Former President George W. Bush left office in a fog of national fatigue that — at its highest — saw the former president’s unfavorable polling hit 63 percent. In light of two unpopular wars, a collapse of the financial system, a breakdown of international diplomacy and a general feeling of White House malfeasance, the former president left the capital thought by many to be the worst president in modern times and among the worst in history.
However, it is currently fashionable to compare Bush with President Barack Obama. In light of Obama’s embrace of Bush’s war policies, many critics of the former president have been forced to reconcile their feelings for the ex-commander-in-chief with the realities of today’s administration.
Prior to the dedication of his presidential library and museum in April, the former president spoke to CNN on the nature of his legacy.
“History will ultimately judge the decisions that were made for Iraq and I’m just not going to be around to see the final verdict,” President Bush told CNN’s John King. “In other words, I’ll be dead.”
“You learn that life doesn’t end after you’re president,” Bush continued. “In other words, you’re going a hundred miles an hour and, and, in my case, we [the former president and first lady] woke up in Crawford and now it’s going zero. And so the challenge is how to live life to its fullest. In my case, I’ve chosen to do so outside the limelight. On the other hand, I am confident that when this chapter of our life is finished, that we’ll both be able to say that we’ve advanced the cause of peace and freedom and — and the human — and helped improve the human condition.”
“I know this, that Laura and I gave the presidency eight years of our life,” he said. “We gave it our all. Made the best judgment calls I could. I didn’t compromise my principles. And I’m a content man.”
Reimagining George W. Bush
In the years following the end of the second Bush presidency, George W. Bush kept a low profile. He rarely gave interviews. He wasn’t involved in the campaigns of fellow Republicans. He avoided public speaking and public appearances as much as possible. He became an unofficial ambassador for health initiatives — particularly in Africa — and teamed with former president Bill Clinton to promote long-term economic reconstruction in Haiti.
This “reimagining” of Bush has led to a reversal in terms of his popularity. According to a Gallup poll released Tuesday, the former president now has favorability numbers that are greater than his unfavorable numbers: 49 percent favorable to 46 percent unfavorable. This is the first time since 2005 that Bush had such high positive popularity totals.
Bush’s highest popularity numbers came immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, when Bush scored the third-highest favorability rating ever recorded — 87 percent. His lowest came in April 2008, when gasoline prices were approaching all-time highs and the Democratic primaries between Obama and Hillary Clinton were in high gear. At that time, Bush scored a 32 percent favorability rating.
“George W. Bush followed one of the most basic, yet most difficult, rules of emerging successfully from a rough patch in the public eye. Going away works,” Matt Eventoff, owner of Princeton Public Speaking, told Mint Press News. “Going away sounds simple, but it is one of the most difficult things for a public figure to do. Exiting the public stage, and actually staying off of it for a period of time, is something that many public figures have difficulty actually doing. In order to reset the narrative, the first order of business is to ‘disappear’ from the public light for a time.”
“President Bush has done just that — he has not been a talking head, is not on a speaking tour, does not offer commentary of current issues and decisions on a regular basis, etc.,” Eventoff continued. “Simply put, there is no way to ‘come back’ if you don’t first exit the public eye.”
Bush’s favorability, however, is still lower than other ex-presidents. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all have favorability ratings in excess of 60 percent.
But Bush gained favorability among all political groups, with 84 percent of Republicans, 46 percent of independents and 24 percent of Democrats holding a favorable opinion – an increase of more than 10 percentage points across the board since 2009. However, Bush has enjoyed a particularly steep gain in popularity among Democrats – gaining 10 percentage points since November 2010, according to Gallup.
Bush as a measure of Obama
While opinions on Bush are still polarized and the popularity gains Bush can be seen as the effect of the fog of nostalgia, the shift in thinking among Democrats is worth considering.
In recent months, the White House has justified or embraced many of the most offensive elements of the Bush presidency – including the notion of an undeclared war on terror, surveillance of American-based communication, investigations against the media and government agency overreach.
