History Usually Kinder to Ex-Presidents
Politics

History Usually Kinder to Ex-Presidents

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Retrospective approval ratings typically exceed approval ratings while in office

PRINCETON, NJ -- As the current president and former presidents gather in Dallas to open the George W. Bush presidential library, a Gallup review of presidential job approval ratings finds that presidents' retrospective approval ratings are almost always more positive than their job approval ratings while in office. In particular, Americans rate John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan much more positively in retrospect than they did while the men were president.

Presidential Job Approval Ratings While in Office vs. Retrospective Job Approval Ratings

Gallup periodically asks Americans to say whether they approve or disapprove of the job past presidents have done. Gallup last asked this question in November 2010 and has done so a total of eight times since 1990. The figures reported here are the average retrospective approval ratings for presidents across those measurements.

Of nine former presidents about whom Gallup has asked at least one retrospective job approval rating, six have averaged higher retrospective ratings than their average job approval rating while in office. The main exceptions were Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, whom Americans view much less positively in retrospect than they did while they were president. Nixon's low ratings are most likely related to his involvement in the Watergate scandal, while Johnson's likely result from his overseeing the unpopular Vietnam War. But Johnson's overall term average was aided by the rally in support for him after he took office due to the assassination of Kennedy. Johnson averaged 72% approval his first two-plus years in office, compared with a 45% average thereafter.

Additionally, seven of nine former presidents have had higher retrospective approval ratings than their final job approval rating as president just before leaving office. That includes George W. Bush, who earned a 47% retrospective approval rating in the November 2010 poll, the only time Gallup has measured Bush retrospectively. That rating is 13 percentage points higher than Bush's 34% final job approval rating as president in January 2009, but similar to his overall job approval average of 49%.

The opening of George W. Bush's presidential library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas has brought the former president and his administration back into the spotlight. Bush's 34% final approval rating is generally indicative of his low second-term ratings. Bush averaged 37% approval during his second term as the U.S. continued fighting the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq. During his second term, Bush also dealt with the slow government response to Hurricane Katrina, controversy over a proposed deal to sell U.S. cargo operations to foreign-owned companies, the problematic nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court, record-high gas prices, and the financial crisis.

Bush's second-term struggles were in stark contrast to his strong first term ratings -- averaging 62% -- which were aided by the rally in public support for government officials after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. This included a record-high 90% approval rating in a Sept. 21-22, 2001, Gallup poll.

Bush allies such as Condoleezza Rice and Jeb Bush have said that history will ultimately judge Bush's presidency more kindly than people might expect. The retrospective approval ratings indicate that Americans were already evaluating him much more positively just over a year after he left office than they did in his final days in office, although not much differently than they did during the entire course of his presidency.

Implications

Americans tend to be more charitable in their evaluations of past presidents than they are when the presidents are in office. Former presidents likely transcend politics when they leave office, moving into a more nonpolitical role compared with the highly political environment in which presidents operate. And Americans' retrospective views of presidents may focus more on their accomplishments as president rather than the day-to-day political decisions or the state of the nation that are big influences on their approval ratings while in office. Of course, presidents may be remembered for unflattering reasons, as is the case with Nixon and likely also Johnson.

Evaluations of presidents may also be influenced by their works after leaving office, which tend to be charitable in nature -- such as the fundraising for Hurricane Katrina led by Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush -- or diplomatic, such as Carter's involvement in negotiations to secure the release of political prisoners.

George W. Bush's job evaluation definitely improved after he left office, but on a relative basis, he did still rank near the bottom of the list of presidents in terms of his retrospective approval ratings and Americans' predictions of how history will ultimately judge him.

Gallup will continue to monitor Americans' opinions of current and former presidents, to see if Bush's ratings improve in the future.

Explore President Obama's approval ratings in depth and compare them with those of past presidents in the Gallup Presidential Job Approval Center.

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