Gallup has released their 2010 poll of the most popular presidents of the last 50 years. While the two names at the top, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, should surprise no one, George W. Bush made his first appearance on the list, and promptly established himself as the least popular living former president.
After deceased presidents Kennedy (85% approval) and Reagan (74% approval), Bill Clinton is the most popular living former president. Clinton is third on the list with a 69% approval rating. He is followed by the man who he defeated for the presidency in the 1992 election, George H.W. Bush (64% approval), and Gerald Ford (61% approval). Jimmy Carter now sits at 52%. Lyndon Johnson is at 49%, which places him ahead of fellow Texan George W. Bush (47%), and as usual Richard Nixon is last at 29%.
The Gallup poll on former president approval is taken once every four years. The big gainers on the list were Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Lyndon Johnson who each gained eight points. Bush has seen his image change through his fund raising efforts with Clinton after the 2005 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Haiti. Former President Clinton has enjoyed a revival in popularity that can not only be tied to his charity work, but also the popularity of his wife Sec. of State Hillary Clinton.
Jimmy Carter took the biggest drop of all the former presidents. Carter has lost nine points of approval since the last survey, and this can mostly be attributed to Carter outspokenness on issues such as Israel and the Middle East. Carter’s name has also been vilified by the right due to his willingness to challenge them. Carter is the most publicly politically active former president, so it isn’t big shock that his post presidency approval rating would take a hit.
Despite the release of his new book, and what has amounted to a year plus long publicity campaign to repair his image, George W. Bush remains unpopular with the American people. The memories of the previous eight years have not been erased in the past two. The one thing that Carter, Johnson, and George W. Bush all have in common is that their presidencies were immediately judged as failures. It is the immediate perception, more than anything else that often seals the impression of a former president’s time in office.
At the top and the bottom of the list are the exceptions. Kennedy’s assassination and Nixon’s Watergate scandal influenced each former president’s popularity or lack thereof. History and memories tend to be kind to former presidents over time, but the stench of failure is not going to be removed from George W. Bush anytime soon. Just as images of LBJ are often shown alongside images of protests, racial unrest, and Vietnam, Bush will forever be shown with the war in Iraq, the collapsed economy, and most powerfully the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
If George W. Bush is doomed to lug a legacy of failure along with him wherever he goes, Bill Clinton is the one living former president who could continue to see his popularity grow. It is very possible that Clinton will surpass Ronald Reagan and become the second most popular former president on the list. The outstanding job that Hillary Clinton has done with her own career has remade the family name and turned the Lewinsky scandal more into a memory of Republican excess than a cause for presidential damnation.
George W. Bush’s presidency will never be remembered as fondly as Bill Clinton’s is today. In fact, W. will be lucky if he ever reaches the lofty heights of Gerald Ford. George W. Bush went from unprecedented popularity after to 9/11 to presiding over one of the most spectacular declines in presidential history. Within this poll is a lesson for Obama. Presidents are never remembered for where they start. Almost all of the people on this list were popular when they first entered office. It is how popular a president is when he leaves office that defines his legacy. There is still plenty of time for Obama. Even in the worst case scenario, he will likely fare better than George W. Bush.