The revelations include the disclosure that the Obama administration’s expanded use of “signature” drone strikes led to situations where the intelligence community did not know who they were bombing, the disclosure that lower-level IRS employees did not have adequate supervision from superiors, and news that the FBI and the NSA have been collecting consumer information from the major telecoms and Internet companies wholesale. These incidents have led many Democrats to compare Obama to Bush – a less-than-flattering comparison for the current president.
Such comparisons are – of course – unfair. Bush’s approach to the war on terror was “to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.” Bush utilized a man-on-the-ground approach, committing large-scale troop deployments to “smother” insurgency, establish a commanding presence, and then utilize this manpower to rebuild the Iraqi and Afghani governments and infrastructures. Obama’s approach is to roll back military involvement abroad and to utilize instead the resources of the intelligence community to offer a precise and measured response to potential threats to national security. He complements this effort with Bush-era provisions that allow the monitoring of suspect foreign communiques.
In the details, however, the similarities between these two different men emerge.
Bush’s plan assumed cooperation from the local people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and did not consider the notion that America’s mere presence in the country would be enough to spark insurgency and anger. In addition, the Bush plan was open-ended, with no clear road to de-escalation. As a result, costs skyrocketed, war fatigue set in, and emotional and personal costs of these wars became intolerable.
Obama, on the other hand, gave up too much authority early on and gave it to too many people – some of whom had a vested interest in the proliferation of the Bush military plan. This, coupled with a push from the Democrats to resolve these wars quickly, led Obama to embrace Bush-era programs and infrastructure that would permit troops to come home, but would also defend the nation from future terrorist attacks. In this tug of war between bringing troops home and preserving civil rights, Obama went with the option most likely to get him re-elected – ending the wars. But in doing this, Obama embraced everything he swore to oppose – including an expansion of the drone program and the continued surveillance of Americans.
Currently, the president has a 48 percent approval rating. The former president is – right now – more popular than the current president. This could be a boon for Republicans in 2014, but it is too early to tell.
As reported by the Washington Post, “There is unmistakable satisfaction among Obama critics at this reversal in approval ratings, in part because Obama used Bush as an excuse for practically every miscue and problem right up through the election. Obama nevertheless was compelled to adopt and expand upon many of Bush’s anti-terrorism tactics, even as he was publicly excoriating Bush for his handling of jihadist terror. And now Obama must resort to exactly the same defenses that Bush used to explain our cyberdefenses. Unlike Bush, however, Obama has suffered from serial revelations of wrongdoing and cannot point to a blemish-free record (e.g. Boston, Fort Hood) on terrorist homeland attacks after Sept. 11.”
The fog of nostalgia
But the reason America now favors Bush may be as simple as the nation has recovered from its “Bush fatigue.”
“Americans have a short memory,” Leslie Ungar, a communication expert and author of “100 Tips to Communicate Your Value” and “Herbie’s Hints: A Life Time of Dad’s Advice,” told Mint Press News. “Nixon said you won’t have me to kick around anymore and then he came back and won two terms. Newt [Gingrich] had ethics charges against him and came back as a presidential candidate. Bill Clinton could run today and at the least give his opponent a run for their money. We have short memories. As Dr. Phil says, no matter how thin you make a pancake it still has two sides. There are two sides of this pancake. We are a forgiving nation.”
“Is this the fog of nostalgia, or is this forgiveness in reflection of the current string of controversies hitting the White House?” Ungar asked. “We as Americans like to build someone up, and then tear them down. Often, the best strategy for the ‘victim’ is to just go away. Paris Hilton did it, Hillary is doing it now, and ‘Dubya’ did it to perfection. I believe he left the spotlight because he didn’t like the spotlight rather than being forced out of it. The result is the same: he went away. That is the most effective strategy he could have implemented. He went away, and when people came knocking, he kept quiet and closed the door. Eventually reporters stopped knocking.”
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