Wow. A reputable poll shows that the public believes Barack Obama is the worst president since World War II. Worse than Richard M. Nixon, driven from the presidency by Watergate? Much. Worse than Jimmy Carter, for decades the very symbol of the feckless chief executive? Loads. Worse than George W. Bush, still a lightning rod on the left and a symbol of disappointment on the right? Definitely.
These startling poll results set loose the predictable reaction: A flurry of told-you-so nods on the right and a fusillade of this-tells-us-nothing assertions on the left. For once, they’re both right.
Mr. Obama is in trouble, no matter how carefully you peel through the Quinnipiac University Poll that is causing such a firestorm. There’s almost no good news there, or anywhere else, for the president. Then again, this worst-president poll shed little light. Almost every veteran observer of polls and presidents will likely attest to that.
First, the trouble. Mr. Obama has it, in several dimensions. The public is split evenly — 48 percent to 48 percent — on whether the president is honest and trustworthy. It’s split fairly evenly on whether he has strong leadership qualities, with a slight advantage to those who think he doesn’t. The same for whether the president cares about “people like you,” with the same slight advantage this time to the president.
Here’s the big one. By a fairly substantial margin (45 percent to 38 percent), the public believes the nation would be better off had former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts been elected two years ago rather than Mr. Obama.
No one can possibly argue that these figures are good news for the president, who is dealing with an immigration crisis at the Mexican border, a crumbling Iraq, an uncertain Afghanistan and an economy that hasn’t bounced back fully. How Barack Obama, employing the idiom of hope and change, would love to run against an incumbent president with a portfolio like that!
Now, the sobering bucket of cold water for the Obama critics. With the exception of three occupants of the White House (all war presidents), presidents tend to grow in stature as their administrations grow more distant in the rear-view mirror. The exceptions, according to the Gallup Organization figures in The New Republic, are three of the most beleaguered modern presidents: Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam), Nixon (Vietnam) and George W. Bush (Iraq and Afghanistan).
Foreign crisis doesn’t assure that phenomenon, however. Jimmy Carter is rated substantially more favorably today than he was when he was in office, and he dealt with a hostage crisis in Iran that persisted for 444 days and, arguably, doomed his presidency. George H.W. Bush is also more favorably regarded today than he was while in office, and he was a war president (Desert Storm).
The canary of caution in this political coal mine is the poll rating for Harry Truman, who left office with a 32 percent approval rating — and a 56 percent disapproval rating, according to Gallup. That represented, by the way, a substantial improvement from his ratings (23 percent approval, 67 percent disapproval) a year earlier, just before Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee upset Truman in the New Hampshire primary and prompted the president’s withdrawal from the 1952 race.
But a country that was, as the phrase went, mild about Harry and had concluded, as another aphorism of the time put it, that to err was Truman, changed its mind, albeit slowly.
One of the signposts along that journey was Merle Miller’s “Plain Speaking,” an oral biography of the 33rd president that emphasized his down-home attitudes and attributes, a marked contrast at the time of its publication (1974) with Nixon, who resigned that year. Indeed, it is instructive to realize that “Plain Speaking” reached booksellers’ shelves just a year after Arthur M. Schlesinger published his “The Imperial Presidency,” aimed in large measure at Nixon.
Truman’s revival was sealed less than two decades later when the historian David McCullough published his Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of the man whose home town of Independence seemed to be a description of his character. Suddenly Truman, regarded as an accidental president who was also accident-prone, took on a heroic aura, one that persists to this day.
In the Quinnipiac survey, zero percent of Americans singled out Truman as the worst of the last dozen presidents. That figure applies to Republicans as well as Democrats.
Now have a look at George H. W. Bush, who was soundly defeated for re-election only 22 years ago, dismissed as a fusty symbol of the past and considered out of touch with the public, a hopeless elitist with an awkward bedside manner. This summer, Mr. Bush, at 90 a beloved figure and an unassailable symbol of American prudence, wisdom and grace, was considered the worst president by only 2 percent.
The same phenomenon applies to the man who defeated him in 1992, Bill Clinton, who left office with unusually high ratings for a president who had been impeached. Eight years ago, 16 percent of those surveyed considered him the worst president. This summer, only 3 percent do.
One final example: Dwight Eisenhower, regarded as a duffer at his departure from the White House, so much so that John F. Kennedy, who tried to make vigor a qualification for leadership, used Eisenhower as a foil. Today, only 1 percent of Americans surveyed consider Eisenhower the worst president. The revival of his reputation was begun by Fred I. Greenstein’s “The Hidden-Hand Presidency” — and by the realization that, aside from wrapping up the Korean War, which he inherited, he sent few Americans into combat during his two terms in office.
The message here is not that Mr. Obama isn’t troubled as he rounds the clubhouse curve and heads toward his seventh year in office. It is that Americans’ judgments aren’t final.
“I knew from the bitter experience of all public men from Washington on down, that democracies are fickle and heartless, for democracy is a harsh employer,” said the 31st president after he was defeated for re-election. Herbert Hoover, who lost the 1932 presidential race to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is still waiting for redemption. But most of his successors have won it. So, too, might George W. Bush and Barack Obama — both hired twice by the country’s harshest employers.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890).