George W. Bush is popular again.
According to a new poll from CNN, the majority of Americans—52 percent—have a “favorable” view of Bush, versus 43 percent who still aren’t keen on the former president. And while he isn’t as popular as his post-presidential peers—including his father—he’s in far better shape than he was during his final days in office, when most Americans disliked and disapproved of his administration.
But more striking than this is his stature versus the current president, Barack Obama. In addition to their survey on Bush, CNN also finds that the 43rd president is more popular than the 44th, who is as liked (49 percent approval) as he is disliked (49 percent disapproval).
Conservatives, no surprise, are thrilled. But before touting these numbers as proof of Bush’s ultimate success—and Obama’s clear failure—they should consider this fact of public opinion: Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson aside, every president becomes popular, or at least more popular, out of office. Jimmy Carter was so unpopular he faced a powerful Democratic opponent to his re-election campaign and lost the general election in a popular and electoral vote landslide. But 35 years later, his favorable/unfavorable spread is also better than Obama’s. The other one-term president of the past generation, George H.W. Bush, has also recovered from his prior unpopularity. On the eve of the 1992 election, his approval rating was 43 percent. Today, 63 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the elder Bush, versus 31 percent who still aren’t convinced. Likewise, Bill Clinton was popular throughout his eight years—with an average approval rating of 55 percent—and has become more popular as his tenure has moved to memory. According to Gallup, he has an average post-presidential rating of 60 percent.
Put bluntly, George W. Bush’s popularity isn’t news, although it would be if, after seven years of a quiet post-presidency, Bush was still as hated as he was at the end of 2008.
With that said, what’s striking about the rehabilitation of Bush is that it’s concurrent with Hillary Clinton’s return from the stratosphere of public opinion. At this time four years ago—when she was chief diplomat and the 2012 election was still in the distance—Clinton was among the most popular figures in the country with a favorable rating of 60 percent. Indeed, just 31 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of her. She was less popular in 2012, but not by much; the atmosphere was partisan, but not so much that it hurt her standing.
That changed in 2013, as she slid from a 56 percent favorability rating in January to 48 percent one in December. And her numbers fell further in 2014, from a high of 50 percent to just under 47 percent at the end of the year. Her recent decline—as well as her higher unfavorables—are part of the same trend. Through 2012, less than one-third of respondents had a poor view of Hillary Clinton. By last month, the anti-Hillary crowd had grown to almost 47 percent of Americans, inching out her supporters.
For the media, this reflects scandal. Between the email controversy, foreign donors, and the Clinton Foundation, the public is already weary from Hillary’s baggage. At the same time, those are relatively young stories—they’ve only been in the news a few months. If you want to understand the broad trend of Clinton’s decline, you have to look at her position: She was outside of politics.
By leaving domestic politics after the 2008 election, Clinton entered a sort of post-presidency, not dissimilar to Bill Clinton’s or even George W. Bush’s. In public life, but out of the spotlight, she was no longer a partisan figure, which—for Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike—made her palatable. She wasn’t, to borrow from the New Republic’s Rebecca Traister, asking for anything.
Now she is. And as she’s gone from a potential candidate to a live one, her popularity has climbed down from the stratosphere. Now, she’s back to where she was in 2007—a well-known and polarized politician with tremendous opposition on the right and substantial support on the left. Like Bush, her journey through public opinion has less to do with her and everything to do with her place in the political firmament.
There is one difference. When he left office, Bush was genuinely unpopular, so much so that—four years later—a majority of voters still blamed him for the country’s poor economic conditions. For as much as Republicans might celebrate his present standing, I’d be shocked if they asked him to campaign for the eventual nominee. Americans have warm feelings for the former president, but that sentiment wouldn’t survive the scrutiny of a campaign.
Clinton didn’t leave on a high, but she didn’t leave on a low either. When Obama claimed victory in the Democratic primary, 48 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Clinton. Which means that, with her current ratings, she’s returned to her norm as a partisan figure. And it’s a good one. By 2009, that 48 percent had become 50 percent as Democrats forgave and forgot the combat of the previous year. In the same way, the secret of her present decline is that it’s driven by Democrats, who will return to the “team” as the country enters election season. Despite everything, Hillary is in good shape.
If you aren’t convinced, consider the reverse scenario. Imagine that the Republican Party had a former senator turned presidential candidate turned secretary of state, who at worst pulled a plurality of all voters, and who at best pulled a firm majority. Would the GOP reject her, or would they immediately embrace her standard, confident that—even with the inevitable scandals and criticism—they’re still positioned for victory.