It's a bit hard to believe, but that's what a Public Policy Polling survey suggests: that only half of Americans would rather have President Obama in the White House than his predecessor, while 44 percent would prefer George W. Bush to still be president. Here's PPP's Tom Jensen:
Perhaps the greatest measure of Obama's declining support is that just 50% of voters now say they prefer having him as President to George W. Bush, with 44% saying they'd rather have his predecessor. Given the horrendous approval ratings Bush showed during his final term that's somewhat of a surprise and an indication that voters are increasingly placing the blame on Obama for the country's difficulties instead of giving him space because of the tough situation he inherited. The closeness in the Obama/Bush numbers also has implications for the 2010 elections. Using the Bush card may not be particularly effective for Democrats anymore, which is good news generally for Republicans and especially ones like Rob Portman who are running for office and have close ties to the former President.
Beating someone 55 percent to 44 percent is a pretty good margin in politics, but it's surprising given that the two contestants in this numbers game are Obama and the wildly unpopular Bush.
Here at the Politics Channel, we try to avoid reporting based on the findings of the handful of polling firms, PPP included, that use automated, computerized surveys to poll respondents over the phone. That methodology has its defenders, but one operating theory is that it does better with campaign horserace polling than with more complicated questions, and that the results get less accurate as the questions progress, since respondents lose patience. In this survey (full results here), PPP appears to have asked the question fifth.
Hence the cautious (and a bit skeptical) presentation, in this post, of PPP's finding.
But it's a good jumping off point for discussion. These numbers aside, how far has Obama fallen in the public's eye? His average approval/disapproval rating has slid into, and then back out of, negative territory--but it's nothing compared to how deeply unpopular his predecessor was. Obama may have his problems over health care, the economy, or Afghanistan, but when an alleged 44 percent preference for Bush sounds shocking, it should be a sign of the relatively sure footing Obama and his party find themselves on, at least as compared to the last administration.
We know how far Obama must fall to get to where Bush was: an approval rating around 30.
But it raises another, perhaps more interesting question that relates to Obama in a second-hand way: will Bush enjoy a post-presidency resurgence in popularity, as some of the bitterness fades and as revisionist conservative historians start pushing the idea that his presidency went great, on the whole? Will it, someday, be vogue for neocons and former neocons to list Bush as the greatest president in American history?
Bill Clinton, you will remember, wasn't so popular when he left office, and his scandals seemed to have brought down the party and perhaps cost it the White House in 2000. But he returned to become the star of the party just four years later with a rousing speech at the Democratic convention.
As certain as it may seem, the jury is still out on how history will remember Bush. If his time out of the spotlight affords him any sort of comeback, how long will that take?