Bush Legacy: A Tale of Two Terms

For George W. Bush, it was the worst of terms.

Sequentially hammered by the Iraq war, the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, soaring gasoline prices and, as the coup de grace, the current economic crisis, Bush endured his second term without once attaining majority public approval – a feat unseen in 70 years of presidential approval polls.

Click here for charts on Bush job approval.

Along the way he reached the highest disapproval yet recorded and missed the lowest-ever approval by a single percentage point. His average 37 percent approval the past four years squeaks him past Harry Truman as the worst on record for a full second term.

It's not just about Bush: The legacy of his unpopularity extends beyond his own reputation to the country's fundamental political equation. Since 2004 he's presided over a retreat in Republican Party allegiance that threatens to reverse a generation of gains.

IRONY -- Given his long-running woes it's easy to forget that this same president holds the highest rating on record, 92 percent approval in October 2001 as the United States began air strikes against Afghanistan in retaliation for the terrorist attacks a month earlier.

Bush's response to 9/11 defined his first term. In his first eight months in office, pre-9/11, he averaged a respectable 58 percent approval. In the eight months after 9/11 that soared to an extraordinary 85 percent. And it was no short-lived rally: A year later he was still at 71 percent, these levels boosting him to a first-term average of 64 percent approval, one of the best on record.

The irony is that Bush's second-term failure grew from the same root as his initial success. While his early campaign against terrorism was vastly popular, the war in Iraq – portrayed by Bush as a necessary extension of that campaign – proved a bridge too far.

Bush's ratings softened in the build-up to the war in winter 2003, amid debate over its necessity and the absence of international consensus. He enjoyed a rally with the quick capture of Baghdad, but as the conflict evolved into a long and costly occupation – and pre-war intelligence proved wrong – the war's support tanked, and Bush's followed in lockstep.

Approval of the war barely held a majority, 51 percent, among voters in November 2004, just enough for Bush to win reelection. But it continued down: steadily since that election, a majority of Americans have said the Iraq war was not worth fighting, a view that's correlated almost perfectly with Bush's job approval rating.

Bush was damaged not only by the unexpected length and costs of the war or the faulty intelligence used to justify it. On top of these was a sense of duplicity: by 2005 a majority believed his administration had "intentionally misled" the American public in making its case for the Iraq invasion.

Click here for charts on Bush job approval.

ADDING INSULT -- While the war led the way for Bush's second-term unpopularity, subsequent events hardly helped. The botched response to Katrina in late summer 2005 damaged what remained of his reputation (as the first president to hold an MBA) for administrative competence; his ratings as a "strong leader" and in trust to handle a crisis dived after the hurricane.

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