Former President George W. Bush’s national image continues to improve in his retirement, with his favorable rating rising seven percentage points over the past year to 59%. This continues the fairly steady improvement in Bush’s favorable rating since it registered a meager 35% at the start of his post-presidential years in March 2009.
Bush’s favorability now approaches that of former President Barack Obama, who measured at 63% in the same poll, conducted June 7-11.
Over the past year, Bush’s image has improved, and to a similar degree, among nearly all major demographic and political groups. One exception is young adults, among whom his favorable rating is unchanged and well below the national average, at 42%. Compared with Bush’s post-presidential low point in 2009, his favorable rating has nearly doubled among political independents to 56% and has increased fourfold among Democrats to 41%. His already positive 72% rating from Republicans in 2009 has improved less, registering 82% today.
Video: Here's why George W. Bush has been making a comeback (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Another interesting note: “Obama’s current rating is far more politically polarized than Bush’s. To some degree, that may reflect the passage of time since each was president — just five months for Obama versus eight years for Bush — giving Americans more time to forget about any political disagreements they may have had with Bush.” Moreover, Bush’s extraordinarily successful post-presidency as a painter, author and continued activist for disabled veterans has at the very least confounded critics who were certain he was intellectually uncurious.

This all comes at a time when President Trump’s approval is at a historical low point at this juncture in a president’s term. It’s impossible not to view past presidents in light of the current Oval Office inhabitant. “Well, at least Bush hired good people, read books and didn’t peddle in ludicrous conspiracy theories,” Democrats can acknowledge. “Obama never attacked his own intelligence community and understood his own health-care bill,” Republicans can acknowledge. “He wasn’t an obnoxious, know-nothing bully.” It’s fair to conclude that intellectually, temperamentally and ethically, Trump is a far worse president than either Bush or Obama. How can the latter two not look better in hindsight?

That said, part of our affection for past presidents relates to the tribalism that infects the current political scene. It’s become a “them or us” political world, most especially for Trump cultists who cannot process any facts at odds with the Trump party line nor reject any daft rumor if it helps discredit their opponents. Tribalism — the intense identification with one party or another that matters more than ideology, policy or personality — has turned politics from problem-solving to an endeavor in self-expression or psychotherapy. With regard to ex-presidents, however, they no longer threaten the tribe of either party; they become in retirement (sadly, only then) the presidents of all Americans. Their errors are not forgotten, but the venom is gone, as is the need to savage the other guy’s leader.

We are left to contemplate two aspects of ex-presidents’ tenures. First, they hold a unique unifying role that exceeds the current political players. They cannot and should not weigh in on every policy debate, but they have a special role when it comes to defending our institutions. At meaningful moments, a unified statement from ex-presidents can be powerful, particularly because they comment so rarely. Should, for example, Trump arrange to fire special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III, a joint statement from ex-presidents could be a powerful inducement for members of Congress and the public to defend democratic norms. Second, the hyperactive 24/7 news environment — which five minutes away from Twitter leaves one feeling as if they’ve fallen hopelessly behind the news — deprives us of perspective and nuance. We all suffer from the impulse to infuse every presidential decision with grave importance and to render a verdict on presidents moment by moment.

Ex-presidents remind us that their tenure can be assessed only over time — and graded on a curve. In that regard, every president (even James Buchanan) owes Trump a debt of gratitude. We’d take just about any one of Trump’s 44 predecessors around now.