There have been many influential Presidents in American history, all of which have had an impact on the nation, but only a select few have have had such an immense and transformative impact during their term that they are worthy of this list. These are the Presidents that transformed America, and in some cases the world, for better or for worse.
8. Lyndon B. Johnson: In Office November 22, 1963 – January 20, 1969
The 36th President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson first took office as commander in chief following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Johnson was re-elected after finishing out the later part Kennedy’s term, though he ultimately chose not to run again after his last four years in office. During his tenure, Johnson introduced his Great Society and the War on Poverty initiatives. He also successfully passed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. However, for all of the positive aspects of his presidency, Johnson will ultimately be remembered for his failures over the Vietnam War. By increasing American military involvement in the Asian conflict, Johnson polarized American citizens who questioned the necessity of American involvement in the war in the first place. To his detriment, it was the Vietnam War that came to define his legacy as President.
7. George W. Bush: In Office January 20, 2001 – January 20, 2009
If this article were to be written twenty years from now, George W. Bush may very well be number one on the list. Having not even been elected the first time around, no other President has had such controversy consistently surrounding them. During Bush’s presidency, America suffered the catastrophic and almost inconceivable 9/11 terrorist attacks, and then preceded to start two separate wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter of which was non-UN sanctioned and based on completely fabricated evidence. Both wars have already cost the U.S. nearly $6 trillion and were left completely inconclusive by Bush and his administration upon their exit from office. Let’s also not forget the Bush era tax cuts to businesses and the wealthy, as well as the non-judicious use of torture on Guantanamo Bay. And it gets worse. During his tenure, the Bush administration actively pursued policies of financial deregulation, ultimately causing the biggest financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression. In effect, in merely eight years George W. Bush stole at least one election, saw America attacked for the first time since Pearl Harbor, started two wars, nearly bankrupted the nation and effectively wiped out an entire middle class. Maybe he should be number one…
6. Harry S. Truman: In Office April 12, 1945 – January 20, 1953
Harry S. Truman took office upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt to become the 33rd President of the United States. Not nearly as memorable in some ways as more famous presidents, Truman was no more controversial, and had no less an impact on both American and global politics. As President, he saw the conclusion of the Second World War and helped shape what were the beginnings of the Cold War. As the Cold War became firmly entrenched, Truman’s stance on communism ultimately led to America’s involvement in the Korean War, which set a precedent for America’s involvement in the Vietnam War a decade later. Despite how transformative Truman’s post World War II policies were, it was in August of 1945 when he ushered in a new, and wholly terrifying era of annihilation by dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, making him the only man in history to ever become a weapon of mass destruction.
5. Woodrow Wilson: In Office March 4, 1913 – March 4, 1921
A controversial President upon his election in 1913, and one who left the White House both physically and morally broken a mere six years later, Woodrow Wilson still remains one of the most idealistic Presidents of all time. With a deep commitment to ending European Imperialism, Wilson was instrumental in reshaping American foreign policy from one of isolationism to internationalism, a foreign policy that still pervades to this day. On the home front, Wilson enacted the most comprehensive program of federal oversight of the American economy up to that point. Under Wilson Congress enacted banking reform by creating the Federal Reserve System and created federal regulations for businesses, while enacting support for labor and collective bargaining. Wilson also passed into law women’s suffrage and created a national income tax system.
4. Ronald Reagan: In Office January 20, 1981 – January 20, 1989
Actor turned politician Ronald Reagan has a difficult legacy to discern. On one hand, many pundits would argue that he was a hero for bankrupting the Soviet Union, leading to its collapse and the end of the Cold War. On the other hand, he was a President who advocated for lower taxes, a smaller government with less federal spending but conversely, a massive military. While the economy grew during his presidency, it was accompanied by massive growth in the national debt, the federal budget deficit, and the trade deficit primarily caused by an increase in military spending. Politically, Reagan shifted the Republican Party further towards conservatism, and ensured that the Democratic Party would never truly be a liberal party again, but rather a centrist party. Reagan’s presidency created a coalition of white, socially conservative citizens who helped shape America’s political landscape. The prevalent conservative climate that has permeated American politics and policies for over thirty years started with Reagan.
3. Thomas Jefferson: In Office March 4, 1801 – March 4, 1809
Arguably the most important person in American history, Thomas Jefferson was one of the founding fathers of the nation and elected it’s 3rd President in 1801. Although Jefferson’s greatest political accomplishments were the drafting of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and framing what would become the American Constitution, he was also an accomplished President, particularly with his land deal with the French. What became known as the Louisiana Purchase essentially doubled the size of the U.S. overnight, allowing for exploration, expansion and settlement in the South and West. The Louisiana Purchase would define Jefferson’s presidency. As great a political figure and idealist as Jefferson was, he cannot escape criticism. One of his most famous lines from the Declaration of Independence, notably that “all men are created equal” apparently only applied to privileged white men. Jefferson was a slave owner who failed to emancipate his own slaves, all the while presiding over slavery’s rapid expansion to the South and West of the country.
2. Franklin D. Roosevelt: In Office March 4, 1933 – April 12, 1945
America’s longest serving President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt may very well be one of the best depending on what side of the political spectrum you are aligned with. Elected during the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s fabled promise of a New Deal brought the U.S. back from the brink of economic and social collapse. Roosevelt advocated for a larger federal government and under his leadership the government assumed new and powerful roles in the nation’s economy, corporate life, and in the health care and welfare systems. The aim of the New Deal was to ensure that American economic, social, and political benefits were distributed more equally among the country’s large and diverse population. While many of Roosevelt’s policies were instrumental in maintaining America during the depression, it was not until America’s entry into World War II that the country fully rebounded.
1. Abraham Lincoln: In Office March 4, 1861 – April 15, 1865
In the four short years Abraham Lincoln was President before his assassination, he presided over the most tumultuous period in American history. Elected in 1861, Lincoln almost immediately transformed the President’s role by making the position more powerful than both Congress and the courts of law. Lincoln also over saw the expansion and consolidation of the American industrial economy. Furthermore, and by far most importantly, his dedication to preserving the Union was one of the major causes of the American Civil War. There can be no doubt that Lincoln served during the nadir of American history, and there can also be no doubt that he succeeded in what he set out to do in preserving the Union by defeating the secessionist states. Lincoln was also responsible for abolishing slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. That said, in order to transform America in his own way, Lincoln broke a multitude of laws and blatantly ignored the constitution repeatedly. He went to war without ever making a declaration of war, and before consulting Congress no less. Even still, the positive transformative effects he had on America are undeniable, and have lasted to this day. To Lincoln, the ends truly justified the means, and perhaps, for better or for worse, that can be said for all of the Presidents on this list.