Best President? Lincoln on Par With Reagan, Kennedy

by Lydia Saad

However, Lincoln has unique bipartisan appeal

PRINCETON, NJ -- Less than a month into Barack Obama's presidency, Obama's desire to emulate Abraham Lincoln can be found in his speeches, his bipartisan gestures, and his "team of rivals" approach to picking a cabinet. But Lincoln is not matchless as Americans' pick for the nation's greatest president. Given a list of five presidents to choose from, Americans are as likely to name John Kennedy as Lincoln (22% each), while 24% choose Ronald Reagan.

These findings are from a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Feb. 6-7. The question gave respondents the choice of five presidents often lauded for their leadership: two Democrats (Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt), two Republicans (Reagan and Lincoln), and the symbolic father of the country and Lincoln's co-honoree on Presidents Day, George Washington.

These five presidents have consistently ranked among the most revered presidents when Gallup has asked Americans to say, in an open-ended format, whom they consider the greatest president.

Republicans and Democrats Agree on Lincoln

According to the new poll, while Lincoln isn't the top choice for greatest president among either Republicans or Democrats, he enjoys a bipartisan appeal that is unique among the highest-ranking presidents. He places second among Democrats (behind Kennedy), second among Republicans (behind Reagan), and first among independents -- although the four most recent presidents are nearly tied among independents.

By contrast, Reagan's strong showing is mainly owing to his extraordinary popularity among Republicans, 52% of whom name Reagan as the greatest. Reagan is also one of the top-rated presidents among independents, but places fourth among Democrats. Similarly, Kennedy ranks first among Democrats and does well among independents, but places last among Republicans.


No Generation Gap for Lincoln

Lincoln is also uniformly well-regarded generationally, as he is selected "greatest" by between 20% and 23% of all major age groups. Kennedy enjoys similar cross-generational appeal, but support for Roosevelt and Reagan is highest among age groups that have people old enough to remember their presidencies. Roosevelt's support is highest among those 65 and older; Reagan's strongest admirers are 35 and older.

Views of Washington are inversely related to age: 15% of adults aged 18 to 34 choose him as the greatest president, compared with 8% of those 35 to 64 and only 4% of seniors.


Bottom Line

Lincoln has dominated the initial comparisons of Obama to his Oval Office predecessors -- it's an appealing linkage given the thread connecting Lincoln's transcendent role in the emancipation of blacks to Obama's milestone achievement in black history.

Strong biographical, oratorical, and leadership connections have also been drawn between Obama and Reagan, Roosevelt, and Kennedy. However, Obama's personal admiration for Lincoln seems to ensure that the Lincoln comparisons will prevail.

While Reagan and Kennedy are just as likely as Lincoln to be well-regarded by Americans on the whole, Lincoln's unique bipartisan appeal makes him the safer choice for Obama to pattern himself after. Indeed, 200 years after his birth, Lincoln may be one of the nation's most powerful forces for political harmony.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,018 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 6-7, 2009, as part of Gallup Poll Daily tracking. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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