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The So-Called Bush “Comeback”

Dan McCarthy asks if a recent survey result shows that George W. Bush is popular again. His conclusion:

Not really, although a Washington Post-ABC poll finds 47 percent of those surveyed rate his job performance favorably. Tellingly, he doesn’t get such high marks for his performance with respect to the economy (43 percent favorable) or invading Iraq (40 percent approve). Which raises the question of what else, exactly, Bush is getting graded on. Despite the framing of the question as job approval, I suspect what comes through here is some nebulous sense that he was a nice guy—maybe a bit like Jimmy Carter. Americans aren’t always terribly attentive to what presidents are doing even while they’re in office. Once they’re out, the public’s view is not likely to be based on a more detailed policy analysis.

I suspect a 47% job approval rating for Bush in 2013 reflects something else in addition to the respondents’ opinion of Bush. If I had to guess, I’d say that Bush’s higher approval mostly comes from people that want to express their disapproval of the current president, and this includes quite a few people who disapproved of Bush while he was in office. One way to do that is to affirm that Bush did a good job. If we look at the results by party identification and ideology, that tells us part of the story. 84% of Republicans and 45% of independents say they approve of how Bush “handled his job as president.” Both figures are much higher than they were in 2008. This reflects the perverse rally effect that causes some people to embrace a disastrous leader simply because people on the other “side” keep attacking him.

The poll shows that there is also a softening of liberal and Democratic attitudes about Bush. At the end of his presidency, these groups almost universally disapproved of Bush, and now it’s closer to three-quarters disapproval.  Bush’s numbers have improved the most with those blocs of voters that have been among the least happy with Obama’s tenure. Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan compared the 2013 result with 2008 Post/ABC polling and found this:

Bush’s biggest gains over the past few years have come among seniors (30 percent approval in 2008, 57 percent approval today [bold mine-DL]), non-college whites (34 percent in 2008, 57 percent now) and moderate/conservative Democrats (10 percent in 2008, 33 percent now).

As far as many people in these groups are concerned, Bush looks better now than he did when he was in office because they have been disappointed or put off by how Obama has governed, but at the time most of them understandably and correctly believed Bush was doing a poor job. Here is a chart that Cillizza and Sullivan used to show the change in attitudes over the last five years:


The passage of time tends to make many people forget what they didn’t like about past presidents, and the longer that someone has been out of office the less inclined non-ideological and weak partisan voters are to hold a grudge against him. Insofar as presidential job approval is an expression of the public’s satisfaction with the state of affairs and the “direction” of the country, increased job approval for Bush is a sort of nostalgia for the previous decade when things seemed and in some cases really were better than they are now. Many of the same Americans that held Bush to be most responsible for the economic woes of the last few years can now look back fondly on the earlier part of his tenure because the worst disasters of his presidency had not yet occurred. A lot of the so-called “comeback” for Bush may come from Americans’ desire to go back to a time before the country suffered all of the consequences of the Bush presidency.

P.S. The fact that respondents 65+ make up the only age cohort that approves of Bush’s job performance suggests that Bush’s approval rating is going to decline in the years to come.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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