A former newsman, Harding, ranked 13th by C-SPAN, had inherited one of the worst recessions in American history from Wilson, and it took him less than a year to turn it around. He in large part embraced methods that are scoffed at by those who rank presidents. As Paul Johnson once noted, the Harding recovery was “the last time a major industrial power treated a recession by classic laissez-faire methods, allowing wages to fall to their natural level” and cutting spending.
Wilson lied and then bumbled his way into a disastrous European conflict, undoing a stalemate that might have saved the world from another conflict, before officiously demanding that the continent reimagine itself; Harding wouldn’t join even a scaled-down version of the League of Nations, because it was none of our business.
Whereas Wilson segregated the federal government, setting back civil rights for decades, Harding spent his time trying to undo the damage, speaking out forcefully against lynching and advocating for full civil rights for African Americans. While Wilson attacked free expression, supporting the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917–18, Harding released war opponents, even commuting the sentence of the socialist Eugene Debs. Upon his untimely death, the widely popular Harding left America with the austere and morally upright Calvin Coolidge, who continued his policies and his prosperity but still ranks behind the likes of Jimmy Carter and Gerald R. Ford.
While “moral authority” is useful for those seeking the public’s trust, Harding’s personal weaknesses are surely no worse than Wilson’s. We shouldn’t ignore the scandals that later came to light, yet other presidents who rank high on these lists, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — who shared Harding’s personal peccadillos get glowing marks despite the actions of those in their administrations.