As Pete mentioned earlier, a new Gallup poll has George W. Bush’s approval rating up at 47 percent. This means that the former president currently enjoys a one-point lead on Barack Obama, whose current approval rating is at 46 percent. There is a sensible urge to dismiss the significance of such polls. All presidents become more popular after leaving office. It’s unlikely they all benefit from the spontaneous acknowledgement of their true genius. Nostalgia and a grass-is-greener impulse are as much responsible for these opinion rehabilitations as are fact-based assessments. Bush, like all American ex-presidents, is benefitting from his fellow citizens’ sentimentality and their appreciation for the difficulties of the office, no matter who holds it. But the fact that Bush was once thought so deleterious to the country as to be a presidential outlier makes this insignificant development extremely significant.
The new poll means that Bush is not some dark deviation from the tradition of American leadership; he’s an American president who will be judged as having gotten some things wrong and others right while trying to do a very hard job. What it also demonstrates is that the hysterical critics of yesteryear lost all perspective on policy and history. In 2008, during a debate on the matter, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg cavalierly pronounced that “Bush was obviously the worst president of the past 50 years.” Yes, so obviously that two years later most Americans don’t consider him to be the worst president of the last three years.
Comparing the poll results demonstrates that Barack Obama is not, conversely, The One. Just as the demonization of Bush is exposed as ridiculous, so too is the deification of Obama. For him, this officially ends any benefit he might once have yielded from blaming the country’s woes on Bush. Americans, at this point in time, think more highly of the job done by Obama’s predecessor than of the one being done by Obama. Where the president once found a scapegoat, he now finds, in relative terms, a winner. If these trends in popularity continue, further jabs at George W. Bush will start to look like sour grapes. What’s more, if these trends continue, Bush could transcend the realm of the unexceptional and join the ranks of the distinguished. For now, it’s enough to note that some perspective has been restored.