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Historian survey ranks Obama high on justice and economy, low on foreign affairs and Congressional relations

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President Barack Obama speaks during the third day session of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

A month out of office, the first major historical assessment of ex-President Barack Obama — ranking him the 12th best president — has got his supporters smiling and his detractors scoffing.

But setting aside those all-too-predictable reactions in these deeply divided political times, the ranking, based on surveys of 91 historians by C-Span, contains some interesting details that hint at how Obama will be viewed in the future, once current passions have cooled.

Whatever disagreements people have about the 44th president, is there any doubt he was better at managing the economy than at managing crises?

That he had more moral authority than administrative skills? That he was among the best presidents in terms of promoting “equal justice for all” and among the worst at dealing with Congress?

Those are some of the sub-findings in the survey, which was divided among 10 broad topics:

• “Pursued Justice for All.” The nation's first black president, who many view as having rebooted America's civil rights movement, ranked third on this, behind only No. 2 Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act, and No. 1 Abraham Lincoln, who ended slavery. It is arguably the least surprising result of the survey.

• “Relations with Congress.” You knew Obama's relationship with the legislative branch was bad, particularly after the Republicans took over, but it turns out it was historically bad.

On this he ranks 39th, besting just a few non-entities like Franklin Pierce and John Tyler, as well as last-place finisher Andrew Johnson — whom both parties hated and Congress impeached. Even Richard Nixon, who probably would have been impeached if he'd not resigned, ranked higher on this than Obama.

• “Economic Management.” When Obama took office, the unemployment rate was above 9 percent, the American automobile industry was running on fumes and the economy was facing was some feared was a looming depression.

When he left, unemployment was under 5 percent and the country had been pulled back from the economic brink. The survey ranks him 8th on this, below Lincoln, Bill Clinton and Dwight Eisenhower — but well above conservative economic hero Ronald Reagan (16th).

• “International Relations.” Republicans have long bemoaned Obama's foreign policy as weak and ineffective. The historians in this generally Obama-friendly survey appear to agree on that one, giving him a middling 24th spot, below such statesmanlike giants as Grover Cleveland and William H. Taft.

In fact, Obama on this topic barely edges out Gerald Ford — whose election bid was derailed in part because he declared, publicly and bafflingly, that eastern Europe at the time wasn't under Soviet domination. (It was.)

The top spots in the overall survey went to the now-familiar A-Team: Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Washington and several other founding fathers, Reagan, JFK. Harry Truman is still there, of course, but as our colleague Chuck Raasch points out, his ranking has slipped a bit.


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