The subsequent rise in gasoline prices further soured Americans' mood. And continued gas-price spikes during the last three years added to the discontent; from an average $1.47 per gallon the day Bush was sworn in, gasoline peaked at $4.11 last July. The public screamed.
The economy overtook the war as Americans' chief concern a year ago, and it's ravaged public sentiment since. Gas has eased sharply, but that's because of the recession; by this October 90 percent said the country was seriously off on the wrong track, a record in polling dating back 35 years. Consumer confidence is in its worst stretch in 23 years of weekly ABC News polls; job insecurity, its worst in data back 33 years. And 73 percent disapprove of Bush's handling of the economy, a level unseen since 1992, late in his father's single term.
LESSONS – Part of the lesson is that highs don't keep you from lows. Closest to Bush's best rating were his father's 90 percent approval during the Persian Gulf war in 1991 and Truman's 87 percent when he ascended to the presidency after Franklin D. Roosevelt's death in 1945. Yet theirs, too, didn't last: The first President Bush plummeted as the economy soured, and Truman went on to his own dismal second term.
Truman's problems were notably similar to George W. Bush's: economic strife and an unpopular war (in Korea). These individually are extreme threats to presidential success. Together, as Truman demonstrated and Bush has now seconded, they're political poison.
There's a remarkable comparison, as well, with the last president enmeshed in an unpopular war. As Vietnam escalated, Lyndon B. Johnson's approval rating dived from an average 74 percent in his first year to an average 42 percent four years later. Bush's, very similarly, went from an average 73 percent in 2001-2 to an average 39 percent four years later – and down from there. In 2008 he averaged 29 percent approval.
THE NUMBERS – The difference between Bush's two terms is striking. His 64 percent first-term average ranks him behind only John F. Kennedy (cut short by assassination) and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ronald Reagan, for comparison, averaged 55 percent approval in his first term. (Pre-Reagan data in this analysis are from Gallup.)
Bush's second-term average approval, in stark contrast, slips him a point beneath Truman's 38 percent. (Richard Nixon managed worse in his truncated, 20-month second term, averaging 35 percent before his August 1974 resignation in the Watergate scandal.)
Bush's second-term average is particularly dismal compared with his most recent two-term predecessors: Bill Clinton averaged 61 percent approval in his second term, despite the inconvenience of having been impeached. Reagan averaged 58 percent.
Combining the two terms gives Bush an overall career average of 51 percent approval, slightly ahead of the career averages of Nixon, Gerald Ford, Truman and Jimmy Carter – far from the best company in presidential popularity.
As noted, Bush holds the record for the highest disapproval, 73 percent in an ABC News/Washington Post poll this October. He came within a point of the record low for approval, Truman's 22 percent in February 1952. And he's approaching 48 months without majority approval, shattering Truman's 38 months in the doghouse. No other modern president has come close.