Days before the official opening of his presidential library, George W. Bush is experiencing something of a comeback when it comes to his public image.
Almost as many people (47 percent) approve of how Bush handled his eight years in office as disapprove (50 percent), according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. That's the highest approval rating for Bush since December 2005. Bush's approval dipped all the way to 23 percent in Post-ABC polling in October 2008 and was just 33 percent in January 2009 when he left office. (His approval rating was below 40 percent for 26 consecutive months before his term ended, the longest streak of sub-40 presidential ratings since polling began in the 1930s.)
And, what's fascinating is that it's not just Bush's overall job approval numbers but the intensity measures. In the new Post-ABC poll, 34 percent say they "strongly" disapprove of the job he did while in office; that's the lowest strong disapprove number for Bush since January 2005.
Bush's biggest gains over the past few years have come among seniors (30 percent approval in 2008, 57 percent approval today), non-college whites (34 percent in 2008, 57 percent now) and moderate/conservative Democrats (10 percent in 2008, 33 percent now).
Who hasn't changed their views of Bush? African Americans (90 percent disapproval in 2008, 84 percent disapproval now) and Democrats (90 percent disapproval in '08, 73 percent now).
Here's a chart -- courtesy of the good people at Capital Insight -- detailing the comparison between Bush's aggregate 2008 numbers and his showing in the new Post-ABC poll across a variety of subgroups.
That said, majorities still disapprove of Bush's handling of the economy (53 percent) and the war in Iraq (57 percent); intense disapproval (43 percent) remains for Bush's performance on Iraq. What those set of numbers suggest is that the former president's political comeback has a relatively low ceiling given his continued poor ratings on the two defining issues of his eight years in office.
What accounts for Bush's resurgence? 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.
There is a certain group of people -- Democrats, mostly -- that will never forgive Bush for the war in Iraq and his handling of Hurricane Katrina (among other things). But, for a large swath of the public, Bush's mistakes in office are in the past and what they have heard about him over the past five-ish years makes them like him more than they did when he was serving as president.
Given the current direction of Bush's numbers, it's uniquely possible -- heck, it's likely -- that by the 10th anniversary of him leaving office in 2018, a majority of Americans will approve of the job he did in office. Judged by history indeed.
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