I am inclined to think President Bush is the worst President in US history, but how should we really evaluate such a contention? Baseball sabermetrics provides a possible way in. The old days of pure subjective judgment have had to give way to a statistical approach that measures runs produced or saved per out and thereby likely effects on wins, normalized for era and ballpark, etc.
In U.S. politics we have only one President at a time, no objective function as clear as winning baseball games, and no similarly strong or comprehensive a statistical basis for evaluating a President’s contribution even to agreed-upon good outcomes.
Still, we can adapt Bill Jamesian ideas to ask how a given President affected actual empirical outcomes of a desirable kind, compared to the assumed average or replacement-level person who could have had the job instead.
I recall seeing a comprehensive listing of the Presidents (in order and ranked as great, near-great, average, mediocre, failure) prepared when I was a boy by Arthur Schlesinger or someone of that ilk, of course enshrining Washington and Lincoln followed by FDR and other liberal favorites. The bottom two slots went to Harding and Grant on grounds of corruption. This, I think, was narrowly moralistic rather than properly Bill Jamesian. The corruption in their Administrations was deplorable, but how much harm did it really do? Grant at least kept Reconstruction going rather than completely abandoning the recently freed slaves.
James Buchanan was next from the bottom, as I recall, and in retrospect I think he really deserves the clear bottom slot for the period through LBJ that the survey covered. His ineptitude did so much to help bring on the Civil War and then in early 1861 to increase the likelihood that the Union would collapse that it is hard for anyone else to come close. If Rutherford Hayes or Chester Alan Arthur devotees want to argue that their men could have been just as feckless in the right circumstances, that is their right, but the fact is Hayes and Arthur never got the chance. (The inverse of Clinton's apparent regret while President that he didn't face a great enough crisis to contend for "greatness.") So Hayes and Arthur can’t rate as low even if pure ability would have placed them there. Those are the breaks.
No doubt Schlesinger would have considered Nixon a candidate for the bottom ranking if the study had come out a few years later, and surely Tricky did a lot to deserve it. Not just the scandals, but possibly endangering our constitutional form of government and needlessly prolonging a losing Vietnam venture (but then again what about Johnson). On the other hand perhaps the evils were comic opera rather than serious, plus he played the China card and his domestic policy was mixed rather than all bad. Deliberately mismanaging the economy (including by strong-arming Fed Chair Burns) to prime it for the 1972 election is certainly a dark episode for which the country paid a price. And he also did the price controls, not a great idea other than for his short-term political purposes. Still, Nixon-hater though I always was, he had genuine abilities and accomplishments that move him up the ladder a bit.
Reagan is still too recent, and hence hard for people to agree about. Obviously there are people who put him at FDR level (or at the FDR-lovers' FDR level). People on the liberal end of the spectrum who think his policies were really bad have no reason to rate him like that. (This is not Time Magazine Man of the Year, given purely for influence whether good or bad.) So the lack of an objective function impedes consensus on this one. And to what extent did he help bring down the Soviet empire? This at least is a straight empirical question, not turning on values since we all are glad it happened, but the significance of his contribution is contested. Still, at the very worst you have to give him credit for not getting us bogged down in losing wars, and also for not blowing up the budget after 1981. And keep in mind that before 1981 there were 70% tax rates which no one today thinks make sense. After 1981, he participated in genuinely bipartisan efforts to do good things in tax or budget policy almost continuously through the rest of his two terms.
Skipping over a couple of other guys to bring us to the current Bush, this is a record to make James Buchanan envious. The budget disasters that belong at his doorstep are astonishing and unprecedented. He has single-handedly increased the fiscal gap by approaching $50 trillion, if we go infinite-horizon on the tax cuts and Medicare prescription drug benefit, and God only knows what abomination we will end up with in Social Security if he “succeeds” in getting something that he can call a victory. And there was no public outcry demanding that he do the tax part of this; it was just a constituency thing in the Republican base. Even if any Republican at that point would have done something to dissipate the surpluses, it didn’t have to be so extreme and also so reckless on the spending as well as the tax side. Bush ignored the pre-9/11 warnings, which certainly didn't help. Then he totally botched the Afghanistan invasion. (Read “Imperial Hubris” by Anonymous for more on this.) Then came the pointless, disastrous invasion of Iraq (although, as I will detail at some point in a later post, I was agnostic rather than opposed at the time, figuring I am no expert on that part of the world and that I hoped to God his people were). And of course the grotesque mismanagement of the Iraq post-war, and the arrogant unwillingness to do anything to improve it.
We could also count some smaller things against him, such as the egregious steel tariff. Bruce Bartlett has called him the worst President on free trade since Hoover. But admittedly this is nit-picking compared to the rest. Also, in fairness, the Medicare prescription drug benefit would very likely have been done in some way by the randomly chosen replacement-level President. A good President would have tried to do it more responsibly, but that is playing at a totally different level then you need to stay off the bottom.
In terms of gratuitous, needless harm to the US economy's long-term prospects, our world standing, and our long-term national security and defense prospects, I don’t think a conscious Bin Laden mole could have done a whole lot more than Bush has. This guy is the champ.