Thursday’s dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas is sure to rekindle the debate over the former president’s place in history. Public opinion polls showed Bush was highly unpopular when he left office in 2009. Some recent surveys, though, suggest his approval rating is making a bit of a comeback.
Former president George W. Bush has always insisted he was never bothered by opinion polls and that history will be the final judge of his presidency.
At the dedication of his presidential library, Bush said he hoped his administration will one day be remembered for advocating the spread of freedom.
“The political winds blow left and right. Polls rise and fall. Supporters come and go. But in the end, leaders are defined by the convictions they hold,” he said.
Historians say it can be difficult for presidents to either escape the judgment of history or to try to alter it once they are out of office.
Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas and an expert on the presidency, said the former president faces some daunting challenges in trying to change the perception of his administration over time, especially when it comes to the war in Iraq.
“If Iraq becomes the flower of democracy that blooms 20, 30, 40 years from now and spreads to the rest of the Middle East, it’s very likely the president’s highly controversial decision to invade without provocation will be forgiven. Right now it would be hard to predict that with confidence or certainty,” said Buchanan.
When Bush left the White House in early 2009, his approval rating had dipped to 33 percent. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, however, found his approval had climbed to 47 percent, giving Bush supporters some hope that his image will improve over time.
Former presidents Harry Truman and Richard Nixon also left office under a political cloud. Truman was unpopular because of the Korean War. Nixon was forced to resign the presidency because of his involvement in the Watergate scandal.
Over time, Truman’s approval ratings improved, but that was not the case for Nixon.
Buchanan said George W. Bush is hoping his post-presidential popularity follows the Truman model.
“One of the things people seemed to like about President Bush is that he stayed out of the limelight. He didn’t get out there like Richard Nixon did and try to resurrect his own image. He left it to others,” he said.
Historian Richard Norton Smith said ex-presidents often become more popular over time, especially in the modern information age. He said that was not the case for many U.S. presidents in the country’s early years.
“Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers worries that former presidents would be like ghosts wandering around and haunting their successors with nothing particular to do. And the fact of the matter is that for the first 100 years or so of the republic, there was some truth to that,” said Smith.
In the modern era, former presidents like Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have dedicated themselves to public service. Hoover, for example, led the effort to combat starvation in Europe following World War II.
Buchanan said some of the presidents least successful in office were able to burnish their reputations by the work they did after they left the White House.
“Most of the books still being written about Carter are not very flattering in terms of their treatment of his presidency," he said. "But he’s increasingly regarded as the best ex-president in American history because of his good works.”
President Barack Obama attended the Bush Library dedication and it’s possible he took a few mental notes. Obama is barred by the Constitution from seeking a third term and is slated to join the ‘ex-presidents club’ when he finishes his second term in January 2017.