Why George W. Bush is more popular than President Obama

A new poll shows that 52 percent of Americans see George W. Bush positively, while only 49 percent view President Obama favorably. Why?

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
U.S. President Barack Obama, right, walks with former president George W. Bush during a wreath laying ceremony to honor the victims of the U.S. Embassy bombing on July 2, 2013, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. A new poll shows Bush more popular than Obama.

How the tables have turned. George W. Bush, once the most unpopular living president in history, is now more popular than President Barack Obama, who was once the most-liked leader of the free world.

A new CNN/ORC poll reveals that 52 percent of Americans see Mr. Bush positively, while 43 percent do not. In contrast, 49 percent view Mr. Obama favorably, while 49 percent do not. That makes Obama the least-popular president among all his predecessors today.

"The second term doldrums do exist, but time does seem to heal all," Douglas Astolfi, a professor of history at Saint Leo University, summed up CNN's findings.

Obama's numbers are down as dramatically as Bush's are up. In January 2009, shortly after Bush left and Obama entered office, only 35 percent of Americans viewed Bush favorably, while Obama enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings of 78 percent.

Why the dramatic turnaround?

In fact, the ratings are far from surprising.

Historically, sitting presidents, and especially second-term presidents bogged down by the day-to-day frustrations of office, see their poll numbers sink – a phenomenon sometimes dubbed the 'second-term curse.' For Obama, issues like the Islamic State, immigration, and government surveillance, have pushed his popularity down.

Conversely, the further a president gets from the daily drama of Beltway politics, the more warmly he's received by Americans, says Emily Farris, a political science professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

"Bush's increasing approval polling numbers are part of a general trend among former presidents," she says. "The American public tends to look more fondly on presidents after they have left office."

Take Jimmy Carter. When he left the Oval Office in 1981, less than 35 percent of voters in a Gallup poll viewed him favorably. Today, 56 percent of Americans view him favorably, according to CNN's poll. Even higher are George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, both at 64 percent.

As for Bush, president No. 43, he continued to take the blame for the nation's ills – namely the Iraq War and the struggling economy – long after he left office. In January 2014, five years after Bush left office, more Americans said Bush and the Republicans were responsible for current economic problems than said Obama and the Democrats were, according to the CNN/ORC poll.

Now, the blame is finally shifting. Asked whose policies were more at fault for the current problems the US faces in Iraq, 44 percent blamed Obama, while  43 percent Bush.

Refusing to criticize his successor ("I don’t think it’s good for the country to have a former president undermine a current president,” Bush has famously said), staying out of politics and out of the spotlight, and taking up hobbies like painting, also appear to have helped Bush.

The good news for Obama, says Seth Masket, an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver, is that nothing improves a president's favorability rating more than time.

As Professor Masket says, "His favorability will likely go up considerably once he’s out of office."

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