When George W. Bush left the Oval Office for the last time as president in January 2009, his brand – and the brand of the Republican Party – was tarnished to say the least. Fresh off a stinging electoral rebuke of many of his policies, Bush left the presidency with a 40% favorable/59% unfavorable image. By March 2009, his image had worsened, falling to 35% favorable/63% unfavorable – only a net six points better than the worst favorability spread of his presidency in April 2008 (32% favorable/66% unfavorable).
Fast forward eight years and two presidencies: Bush’s image has undergone a remarkable transformation. Gallup’s June 2017 read puts Bush’s image at 59% favorable/37% unfavorable – an astonishing net 41-point shift. Ironically, the improvement in Bush’s image has been driven in large part by those who opposed him most bitterly throughout his presidency: Democrats. In March 2009, Democrats’ image of Bush was sour at just 10% favorable. Today, 41% of Democrats have a favorable image of the former president. The chart below details the slow but steady improvement in Bush’s favorability rating among all Americans – an improvement that crosses party lines.
Perhaps it isn’t too surprising that Bush’s image has been rehabilitated. Gallup notes that “Americans generally view former presidents positively”; indeed, this has been the case for presidents going back to Jimmy Carter (note: while Gallup has presidential approval ratings for those presidents who preceded Carter, it does not have favorable/unfavorable data for those presidents). Bush, it turns out, is no exception. Nevertheless, we would do well to recall the rancor over the Iraq War and the War on Terror generally, the administration’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina, and the collapse of the financial markets late in the president’s term: rightly or wrongly, Americans did not view Bush in a positive light.
All of which is to say that Bush’s numbers today represent an impressive turnaround, particularly given the partisan and polarized political times in which we live. Bush’s comeback might be attributed to many things – his avoiding the limelight since leaving office comes to mind. Whatever the reason, it’s easy to imagine President Bush enjoying retirement in Crawford and, upon seeing the positive trajectory of his favorability rating, perhaps thinking, “Mission Accomplished.”