Guess who's now more popular than Obama?

This has to be a particularly depressing day for the current President of the United States, assuming somebody bothers to bring a summary of the morning headlines out to him on the golf course. The latest set of approval ratings for all the living presidents has been released by CNN and the numbers for the leader of what’s left of the free world are not spectacular.

Obama’s approval rating has suffered a similar blow.

While it’s dropped since April, going from a near-even 48% approve to 47% disapprove split to a negative-tilting 52% disapprove to 45% approve, the rising disapproval ratings come across party lines, from both men and women, from whites and non-whites.

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The popularity of the president can swing up and down all the time with the next set of headlines and being underwater on his numbers is old hat to Barack Obama by now. But this is the part that’s really got to sting. (Emphasis added)

Asked to rate their feelings about living former presidents, Americans pick Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush as the most popular of the bunch, with 64% holding a favorable view of each. Jimmy Carter notches a 56% favorability rating and George W. Bush cracks majority favorability with 52%. That’s his most positive rating since April 2005. His father’s favorability ratings have also climbed in the last year, from 58% last June to 64% now. Clinton and Carter have held steady since last year.

Ouch. Back in 2008, Barack Obama was technically running against John McCain if you only look at the names on the ballot records. But in reality, he was running against the record of George W. Bush and it was a pretty sweet ride at the time. Bush’s approval ratings were in the 30s owing to a combination of factors ranging from the ongoing wars to the slow motion collapse of the economy. You can debate the seriousness of either of those issues and how much blame can fairly be affixed to the White House for each, but the fact is that when you’re in the Oval Office you take the rap for every iceberg the ship hits. Obama was the shiny, new, fun, hopey changey guy and Bush was the villain. In that sense, it was a walk in the park.

Now the shoe is on the other foot and to see his own numbers surpassed by his previous nemesis has to be rather crushing. But I do have to wonder a bit about where the surge in W popularity is coming from. It’s a given that presidents enjoy something of a recovery when they leave office, mostly because once you’re retired you don’t really have the opportunity to make many major mistakes. Also, people tend to remember the good times and suppress the bad ones, so most presidents eventually glide up to at least slightly better numbers. But the country is largely engaged in foreign policy, ISIS and terrorism in general these days. Iraq is falling to pieces and Syria is already essentially gone. It seemed for a long time that the decision to invade Iraq would be the signature issue of Bush’s tenure and he would have to carry the “blame” for a war which even a significant number of Republicans (and their aspiring presidential candidates) are calling a mistake today. It’s a curious development in many ways.

As far as the other presidents, there aren’t too many surprises. Bill Clinton has enjoyed high marks since he left office and none of the shenanigans involving his wife or his massive non-profit seem to be denting those numbers. And after all, who doesn’t love Bill? The guy is the life of the party.
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It was nice to see George H. W. Bush catching up with him in popularity. The base will likely never forgive him on the Read My Lips No New Taxes thing, but in other areas – particularly foreign policy – he’s rightly seen as a senior statesman and a generally successful world leader. How Jimmy Carter makes it to 56% is something of a mystery. I assume the only explanation for that is that a significant number of the people who had to live through those four years of hell are dead or dying off. Most younger folks today only know him for his charitable work with Habitat for Humanity and various disease fighting programs and economic development schemes in Africa. Again… if you live long enough you begin to get the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe that will work for Barack Obama too. Who knows? A few decades from now all these details will begin to blur into the fog of history and he’ll just be in the books as the nation’s first black president. I wouldn’t bet against it.