Paul  Kengor

A new CNN poll ranks President George W. Bush the most unpopular president in modern American history. The key figure is not Bush’s 28 percent approval rating, which, though dismal, is not as poor as all-time lows set by Harry S Truman (22 percent) and Richard Nixon (24 percent), but his disapproval rating, which has soared to 71 percent. No president had ever cracked the 70-percent ceiling. The previous record in CNN or Gallup polling was set by Truman, who reached 67 percent disapproval in January 1952.

Oddly, Bush’s decline is tied (in part) to declining support for the Iraq situation, which has actually turned around and gone comparatively well for almost a year now, as opposed to the mess through 2005 and 2006.

Nonetheless, I’m not surprised by these numbers. George W. Bush is not a popular president. I, too, have my qualms with him and his administration. As a conservative, it burns me that there were no long-term, hallmark domestic achievements by President Bush, like drilling for oil domestically, or a flat tax—and with no less than a Republican Congress at his disposal. On the plus side, I commend his work on life issues like abortion and embryonic research; his modest but important tax reductions; and his outstanding Supreme Court appointments. He also secured some stunning international triumphs in areas like AIDS in Africa, albeit silently.

The word “silently” is instructive, since it bears on the central liability of the Bush presidency: a horrid inability to communicate. This was so bad that there effectively was no bully pulpit under this president. That failure is not just Bush’s but his entire staff. They allowed the opposition to define the debate and public perception, particularly on Iraq and the Middle East.

And yet, it remains in Iraq and the Middle East where Bush’s potential long-term impact resides, as does his place in history. It is there, too, that a Bush comparison to Harry S Truman is most fitting.

Our most popular presidents were those who won wars, not presided over their start. George W. Bush is the first post-9/11 president; he is presiding over the start of a long War on Terror, not its finish. This was likewise true for Truman and the Cold War. We should no more expect victory from Bush at this point in the war than we expected from Truman in the Cold War in 1947.