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.

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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."