Oh god wall of text. I started typing a reply to avoid cleaning and then this happened.
TLDR; Kennedy was largely useless and did little, willingly, for our economy, foreign affairs, or civil rights.
Nixon was a pragmatist, and they make terrible presidents. He only ran on popular issues, which crippled the economy and made legislation like a puzzle with all the pieces coming from different sets.
Ford was useless, but that's to be expected of a president no one elected and who was handed a fragmented nation.
Carter was also useless, but that's because he was trying to make necessary, but unpopular, changes. His own unwise cabinet choices also helped lead to his defeat.
Reagan was a nasty piece of work. His economic policy set the stage for our present crisis, and Reaganomics were a joke even then. He blew up our deficit, slashed government revenue, and vastly increased the disparity between rich and poor.[/EDIT]
Yeah, Kennedy was largely a joke. He failed to do anything with the Economy, and had to be pretty much forced into making any civil rights legislation, for fear of further alienating the Southern Democrats. Even the President's Commission on Women was a result of pressure from Eleanor Roosevelt. Unsurprisingly, considering his personal views on women, he couldn't give a crap.
The only thing I'm willing to credit him with is the way he handled the Cuban Missile Crisis. But everything else is largely neutral or pretty bad (such as the Bay of Pigs invasion).
Nixon was a joke. He left the economy in shambles. It wasn't great coming out of Kennedy's years (inflation was the highest it had been in a long time), but it wasn't awful either (primarily because unemployment was low). But Nixon was a toothless git and all of his legislation was based on what would give him high ratings. The result was that nothing ever coordinated well in practice. For example, he established the EPA because of wide-spread support for DDT's repeal. But he never did jack about even more pressing environmental issues.
How extensively he was lying to the public is also a serious issue. He was a nasty piece of work in private, to be sure, but that wouldn't have been a problem if his politics weren't affected by it. But the extent to which he was lying to the American public and Congress about the Cold War (and, more importantly, Vietnam) was a serious, serious issue. Honestly, Watergate's cover-up was one of the least important aspects of the whole ordeal.
By the end of his presidency, inflation had gone higher and unemployment had increased a lot, leading to stagflation.
Ford was, unsurprisingly, useless. You can't really blame him, though. He was handed a pile of crap and had absolutely no public support (though pardoning Nixon didn't help).
Carter wasn't much better, but he did actually try to tackle tough issues (most of which were even larger for him, because Nixon either made them worse or did nothing). But he didn't have much popular support, and he made some really bad choices for his cabinet. I'll credit him with the fact that he wanted to do good and didn't make things worse, but he definitely wasn't a good president.
Then comes Reagan. I completely
disagree that he was the president we needed. He completely ignored, and did his best to invalidate the voices of, all the counterculture movements of the previous two decades. And, to be blunt, they were far from being unjustified. His economic policy was, and has always been, a pile of crap. For all of his talk of getting away from an interventionist government, to a small system with low taxes and low regulations, he had to put in a Keynesian policy in his later years precisely to try and stem the recession he was causing. For all his talk against interventionist governments, he had to try and do precisely that when the economy failed under his brilliant plan. And we are still suffering from the changes he made--Americans are more adverse to intervention and taxes than ever, and they hold up the free market he idolized. But the truth is that he proved that none of those things were healthy for an economy.
Reagan did nothing but make the rich richer--he expected an economic boom with his policies, and he found they did nothing but lead to a stagnant market.
Even worse? He refused to do anything to stop outsourcing. Most of America's major economic problems go straight back to this period, where businesses really started to flee the US en masse. Reagan refused to pass any legislation stopping it, because he didn't want to get involved with the market.
Not to mention the fact that spending was the highest with him than ever before, because of his massive defense budget. And he had no problems tossing tax payer money to research problems that had zero probability of success (ballistic-missile defenses). When he left office, the deficit was higher than it had ever been, because his spending was massive and he wasn't generating any revenue to take care of it.
I could go on, but I'll stop there. The only thing I can really respect Reagan on is his appointment of Sandra Day O' Conner, who I don't even like. But her appointment when against his Moral Majority supporter's wishes, and (although conservative), she's at least not a puppet to ideology--she always approached every issue on a case-by-case policy, and never voted in favor of civil injustices.
Though, in the end, he doesn't even hold a candle to how much I hate Newt Gingrich, so meh. Edited, Dec 23rd 2011 12:02pm by idiggory