Tom Foreman | Bio
There is something dazzling about a president on the rise, settling into the steady rhythm of power, stress, deal making, and neck-breaking. And when 70 percent of the populace approves of how the job is being done, well that’s a long ball down the short grass. And that was the story for the first President George Bush, the most popular president of the past three decades…uh, at least when they are measured five months into their first term. More on that in a bit.
Much has been made about the overwhelming public approval of President Barack Obama, and he is the king of the political hill: Charismatic, athletic, a quick thinker, a skilled writer, with a dazzling smile and a lovely family. That’s pretty much like going platinum in DC-land.
But based on the most recent “Poll of Polls,” a compendium of top public opinion surveys, Mr. Obama, with 60 percent approval, lags a full 10 percent behind the first Mr. Bush for the same period in their presidencies. Surprised? So was I. When it comes to popular politicians, it seems our memories are tres short (as the French say) and screamingly selective.
Ronald Reagan is hailed as one of the most influential presidents of our time. (Some Republicans, I am told, actually saw him walk across the reflecting pool one night.) His approval rating in his fifth month in office was 59 percent; about the same as Mr. Obama’s.
Bill Clinton, however, did not do nearly as well. Despite having ambitious legislative plans when he arrived in the Oval Office, he also put his wife in charge of health care reform, saw the first attack on the World Trade Center, and the disastrous raid in Waco. Result: 39 percent approval in his fifth month.
That’s in the ballpark of where the 2nd George Bush ended his presidency, although we should note that in his fifth month, long before the wheels came off, President GWB was doing just fine: 55 percent approval.
The point is, the popularity of a president this early in the game means little, unless he can translate it into success for the programs he is pushing. Reagan was popular, stayed that way, and left that way. Clinton was in deep trouble, rose, and exited with historically high support. The last George Bush started strong, ascended to nose-bleed heights after 9/11, and yet packed up his bowling trophies with ratings in the basement.
And the first President Bush we started off by talking about? Best start for any of the past five presidents, but didn’t even win re-election. It’s been said before: the times make the president, not the other way around.
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