When George W. Bush departed the White House on Jan. 20, 2009, he left as one of the most unpopular presidents in history.
At the time, a Gallup poll found President Bush tallied a mere 34 percent approval. That put him only slightly above the two most unpopular presidents in the era of modern polling: Harry Truman (32 percent when he left office), and Richard Nixon (22 percent when he resigned in disgrace in August 1974.)
Close to two years into President Barack Obama's term, Bush's mojo with the American public appears on the rise.
"President Bush has been diplomatic and gracious since leaving office," former Bush media adviser Mark McKinnon tells Newsmax. "And as Americans view him through the lens of history and compare him to modern presidents who struggle to meet the challenges of the 21st century, President Bush's tenure will continue to look better and better. It's happening faster than anyone thought."
The turnaround couldn't come at a better time for Republicans who were hoping voters would be forgetting about Obama's predecessor. Their worries are dissipating fast.
The key reason for Bush's rising popularity? Obama's rapidly declining favorability.
A top Democratic pollster in Washington is circulating a poll showing Bush's popularity in key contested congressional districts is now 6 points ahead of Obama's.
"That Bush is more popular than Obama in Democratic-held seats is cause for outright fear," National Journal's Hotline on Call reports.
Bush more popular than Obama? It all depends on which congressional district you're referring to.
Nationally, Obama continues to be the more popular politician.
Gallup's latest poll shows Obama's favorability at 52 percent, compared with Bush's 45 percent.
Yet, these numbers show steady improvement for the one-time Texas governor who led the nation's "war on terror."
Since March 2009, Bush's Gallup rating has climbed 10 points. Obama's favorability during the same period: down by more than 20 points.
The bottom line: Just 18 months after leaving office, Bush doesn't look so bad after all — despite the fact that the Obama administration has used him as a political piñata for months.
"All presidents generally hope history will judge them well and that their legacy ratings will improve over time," Gallup's Lydia Saad recently wrote. "That process may be starting for Bush."
For the moment, Bush’s Rocky Balboa-like comeback is happening despite the fact that Bush left the country in the worst financial shape since the Great Depression and ramped up social spending to dizzying heights while nearly doubling the national debt and embroiling the nation in two foreign wars.
The cause for this GOP windfall could be that Obama seems to have fallen so far short of the "hope and change" message he promised voters. His actions during his first two years have alienated independent voters in a manner that goes well beyond any of Bush's errant ways.
Obama came to the White House lambasting the federal deficit and what he inherited from Bush.
Bush left him with a big deficit "wrapped in a bow waiting for me," Obama told Democratic contributors at a fundraiser in Miami last week. "What did they have to show for the $1.3 trillion deficit that they delivered to us?”
But his first legislative priority was to ram through Congress the largest spending bill in history — the $1.17 trillion stimulus.
As the nation faced intractable unemployment, he focused almost the next 14 months of his administration to pushing through a major healthcare overhaul. "Obamacare," as critics have dubbed it, will add 30 million new patients to government healthcare and will likely cost $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years.
Then there have been the series of flubs and off-message controversies that have made Bush's occasional malapropisms seem like trifles. For months after moving out of the White House, Bush shunned the limelight. President Obama, by contrast, has demonstrated a penchant for stirring up controversy unnecessarily, taking the White House off message.
One obvious example was when he slammed the Cambridge police department for acting “stupidly” in arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. Obama also fearlessly interjected himself into the ground zero mosque crossfire, and has been hedging his support for the mosque ever since.
Obama's foibles and Bush's own low profile in his post-presidency has created a visible public enemy for voters to vent their wrath against: the Democrats who control Washington.
The strong Bush poll numbers have the Democrats scrambling.
Last week, the Democratic National Committee released a new TV ad titled "Big Choices."
"This fall, Americans face a big choice.,” the ad states. “Do we continue to move forward like Democrats are doing? . . . Or do we go back to the same Republican policies that got us into this mess?"
The video then cuts to an image of President Bush at a podium stating: "Fool me — we can't get fooled again."
The president's brother and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush quickly entered the fray, blasting Democrats for trying to run against the 43rd president, calling it “a loser issue.”
"If that's all they've got, it's a pretty good indication of the problems that the Democrats face in 2010,” Bush told The New York Times.
The ad assumes Bush fatigue will still resonate with voters. But the latest polls suggest otherwise.
Democrats point to a recent poll by Joel Benenson, the president’s own pollster, showing that voters are more likely to blame Bush than Obama for the moribund economy.
But the Bush voodoo doll hasn't worked for Democrats in key contests, most notably the race for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat that ended with a victory by Republican challenger Scott Brown.
