Bush Legacy: A Tale of Two Terms

President Bush endured his second term without once attaining majority approval.

ByAnalysis By Gary Langer
January 02, 2009, 4:22 PM

Jan. 7, 2009 -- 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.

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.

Click here for charts on Bush job 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.

PARTY – Bush's second-terms ratings have not only been weaker but also more partisan than any of his three immediate predecessors'. Bush maintained 75 percent approval from Republicans in his second term, vs. just 11 percent among Democrats – a 64-point gap, larger than any previous first- or second-term comparison in ABC News/Washington Post polls since the start of Reagan's presidency.

Among independents, moreover, Bush has averaged just 32 percent second-term approval, 30 points below his first-term average in this swing group. (In his second term he's also run 30 points below his first-term average among Democrats, and 16 points lower among Republicans.) Bush's low among independents, 18 percent this past October, compares with lows of 40 percent approval among independents for Clinton, 35 percent for George H.W. Bush and 45 percent for Reagan.

Even in his own party, Bush's low of 55 percent in October was anywhere from 7 to 11 points lower than any of his three predecessors' lowest ratings in their own party.

Click here for charts on Bush job approval.

LEGACY – Beyond his own reputation, the main issue remaining is what damage Bush's second term may do to his party's longer-term prospects. Following the path blazed by Reagan, the Republican Party gradually gained adherents from 1980 through 2003, when, for the first time, it achieved hard-fought parity with the Democrats: On average that year 31 percent of Americans associated themselves with each party.

But the Iraq war and Bush's closely related ratings have flipped that trend, threatening to reverse the generation-long Reagan revolution. Since 2003 Republican allegiance has retreated and the Democratic Party has gained ground, a phenomenon central to the election of Bush's successor, Barack Obama, two months ago. The question ahead – one that may best define Bush's ultimate legacy – is whether and to what extent the GOP's losses outlive the president on whose watch they occurred.

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