George W. Bush in the Rearview Mirror
“What is your opinion of George W. Bush? And how has it changed?”
He starts to answer, then pauses. “Am I allowed to be silent so I can think?” Ten seconds elapse. “I don’t know actually.”
Max Teirstein ‘21’s deliberation is not unusual. When asked about their opinion of George W. Bush ‘68, many Yale students pause. They remain silent for a moment. They internally debate their stance on the former president.
It didn’t always used to be that way. When Bush left office almost nine years ago, for most there was no hesitation in their opinion of the former President. Few needed to pause. An August 2008 Rasmussen Reports poll demonstrates how hostile Americans’ opinions were of Bush. When it asked voters, “Will history rate Bush as the worst president ever?” 41% responded in the affirmative.
By October 2017, times had changed. When a Fox News poll asked voters whether they held a favorable view of Bush, 59% now claimed they did, roughly a 30% increase over his all-time low, and a shift caused by many Americans flip-flopping in their opinion of Bush.
Many political pundits, journalists, and voters alike have seen this trend as a recent development, likely related to Trump’s rise. Noah Daponte-Smith ‘18, vice president of the Buckley Program, a group that promotes intellectual conservative thought on campus, told The Politic that “This, I think, has more to do with Trump.” He elaborated, noting “[Bush’s rising favorability is] not a time thing. There are certain time things that may rehabilitate his reputation but those will take longer, I would think, and they would have more to do with his actual policies.”
The polls, however, tell a different story. They show a favorability rating that has risen slowly and steadily over the past nine years to reach its current level, not a sudden shift in the past 10 months.
This slow but steady increase in favorability after leaving office has historical precedent. Rebecca Sinderbrand, a former Washington Post political editor and a current visiting lecturer at Yale, told The Politic, “This follows historical pattern. In general, the further in the rearview mirror a president is, the more fondly we view them.”
Historical data from Gallup supports this. George H.W. Bush’s favorability ratings jumped from the mid-40s during his last year in office to peaking in the low 70s in 2000. Likewise, Bill Clinton saw his favorability rise from the upper 40s in parts of his last year in office to the mid-60s in 2012.
But both Bush Sr. and Clinton were reasonably popular when they left office. “With Bush [Jr.], it seems more dramatic… because Clinton left office relatively popular and Obama left office relatively popular,” Sinderbrand said, “so Bush is the first president in that quarter century span who left office not riding high in the polls.”
In fact, when Bush left office he was so unpopular that many thought his image was permanently scarred. Max Teirstein ’21 told The Politic that he never could have imagined Bush’s image improving, urging society to remember of the “many awful deaths” that he helped cause. Andrew Gooch, a Postdoctoral Associate at the Yale Institution for Social and Policy Studies, described the dramatic feelings about Bush near the end of his term, telling The Politic, “When Obama was getting elected and Bush’s approval rating was below freezing, people thought ‘He’s ruining the Republican Party. The Republican Party is over now.’”
But the Republican Party was not over, and Bush’s image was not permanently wounded. This change is evident at Yale, where some students are seeing Bush in a more positive light despite continuing to condemn his policy decisions. “I still think the same as I did about his policy decisions, but my appreciation for him as a person and as someone who exemplifies a certain style of politics has probably increased. I think that’s what you’ll hear from a lot of people, actually,” Daponte-Smith said.
Alex Wyckoff ’21 holds a similar view, and told The Politic, “He has now become so much more normal appearing because of Trump and his presidency. I view him more favorably now than I did before.”
On the other hand, some are notably resisting the pull, urging their peers not to forget Bush’s political mistakes. Josh Hochman ‘18, president of the Yale College Democrats, told The Politic, “It’s important for us to not have amnesia about mistakes and misguided policies that some former presidents and office holders promulgated, among them of course the Iraq war, the backlash against which is one of the causes of the alienation and the disillusionment with government that a lot of Americans are expressing.”
As polarized as many students are on Bush’s changing image, many are wondering how such a recovery could have occurred. There is likely some level of “the distance makes the heart grow fonder effect,” as Sinderbrand terms it, going on. “There is a certain degree of amnesia that goes into our political debates, and as you move forward, every era, in about ten or twenty years, is looked back on with these rose-tinted glasses as though it was… this dream moment when everyone worked hand in hand,” Sinderbrand said.
