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It's become an article of faith for many Democrats that the presidency of George W. Bush was a failure. That kind of opinion is beyond the scope of the Truth-O-Meter, but we do feel comfortable assessing something more concrete: measuring how Bush fared in public opinion polls.
In a March 7, 2010, opinion column, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank took a critical -- and in some cases, rather harsh -- look at the new memoir by Karl Rove called Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight.
In his column, Milbank writes that before the former Bush adviser published his book, he had "2 1/2 years to reflect on what turned Bush into the least popular president in modern history."
We thought it worth checking whether Milbank was correct that George W. Bush was "the least popular president in modern history."
We will start by raising a caveat. Milbank's exact words were that Bush was "the least popular president in modern history." There's no direct scientific measurement of popularity, but the polling industry offers two barometers that come close: presidential approval ratings and presidential favorability.
Approval ratings are based on how well poll respondents rate the job someone is doing as president ("Do you approve or disapprove of the job the president is doing?"). By contrast, favorability questions are more broad. They usually ask whether the respondent feels favorably or unfavorably toward the president. (Pollsters call the two numbers the "fave/unfave"). Favorability is not strictly about someone's job performance, though that certainly plays a role in most people's assessments; rather, it's about how they feel generally toward the person.
The differences between these two measures are not trivial. President Bill Clinton famously recorded strong job-approval ratings even as his personal popularity sagged during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The opposite seems to be happening with President Barack Obama, who has maintained relatively robust favorability rankings even as his job approval numbers have sunk.
However you decide this question, most polling experts agree that Gallup offers the best source material to test Milbank's claim, since it offers both the longest-running data set (going as far back as Harry Truman for approval rating) and the most consistent wording.
One drawback: Gallup only began asking regular favorability questions in 1992, the final year of George H.W. Bush's presidency. The company continued through the presidencies of Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.
Here's how Bush stacked up:
Measured on favorability, Bush did indeed record the lowest numbers of the four presidents studied. His father George H.W. Bush never fell below 38 percent favorability, Clinton never fell below 42 percent, and Obama has not yet fallen below 55 percent. But George W. Bush recorded a low of 32 percent.
That bolsters Milbank's point, but it's a narrow field. It only compares Bush against the full term of one other president -- Clinton -- and brief portions of two others. And besides, it's hard to argue that the "modern" presidential era, to use Milbank's term, began in 1992.
Polling experts told us job approval is a better measure. That allows us to compare Bush against nine of his predecessors and Obama.
But there are several ways to slice the data:
• Average job-approval rating. On this one, George W. Bush ranks in the bottom half of the table, but well above the bottom. With an average job-approval rating of 49.4 percent, Bush ranked below John F. Kennedy (70.1 percent), Dwight Eisenhower (65.0), George H.W. Bush (60.9), Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton (tied at 55.1) and Ronald Reagan (52.8). But Bush ranked ahead of Richard Nixon (49.0), Gerald Ford (47.2), Jimmy Carter (45.5) and Truman (45.4). (We're not counting Obama in this category because of his short tenure.)
So by this measure, Bush was not the least popular modern president.
• Final job approval rating. Measured by final job-approval rating just before they left office, Bush ranks low, but -- once again -- not the lowest in the "modern era." He ranks behind Clinton (66 percent), Reagan (63), Eisenhower (59), Kennedy (58), George H.W. Bush (56), Ford (53) and Johnson (49). But Bush is tied with Carter at 34 percent, and ranks ahead of Truman at 32 percent and Nixon at 24 percent. (Here too, we won't count Obama because he's in the midst of his term.)
By this measure, too, Bush was not the least popular modern president.
• Lowest job approval rating at any point. By this measure, Bush -- who bottomed out at 25 percent approval -- comes close to ranking the lowest. His worst rating is lower than those of nine presidents (including Obama) and is narrowly ahead of two others.
In descending order, the low scores run from a high of 56 percent (Kennedy), through Eisenhower (48), Obama (47), Ford and Clinton (37 each), Johnson (35), Reagan (35), George H.W. Bush (29) and Carter (28). Bush's score ranked slightly ahead of Nixon at 24 percent and Truman at 22 percent.
We asked Gallup spokesman Eric Nielsen whether there was any practical difference between Bush's 25 percent, Nixon's 24 percent and Truman's 22 percent. He noted that most of these polls have an error margin of plus or minus 3 percent, which suggested to him that these three low scores are close enough to be statistically tied. So even though Bush's worst number isn't technically the lowest of the bunch, it's close enough that we can't say for sure that it's not the lowest.
• Highest presidential disapproval ratings. Gallup doesn't post a summary of highest disapproval ratings on its Web site, but Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) and co-founder of the Web site Pollster.com, told PolitiFact that only four presidents have registered disapproval ratings north of 60 percent.
George H.W. Bush peaked at 60 percent disapproval in Gallup's polls. Nixon peaked at 66 percent. Truman peaked at 67 percent. And George W. Bush peaked at ... 71 percent -- easily the highest on record.
So measured by highest disapproval ratings, Milbank would be right.
The results, then, are a mixed bag.
We can't use the favorability rating because it only goes back to 1992. As for job approval, two of the three measures show that Bush was definitely not the least popular president. In the third, it was a statistical tie for the bottom spot. The only way Bush is the clearly the least popular is when measured by disapproval ratings. So we rate Milbank's claim Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.
Dana Milbank, "Karl Rove sets the record straight -- sort of" (Washington Post opinion column), March 7, 2010
Gallup, "Historical Presidential Job Approval Statistics" (summary page), accessed March 8, 2010
Gallup, "Favorability: People in the News" (summary page), accessed March 8, 2010
Gallup, "Gallup Daily: Obama Job Approval" (summary page), accessed March 8, 2010
USAToday, "Presidential Approval Tracker" (interactive graphic), current through July 20, 2009
Karl Rove, Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, published 2010
Charles Franklin, "Approval at new low -- for President Truman" (blog post), July 2, 2006
E-mail interview with Eric Nielsen, spokesman for Gallup, March 8, 2010
E-mail interview with Mark Blumenthal, editor of pollster.com, March 8, 2010
E-mail interview with Charles Franklin, political scientist at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) and co-founder of pollster.com, March 8, 2010
E-mail interview with Karlyn Bowman, polling analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, March 8, 2010
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