Bush's Legacy by the Numbers

What do Americans want in a president? President Clinton's tenure, although scarred by scandal, is seen as successful. President Bush, who many believe restored respect for the office, is not. Public opinion judgments of our presidents are performance-based.

Senior Fellow Karlyn Bowman
Senior Fellow
Karlyn Bowman
Eight years ago, as Bill Clinton prepared to leave office, a number of people asked me how the public would rate his presidency.

I answered that I thought the scandals associated with his presidency had destroyed his legacy.

But I was wrong.

Rating a president is like choosing a plumber: character matters--but performance matters more.

I based my judgment on many questions pollsters asked at the end of Clinton's term. In Gallup polls taken late in his presidency, more people said they had a negative, not a positive, opinion of Clinton. In another Gallup question, 46% reported that they respected him, while 52% did not. One question asked by Zogby International in January 2001 found that 45% were proud to have had him as president, while almost as many, 41%, were ashamed.

Only 35% told Gallup that Clinton shared their values, and, in another question, just 39% called him honest and trustworthy. And in an ABC News/Washington Post question from 1998, more than three times as many people (74%) had said he would be remembered more for allegations about his personal life than for the accomplishments of his administration. Only 23% said he'd be remembered for the latter.

But other questions hinted at a different sentiment. In a Pew question from 1999, 44% said Clinton would be a successful president in the long run, 24% said he would be an unsuccessful one and 29% said it was too early to tell. In a 2000 Gallup survey, 68% said his presidency had been successful. Twenty-nine percent said it was a failure.

My misjudgment stemmed from a misreading of how Americans evaluate presidents. My friend Bill Schneider, CNN's top polling analyst, compares rating a president to choosing a plumber. Character matters--but performance matters more. "When you hire a plumber, you want to know one thing: Can he get the job done?" Schneider asks. You don't want to hear about his draft record or love life.

Perhaps it's a bit overstated, but his point is well taken. Judgments on presidents are similarly performance-based. And therein lies the problem for George W. Bush--views on his performance in office are resoundingly negative.

Take a December question asked by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. Compared with the past several presidents, 48% thought that George W. Bush was "definitely worse than most." Eighteen percent gave that response to the same question about Clinton in January 2001, and 6% to one about George H.W. Bush in 1989.

In a separate question, 18% said that they would miss Bush, while 79% said that was simply not the case. By comparison, for Clinton, those responses were 40% and 55%, respectively.

Fifty-nine percent of respondents to a Pew Research Center question said Ronald Reagan would go down in history as outstanding or above average. Thirty-six percent gave that response about Clinton, 44% about George H.W. Bush--and only 11% gave that answer about the White House's current occupant.

There are only a few bright spots, though, that I can see in the polls. Americans credit George W. Bush with keeping America safe since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That's no small accomplishment. And, based on results from a new Gallup poll, the public believes the nation has made progress on issues related to AIDS on his watch.

Gallup reported last week that George W. Bush's overall approval rating for his eight years in office is in the middle range. But his second-term rating is lower--identical to Harry Truman's (36.5%) and only slightly above Richard Nixon's (34.4%).

True, today's poll judgments of George W. Bush are very low, but they may improve over time. Americans strongly opposed Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon, and his approval rating plummeted. But now, most Americans say it was the right thing to do. While in office, Ronald Reagan's average approval rating was a mediocre 52.8%, but he is now regarded in many polls as above average or outstanding. On the subject of presidential legacies, polling subjects can be fickle. So only the passage of time will reveal how Americans will ultimately assess George W. Bush's.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author


  • Karlyn Bowman compiles and analyzes American public opinion using available polling data on a variety of subjects, including the economy, taxes, the state of workers in America, environment and global warming, attitudes about homosexuality and gay marriage, NAFTA and free trade, the war in Iraq, and women's attitudes. In addition, Ms. Bowman has studied and spoken about the evolution of American politics because of key demographic and geographic changes. She has often lectured on the role of think tanks in the United States and writes a weekly column for Forbes.com.
  • Phone: 2028625910
    Email: kbowman@aei.org
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Andrew Rugg
    Phone: 2028625917
    Email: andrew.rugg@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image Recovering from tax time blues
image 10 welfare reform lessons
image Let HHS nominee Sylvia Burwell explain Obamacare lie
image Why bold ideas backfire in politics
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 14
  • 15
  • 16
  • 17
  • 18
Wednesday, April 16, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Calling treason by its name: A conversation with Liam Fox

Join us at AEI as the Right Honorable Liam Fox sits down with Marc Thiessen to discuss and debate whether America’s intelligence agencies have infringed on the personal privacy of US citizens.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, April 17, 2014 | 4:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
The curmudgeon's guide to getting ahead

How can young people succeed in workplaces dominated by curmudgeons who are judging their every move? At this AEI book event, bestselling author and social scientist Charles Murray will offer indispensable advice for navigating the workplace, getting ahead, and living a fulfilling life.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.