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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.
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.
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