Bush’s personal character might also play a role in the bounce. “I think Bush’s personality is an important part of it, too. You can’t discount that,” Sinderbrand said. “Even as Bush’s approval rating would take a dive, if you talked about him personally, people liked him… Even political opponents liked him personally.”
Hochman concurs. “To some people, Bush seems like a nice, folksy, charming guy who’s well intentioned even if sometimes misguided… And I think people tend to appreciate kindness,” he said.
This more positive opinion of Bush’s personality is a foil to the current political climate. On this point, Hochman says, “The contrast between 43 and Trump in demeanor mostly, but also sometimes in policy, has led some people, including Democrats, to be a bit wistful about the early 2000s.”
Changing party ideologies have helped fuel these differences and bolster Bush’s image. “[Aid to the needy and democracy promotion] are ideas that for most of the post-war period have defined American life and both parties. They’ve been broadly bipartisan ideas…Not having that now, by contrast makes Bush seem far more bipartisan than he must have seemed at the time,” Sinderbrand said.
Trump has certainly played some role in Bush’s rebound. “Liberals hated him during his office but they recognize that there is something now that is much worse, in their opinion,” Gooch said. Sinderbrand elaborates on this concept in a broader sense. “It’s the reassessment by people who are political foes. Their way of expressing disapproval about the person who is occupying the office is to compare him unfavorably with someone else,” she said.
This has been happening beyond Bush as well. Other Republican politicians who have pushed back at Trump have seen favorability boosts, especially among Democrats. A notable example is John McCain, who saw a 22 point increase in favorability among Democrats from August 2015 to August 2017, according to Gallup. In July 2017 he implicitly rebuked Trump by voting against his healthcare bill.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the upswing in Bush’s image is his distance from politics. Sinderbrand points out that coverage on Bush has been much more focused on personality than policy over the past eight years. “All the public is seeing is the one thing that most people liked about him, and with a dramatic reduction… and for eight years a complete elimination, of the thing that was a little bit touchy-er, not necessarily as universally adored,” she said.
In any case, there are questions as to whether this historical trend of rising favorability will extend to Trump once he leaves office. Daponte-Smith sees one possible world where he does become more popular. “You see elements of that sort of forgiveness, or something that could eventually become that, in the fact that, talking to my friends, I hear a lot of them fear a Mike Pence presidency more than they fear a Trump [presidency]. So you see a way in which Trump could be contrasted favorably with someone,” he said. Hochman sees a different way that Trump could become more popular. “It’s possible that if Trump creates a really nice presidential library and creates a foundation after his presidency, maybe people will change their minds,” Hochman said.
However, both Hochman and Daponte-Smith find these scenarios unlikely. “Trump’s approval ratings are just so abysmal and the associations of him and some of the practices that all reasonable people deplore, like racism and sexism and xenophobia, are so strong that it will be more difficult for there to be such a bounce,” Hochman said. “I think Trump will always stand as… a certain historical moment that was just terrible, like almost uniquely terrible. So I think it probably won’t happen with Trump,” Daponte-Smith agreed.
Sinderbrand offers a similar line of thinking, saying “A reassessment [of Trump] would require a fundamental shift, probably, in the way that Donald Trump has approached his presidency. At this moment, I don’t think there are many people who would predict such a shift.” However, she cautions against making too many definitive predictions. “I think the number one thing we have learned about Donald Trump is that no one should make any predictions one way or the other,” she explains. “I think that’s a safe bet. That’s the only safe bet. This presidency has broken all sorts of precedents.”
Nonetheless, it’s possible that Trump could see a favorability bump in a decade. With so many Americans fervently opposed to Trump (as so many were against Bush nine years ago), the electorate’s tendency to view earlier presidents more favorably seems to have dubious value in a democracy that prides itself in learning from its mistakes.
On this point, Teirstein argues that rising favorability of ex-presidents obscures their major flaws. He compares this phenomenon to what he argues is our obsession with the Founding Fathers, many of whom endorsed slavery.
Still, many Yale students are optimistic in the value of this phenomenon. Daponte-Smith explains, “It allows us to respect our political leaders and to not vilify them post hoc even though we do hate the things they did.”
Sinderbrand sums up the indefinite value of this phenomenon, saying, “If democracy is going to move on and people are going to start working together again, the question is, would it be better for people to remember this moment and think to themselves, ‘We don’t want to go back there to this kind of dysfunctioning gridlock’ or in order to be able to work together, will they have to, at some point, block it out and forget the fights of the past?”