And a deeper look at pro-Obama poll results is illuminating.
The Benenson poll shows that 34 percent of voters say big banks and Wall Street are really to blame for the economy.
Another 24 percent hold profligate consumers responsible. Overall, about 80 percent of respondents now point the finger at someone other than Bush.
So it’s no longer evident the Wall Street meltdown will indelibly mar Bush’s legacy.
And several other factors may be giving momentum to Bush's stealth comeback, including:
- The winding down of the war in Iraq. Vice President Joe Biden recently claimed the Obama administration won the war by fomenting "a coherent political process." But most Americans haven't forgotten that Obama, Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi all opposed the surge of U.S. forces in Iraq. "I think he is wrong and I think the American people believe he is wrong," then-Sen. Obama said of Bush's surge. On Thursday, Sen. John McCain credited Bush for supporting the surge when most experts in Washington opposed it.
- The increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan. Candidate Obama portrayed Afghanistan as "the good war." Already, he has reformulated U.S. policy there twice, with a third review scheduled for December. That makes it a lot harder to blame the controversial war effort on Bush. Despite Obama's contemplative attention to the war he embraced, monthly casualty figures tragically have reached record numbers. The question Obama faces: How much longer will Americans tolerate a war that still has no definitive end in sight?
- Help from White House alumni. Several former Bush aides have infiltrated the media since leaving the White House, grabbing megaphones they use to push back against spin and distortion. In addition to McKinnon, they include White House adviser Karl Rove, White House press secretary Dana Perino, and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson. As Rove recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal column: "For Mr. Obama and his party, all the escape hatches are shutting at the same time. Blaming Bush and harping on the GOP's driving abilities is not a good strategy, but it may be the best Mr. Obama and his beleaguered party have."
- Obama’s continuation of Bush’s policies. Several Bush policies Obama excoriated during the campaign remain in full effect. As a senator, Obama called the Bush administration's use of military tribunals to try enemy noncombatants a "legal black hole" that undermined "the very values we are fighting to defend." In May 2009, Obama announced modified tribunals would continue. Also, two days after taking office, the president signed an executive order that Guantanamo Bay be closed. Approximately 175 combatants continue to be housed there, and they are not currently expected to all be gone before the 2012 presidential election.
- Bush kept America safe from terrorism. The jury's still out on Obama. "I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear of us soon." That iconic, impromptu speech by a bullhorn-wielding Bush at ground zero represented his pledge that the devastation of 9/11 would not recur on his watch. At the time, national security experts from both parties agreed it wasn't a matter of whether another attack would occur, but when. For seven years, Bush’s tough policies kept America safe from another successful attack. Now, some security experts say U.S. anti-terror efforts have shifted to a more criminal-based approach. Al-Qaida, meanwhile, has shifted its tactics, to use smaller attacks such as those carried out by the Christmas day bomber and the Times Square bomber. The Fort Hood massacre that killed 13 and wounded 30 has been cited as another example.
- Bush is promoting humanitarian causes. His tireless efforts, in concert with former President Bill Clinton, to raise funds to help the earthquake victims of Haiti have helped his image. Bush also supports fundraisers for the families of U.S. service personnel killed in the line of duty.
- The Bush tax cuts have wide support. In 2001 and 2003, President Bush signed tax legislation that slashed income tax rates across the board. He also ended the estate tax while cutting dividend and capital gains taxes. The legislation passed but had a sunset provision forcing all the cuts to expire on Dec. 31 of this year. But polls show that Americans strongly favor fully renewing the Bush tax cuts and several leading Senate Democrats have embraced the idea. President Obama and the Congressional Democratic leadership want key portions of the cuts to expire while extending income tax relief to only those in the lower income brackets.
There is another, less obvious reason for Bush's stealth comeback: He has demonstrated an ability to keep a low profile and stay out of the controversies that dogged him while in office.
Clearly Bush has eschewed the Bill Clinton model. When Clinton left office he remained active on the world stage, created a foundation with a global humanitarian mission and kept an active hand in politics.
Bush may be following in the footsteps of Harry Truman and Richard Nixon, both vilified by critics who went quietly back home in the West, while unfolding events and a fresh historical perspective led to their elevations among historians and the public, especially on matters of national security and international relations.
Bush may be taking his first step out from his quiet period with the upcoming release of his memoir “Decision Points.”
Bush's publisher, Crown, planned a September release along with a glitzy major media tour for the former president.
Apparently realizing such a high profile could become political fodder for the midterms elections, his publisher delayed the release until Nov. 9 — which means Bush’s tome will be released precisely one week after another political resurrection Republicans are hoping for — a landslide victory over Democrats on Nov. 2.
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