
4. James Buchanan became famous for doing nothing
James Buchanan takes fourth place among the most polarizing presidents. As The Los Angeles Times reports, Buchanan had an impressive amount of government experience before ascending to the presidency. Nonetheless, “as president, Buchanan chose the wrong path at every fork in the road.”
He tried to solve the slavery problem by pushing for a Supreme Court ruling that declared descendants of slaves noncitizens and curtailed the federal government’s right to regulate slavery. The uncertainty that the decision caused led to an economic panic, but Buchanan did nothing — his usual strategy whenever a crisis confronted him during his remarkably terrible presidency.
Next: This president focused too much on party politics to realize the crisis that was coming.
3. James Polk became too partisan
James Polk ranks as the third most polarizing president in American history, according to the experts who spoke to the Brookings Institution. The Miller Center reports that Polk accomplished nearly everything on his presidential agenda. He achieved the acquisition of the Oregon Territory, California, and the Territory of New Mexico; settled the Texas border dispute; and achieved lower tariff rates.
However, he remains polarizing among historians. As the Miller Center notes, “Polk’s critics accuse him of being too partisan to understand the dangerous depth of the emotions that might erupt over the expansion of slavery westward.” Consequently, “He left the nation at the end of his term facing its greatest political and social crisis since the American Revolution. That crisis would progressively tear the nation apart in the twelve years between 1848 and 1860.”
Next: This president is one of the greatest — and most polarizing — commanders in chief.
2. Abraham Lincoln was hated by many Americans
Though he’s now one of the most loved presidents in American history, Abraham Lincoln takes second place among the most polarizing presidents. As Slate notes, many politicians incorrectly refer to Lincoln as a unifying president. However, “Lincoln bridged America’s political divides, but through force of arms during a long and bloody war, not through his political gifts.”
Similarly, Time reports, “Despite his various efforts at outreach, our sixteenth president was, in life, an intensely polarizing and partisan figure, every bit as polarizing and partisan as [Barack Obama].” Majorities from the southern states despised Lincoln. And after Lincoln’s death, every Democrat in Congress voted against the Fourteenth Amendment, “which codified Lincoln’s dream of birthright equality of all citizens; almost never before had America seen such 100% polarization.”
Next: Here’s how Donald Trump compares.
1. Donald Trump is the most polarizing president of all
Donald Trump goes down in history as the most polarizing president of all, according to the Brookings Institution. As the organization puts it, “The polarized presidency of Donald Trump has created disagreements both between the two major parties and within the Republican Party.”
Ezra Klein reported for Vox at the beginning of 2018 that Trump has proven himself a highly divisive president. And that’s despite Trump’s choice to pursue a legislative agenda that doesn’t depart far from what another Republican would have enacted. As Klein explains, “in owning our attention, in driving the agenda, in setting both the terms and tone of the debate, and in doing so by generating constant negative attention, cultural conflict, and emotional alarm, Trump makes us a little more like him, and politics a little more like the tribal clash he says it is.”
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