One of the things I do in my modern US history class is talk about relative rankings of US presidents. You may have seen some of the buzz lately over President Obama's statement in his recent CBS interview (it got edited out of what was on TV, but the transcript and unedited tape is now going around) that his domestic and foreign policy accomplishments put him in the top 4 presidents (after Lincoln, FDR, and LBJ). Obviously, plenty of right-wing bloggers have engaged in some snark over that, and rightly so. It's the sort of thing that, even if true, one should never say about himself. But let's step back, take off any bias, and think about the claim as objectively as possible. Where will Obama rank?
Let's begin with a metric. "Great" presidents are seen as successful in three areas: foreign policy, domestic policy, and political success. Note than none of these things evaluates whether I personally agree with their goals, only that they achieve (and are recognized for) success in them.
In foreign policy, Obama won the Nobel prize, but has the asterisk for the fact that he won it mostly for not being Bush (as the nominations were due literally 2 weeks after his inauguration). He also has wound down the Iraq war, albeit on the timetable arranged by Bush before his term ended, and has seen the death of Osama on his watch. You might argue that some of his "successes" involve keeping Bush-era policies he once vilified (Gitmo, rendition, predator strikes, even the Libya excursion), or that some of what he has done will backfire later. But for now, he gets credit there, if only for a "Nixon to China" scenario.
Domestically, the health care bill is a signature achievement, but faces either legislative repeal or judicial review still, and has yet to go into full effect. If it survives, it'll be big. On the economic front, the story has been pretty terrible. We can argue that it will improve and he'll get the credit, or that it would have been worse without him. But neither of those gets him any credit currently.
Politically is tougher. There are bonus points for being the first black president. Also for winning the highest percentage of the popular vote of any Democrat since LBJ. But he hasn't won reelection yet. If he does, he gets some serious points. If not, he is almost certainly relegated to the bottom half of the presidential pile. You also have to ask, "at what cost?" Bush 43 won reelection, but damaged his party's brand so badly that he put them in the doghouse going forward. That's very different than someone like Reagan, who set the table for his successor.
Once all the scores are in, here's the math of it. Only 16 men have won two elections. One of those is Nixon, so he drops below the one-termers. You probably can drop William Henry Harrison and James Garfield from the rankings due to their very short terms, and maybe Ford, as well. That leaves only 40 men to rank (since Grover Cleveland served twice). That means top 10 is also top 25%.
Top 5 are completely untouchable. That's the 4 guys on Rushmore and FDR. Next 5 or so has to include Reagan, Truman, Ike, Andy Jackson, James K. Polk, Woodrow Wilson, Madison, and Monroe, in any order you like. That gets you to 12, and you haven't even hit JFK yet. Some of these guys we may disagree on (I personally dislike Wilson, since he was a serious racist and since his win in WWI was combined with a "loss" of the postwar process that set the stage for WWII). I know others have issues with Jackson, Polk, and even Reagan. But you can't slice this list in such a way not to fill out the top quarter of all presidents with serious heavy-hitters who won wars, won landslides, and transformed their parties for generations (whether you like the party or not).
Barring some event that gives Obama a chance to shine on a huge stage that none of us would like to see (like a big war), I think that even if he maxes out his potential, he can't get much better than 15th. (Behind all of the above, JFK, Cleveland, maybe LBJ.) And that's not bad--it's a pretty deep field. If he doesn't get reelected, or worse, if some of the worst-case scenarios for him play out (loses reelection, Iraq goes south, health care gets repealed, economy stays crummy), he could easily get ranked in the high 20's.
I don't think there's much he could do to get worse than that, barring some scandal. There's a pretty firm floor down in the mid-30s with Carter, Hoover, Nixon, Andrew Johnson, Harding, Pierce, and Buchanan. The media and academia loves him--he can have a Carter-like tenure and still get better press clippings.
Please note--none of this reflects my personal politics. There's no judgment based on whether I like or dislike any of these men's policies. I hate the Lakers, and detest Kobe Bryant. But I also recognize that he is one of the best players in the game. I'd love to hear from both conservative and liberal friends about whether they think I'm being fair here.
Perhaps after a couple of comments from the usual suspects I'll add some more personal editorializing in the comments. I've got plenty of opinion on this topic, but don't want to take away from what I hope is a pretty academic blog post.