Laura Bush Leaves White House as Popular Figure

by Jeffrey M. Jones

PRINCETON, NJ -- The latest USA Today/Gallup poll finds 76% of Americans saying they have a favorable opinion of first lady Laura Bush. The public has viewed her very positively during George W. Bush's entire term as president, with her favorable ratings ranging between 63% and 80%.

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Laura Bush's favorable rating is nearly twice as high as her husband's current 40% (his job approval rating is slightly lower at 34%). The president began his tenure in office with high favorable ratings himself -- never falling below 60% until his fourth year in office. His favorables began to decline in his re-election year of 2004, and have declined further since then, following the general trajectory of his job approval rating. His current favorable rating actually represents an improvement from last year's term-low 32%.

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Laura Bush is rated more positively by Republicans (89%) than by independents (76%) or Democrats (66%). But all three groups have a very positive impression of her.

In contrast, only Republicans (77%) have an overall favorable view of the president, given that just 37% of independents and 11% of Democrats have a positive opinion of him.

Comparison to Other First Ladies

In general, the president's job makes him more susceptible to criticism than the first lady, so it is not surprising for the president to have lower favorable ratings than the first lady. But can Laura Bush be meaningfully compared to other first ladies?

Gallup has asked the favorability question in the current format only since 1993, beginning with the end of Barbara Bush's tenure as first lady and spanning the entire Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush years. From 1993 to early 2001, Clinton's favorable rating averaged 56%, compared with 73% for Laura Bush from 2001 to 2009. Clinton's personal high favorable rating of 67% is just slightly better than Bush's lowest favorable rating of 63%.

The fact that Laura Bush has a higher average favorable rating as first lady than Clinton likely reflects Clinton's more active role as first lady, including her involvement in controversial policy matters such as the attempt to reform the national healthcare system. It also reflects Republicans' generally negative opinions of her throughout the Clinton administration years.

But while Laura Bush has generally been viewed more positively as first lady than Hillary Clinton was, she may not be quite as popular a first lady as her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, at least based on a comparison of how both were viewed at the end of their husbands' presidencies. Just before the elder George Bush left the White House in January 1993, 85% of Americans had a favorable opinion of Barbara Bush, significantly better than the current 76% rating for Laura Bush.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,031 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 9-11, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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