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Bush v. Obama

A study in contrasts.

May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By FRED BARNES
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The Bush numbers may not seem worth bragging about—until you take into account where they were when he left office. In October 2008, his favorability was 25 percent (Fox), 23 percent (Post-ABC).

That Bush has stayed out of politics since he left office is likely to have improved his popularity. “That rise is exactly what one would expect, based on the history of other ex-presidents’ approval ratings,” David Leonhardt wrote in the New York Times. With his impressive museum and a spate of sympathetic reappraisals of his presidency, Bush’s rating may keep rising.

Bush has a theory about presidential museums: They won’t succeed if they’re entirely about the president. “The first challenge is not only to be relevant, but to be long lasting,” he told me in a recent interview. “If you make it about an individual, it won’t be long lasting. The individual will fade, will die, go away. History will slowly focus on the next group of presidents.”

To avoid this, the Bush Center has its own think tank, the George W. Bush Institute. Bush calls it a “do tank.” Its aim is not to produce academic studies or policy reports but to achieve tangible results in six areas: economic growth, spreading democracy, women’s rights, veterans, global health, and education reform.

Bush says he’s “hands-on” in developing the institute’s programs. “We hire good people, set the strategic agenda, and pay attention to what they’re doing,” he says. Then it’s appropriate for him to “butt out so they can get their work done.”

Bush says he doesn’t fret over how he’ll fare in history. But his standing is likely to improve with time. “The worse a president’s reputation when he leaves office, the better chance there is for revision,” University of Texas historian H. W. Brands told the Washington Post’s Dan Balz. “Every so often there’s a new generation of historians and they have to come along and challenge the conventional wisdom.” When that occurs, Bush is bound to soar.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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