History May -- or May Not -- Judge Bush More Kindly
Although George W. Bush's approval ratings have rebounded slightly, as often happens at the end of a president's tenure, he will nevertheless finish his presidency with among the lowest scores since approval ratings came into widespread usage. Gallup pegs Bush's final approval numbers at a -27 net (34 percent approve, 61 percent disapprove), the worst for any outgoing president save Richard Nixon.
Surprisingly, however, there has historically been fairly little relationship between a President's popularity at the end of his term and the way that he has tended to be regarded by history. The following chart compares two things: a president's final net approval rating as measured by Gallup, and the average historical ranking of that president as assigned based on three recent polls of historians. (These were the polls conducted by CSPAN in 1999, by Siena College in 2002, and by the Wall Street Journal in 2005. The chart excludes Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, whose terms ended unnaturally.)
Although there is some correlation between the final Gallup numbers and the historians' views of each president, it is not very strong -- in fact, it is not at all statistically significant. The most obvious discrepancy is that of Harry S. Truman, who was extremely unpopular at the time he left office in a cloud of foreign entanglements and minor domestic scandals. Truman, however, is regarded very favorably by historians. The next-most striking disconnect is that of Gerald Ford, who was actually fairly popular for most of his presidency -- perhaps Americans were happy to have any alternative to Richard Nixon after Watergate -- but is not very well regarded by history. Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson have also worn a little better historically as compared with perceptions about them at the end of their terms....
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