The Contenders: The President That Made America Bipolar

The Contenders: The President That Made America Bipolar

Why you should care

Because the winds of favor are fickle for presidents, too

Learn more about Barack Obama’s and George W. Bush’s past presidential campaigns by watching The Contenders: 16 for ’16, an OZY TV series about the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on Earth. It airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. EST this fall on PBS.

Right now, Hillary Clinton is riding high. The election seems to be hers, with polls showing her pulling away from Donald Trump. And although she remains deeply unpopular among certain swaths of Americans, that number has improved slightly in recent weeks. But once Trump fades, will Clinton become more appreciated than her current favorability ratings, which have her as the second-least popular candidate of all time?

If history tells us anything, it’s that favorability is a fickle thing. Take the case of George W. Bush, who, in an impromptu moment while visiting ground zero days after 9/11, grabbed a bullhorn and instantly created what became the “high watermark” moment of his presidency, according to U.S. Naval War College professor Steve Knott, author of Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics. “I can hear you,” Bush declared. “And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon.” But almost exactly seven years later, Bush would once again face the nation … this time cowed, having experienced perhaps the largest fall from grace in presidential history.

George W. Bush holds the records for both the highest and lowest favorability ratings in U.S. presidential history.

In October 2001, the month after the attacks, Bush scored as high as 92% approval in polls, according to the Roper Center at Cornell University, which tracks approval ratings going back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By October 2008, though, his lowest marks hovered around 22%, a low matched only by Harry Truman. While hindsight has turned Truman from public scapegoat to one of the all-time great presidents, time may not be so kind to Dubya. “I think he will climb to the middle tier,” but no further, Knott says, with the millstones of an economic collapse and an unpopular war around his neck. His tumultuous presidency was “bound to create a swing” in approval, says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer. “The elation after a crisis with a leader that can get the country through tough times, and then the disappointment that the policies don’t solve the problem.”

Time paints public perception, experts say, even more than a president’s personal merits, and it’s common to blame the commander in chief for issues outside their control — as gas prices creep below $2 a gallon, critics who once lambasted Obama over skyrocketing fuel have receded. The tapestry of a presidency is colored by two major strokes: the president before, and the president after. In that sense, Bush’s legacy is still being shaped — for instance, the troop surge he committed to late in his second term is now credited as a pivotal turning point in the war in Iraq, one that was highlighted when Obama pulled back and created a vacuum in their wake. And liberals who once despised Bush now share Facebook videos of him reiterating that the War on Terror is not a war on Islam … in stark contrast to the rhetoric bandied about by Trump today. “There’s a certain amount of nostalgia,” Zelizer says. As Saturday Night Live riffed, Trump may have done the impossible: Make Bush’s critics miss him.

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