Perhaps the most striking example is George W. Bush. He left office not so much under a cloud, as under a miasma. The trifecta of Iraq, Katrina, and a financial crisis meant that his approval ratings in 2008 barely scraped 30 percent. In an informal poll of around one hundred professional historians in 2008, over 98 percent judged Bush’s presidency as a failure. Nearly two-in-three (61 percent) said Bush was the worst president in American history—worse even than James Buchanan, who is widely blamed for helping to trigger the Civil War.
Since 2008, Americans have fallen prey to Bush Enchantment Syndrome. In 2010, billboards and merchandise started popping up with the slogan “Miss Me Yet?” The number of Americans who rated Bush as an “outstanding” or “above average” president increased from 17 percent in 2009 to 25 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, by 2014, 53 percent of people held a favorable view of Bush.
There are several things at work here. After leaving Washington D.C. in a helicopter bound for Andrews Air Force Base, and then taking a flight to Texas (like George W. Bush), or a train-ride to Independence, Missouri (like Harry Truman), ex-presidents play new and generally attractive roles. There’s the ceremonial ribbon cutter. There’s the charity fundraiser. And there’s the (often self-serving) memoir writer.
In addition, presidential veterans benefit from retreating from the partisan battlefield. The tribalism of American politics makes it hard to push approval ratings much above 50 percent for long. But after presidents head off into the sunset, half of America is no longer dead set against them.
Ex-presidents also look better in the light of their successors’ sins. The media’s Eye of Sauron turns to the next guy and searches for every imperfection. Americans suddenly remember what they liked about the last president—who is illuminated in the more forgiving sepia glow of retirement.
Stepping out of the political spotlight will do wonders for Obama’s image. When he appears in the news after 2016 it will probably be in a favorable story, stressing his public service. Partisan fury will soften. Americans will appreciate Obama’s positive traits, especially those not shared by his successor.
After leaving office, Obama may enjoy an unusually strong surge in support. His presidency makes a potentially great story: the first African-American in the White House, who helped the country recover from recession and ended two wars. Obama’s tale fits neatly into the overarching American narrative of expanding liberty. That rosy story has been lost amid the grinding business of government. But after 2016, hope and change could make a comeback. To support Obama after 2016 will be to embrace racial progress, to feel good about one’s country and oneself.
And Obama may also benefit from the Republican mid-term victories in 2014. If the GOP overreaches, Obama could leave office looking like the guardian of moderation.