Perhaps it’s not shocking that President George W. Bush’s approval ratings have been slowly climbing since he left office in January 2009. After a tumultuous two terms -- filled with war, terrorism, natural disasters, and near-financial collapse -- he faced difficult and at times unimaginable challenges. But more than four years after his retirement, it seems Americans are warming up to him -- and appraising his presidency in a more favorable light (via a new ABC News/Washington Post survey):
These results are fascinating -- in part because a post-White House rebound is not always a foregone conclusion. From the report:
It’s not unusual for a former president to advance in public esteem after he’s left the fray of partisan politics, but neither is it guaranteed. In polls four to five years after the end of their 2 presidencies, Bush’s father gained 18 points in approval, but Bill Clinton slipped by 4 and Ronald Reagan lost 12. (Reagan later improved in retrospect; it just took more time.)
Bush left office with just 33 percent approval, and a disapproval rating, 66 percent, that tied the disgraced Richard Nixon as the highest on record for a departing president in polls since the Roosevelt administration. Bush’s approval rating on average across his second-term, for its part, stands alone as the lowest on record in modern polling.
Bush ended his career in public service under relatively favorable terms (i.e., he wasn't charged with malfeasance or unlawful behavior), and yet he still had the same polling numbers as Richard Nixon when he left office. Wow. So how is it possible, then, that just a few short years after finishing his second term, his approval ratings are approaching the 50 percent watermark? The Washington Post posits a few plausible explanations:
…It’s likely due to a well-documented trend when it comes the public and their politicians: No matter how much people dislike someone when he/she is in office, the longer that person is out of office the more difficult it is to sustain that dislike. We have very short collective political memories. (That trait also explains why political second chances — Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner — can work in American society.)
That collective forgetting goes double for Bush, who, more than any recent president, has stayed out of the public eye since leaving office. He is rarely quoted on any subject and largely eschews any attempts – beyond his memoir — to analyze what went right and wrong with his presidency.
Plus, to the extent there is any news about Bush, it tends to be on the personal side. His father’s illness (and recovery) and his daughter’s newborn daughter are the sort of stories that paint a softer portrait of Bush and one that is far easier to like.
My hunch is that future historians will remember the immense challenges George W. Bush faced during his presidency, and judge him fairly and appropriately. By the way, if I remember correctly, Bush wrote in his memoirs that keeping America safe after 9/11 was his greatest personal achievement. Thus given the horrific events of last week, I hope 43 is at least remembered by posterity as a leader who helped make large-scale, terror-from-the-skies atrocities harder to commit. And that for all his mistakes -- and controversial decisions -- in many ways he made America a safer and more secure nation.
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