Ahead of Presidents Day 2011, Americans are most likely to say Ronald Reagan was the nation’s greatest president — slightly ahead of Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton. Reagan, Lincoln, or John F. Kennedy has been at the top of this “greatest president” list each time this question has been asked in eight surveys over the last 12 years.
Presidents Day, celebrated on the third Monday of February each year, officially commemorates the Feb. 22 birthday of George Washington. The country’s first president is not regarded by Americans as the nation’s greatest president, however. Gallup’s Feb. 2-5 update shows that Washington comes in fifth on the list, behind Reagan, Lincoln, Clinton, and Kennedy.
In the eight times Gallup has asked this same “greatest president” question over the last 12 years, one of three presidents — Lincoln, Reagan, and Kennedy — has topped the list each time. Reagan was the top vote getter in 2001, 2005, and now 2011. Lincoln won in 1999, in two 2003 surveys, and in 2007. Kennedy was on top in 2000, and tied with Lincoln in November 2003.
Americans as a group have a propensity to mention recent presidents, not surprising given that the average American constantly hears about and from presidents in office during their lifetime, and comparatively little about historical presidents long dead. Four of the five most recent presidents are in the top 10 greatest presidents list this year — Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, and Reagan.