Partisans may insist history views Presidents one way and public perceptions may indicate that most Americans view it another. And, later on, the historians weigh and that consensus becomes the longterm conventional wisdom. A new Gallup Poll finds the public views Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as the best of recent Presidents.
Americans believe history will judge Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as the best among recent U.S. presidents, with at least 6 in 10 saying each will go down in history as an above-average or outstanding president. Only about 1 in 10 say each will be remembered as below average or poor. Three years into Barack Obama’s presidency, Americans are divided in their views of how he will be regarded, with 38% guessing he will be remembered as above average or outstanding and 35% as below average or poor.
The Obama number will increase or decrease depending on what happens with his re-election campaign — and a second term, if it takes place. And Americans’ views of Obama now are most likely also influenced by images and narratives coming from each sides ideological media — now firmly entrenched in cable and, to a lesser extent (liberal talk is hard to find in the radio dial) on radio. And there’s a tiny thing going on now called “election year.” What’s most notable are the numbers of those who are no longer in the White House:
Gallup periodically asks Americans to assess how they believe presidents will go down in history. The current results are based on a Feb. 2-5 poll and include presidents Richard Nixon through Obama, with this being the initial measurement of Obama on this question. Aside from Clinton and Reagan, only George H.W. Bush gets significantly more positive than negative ratings. Nixon and George W. Bush are rated as the worst, with roughly half of Americans believing each will be judged negatively.
But George W. Bush’s ratings have now improved a little: he’s no longer at the bottom of the heap.
Compared with Gallup’s previous update — conducted in January 2009, just before Bush’s presidency ended and Obama’s began — ratings of several presidents are up. This includes George W. Bush, whom Americans judged even more poorly than Nixon in the prior update.
Specifically, positive ratings of Bush increased from 17% to 25% since 2009, while negative ratings of him declined from 59% to 47% in the three years since he left office. Positive ratings of Clinton, Reagan, and the elder Bush are also higher than in January 2009. There has been no meaningful change in positive ratings of Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Nixon. However, these three have seen an increase in negative ratings compared with three years ago.
Americans now rate Clinton and Reagan more positively on this question than at any time since Gallup first asked about them, in 1985 for Reagan and in 1997 for Clinton.
The biggest non-surprise is that partisans tend to look on Presidents from their own parties more favorably.
I’m most fascinated by how history judges George H.W. Bush. Although he and his tenure in the White House had its flaws, I’m convinced time will be kind to this President who seemed to consider running for office a bit unseemly (and with his hatchet man Lee Atwater helping usher in the era of take-no-prisoners partisan politics it most assuredly was) and that governing rather than running for re-election and reaching across the aisle were attributes rather than weaknesses. It could be that he will prove to have been the very last of Presidents many 21st century Republicans consider a kind of RINO — unless a Jeb Bush Presidency, if it occurs, seems more in the style of Poppy than of Bro George.
And Clinton? To be sure, his time in office is now looked up with great nostalgia by many Americans. But it could also be that his poll numbers are so good because he is out there all the time now, drawing crowds and making headlines now as a serious political and international figure with his foundation. He offers reporters and participants in his seminars solid content and is solution oriented. A bit of p.r. never hurt anyone — and, most assuredly, not Bill Clinton.
For more weblog reaction to this poll GO HERE.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.