Former President George W. Bush is in the political wilderness no more. Not only is the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum being dedicated today—with President Barack Obama and ex-Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton in attendance. But Bush’s rehabilitation from years of unpopularity is beginning to take hold.
The 23-acre Bush facility, privately built at a cost of $250 million, sits on the campus of Southern Methodist University, 15 acres of which consists of Texas prairie planted with native trees, bushes, and grasses. The museum represents Bush’s take on his presidency, bad moments included, and houses such artifacts as Saddam Hussein’s gun when he was captured and a 17-foot beam from the Twin Towers bent by the impact of the plane that hit it on September 11, 2001.
When different polls tell the same story—in this case, that Bush is nearly as popular today as Obama—they’re likely to be accurate. A Fox News poll now puts Bush’s favorability at 49 percent, Obama’s at 52 percent. A Washington Post-ABC News poll has Bush at 47 percent, Obama at 49 percent.
Those aren’t particularly impressive poll numbers until you take into account where Bush’s approval rating was around the time he left office after eight years in the White House. In October 2008, his favorability was 25 percent (Fox), 23 percent (Post-ABC).
Bush’s historical standing may improve as well. “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 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.” At the moment, the conventional wisdom on Bush is negative, unfairly so.
What’s behind Bush’s current surge in popularity? The fact that Bush has stayed out of politics and never criticized his successor, Obama, is likely to have helped. And the cliché that distance makes the heart grow fonder may apply.
But there’s another factor: the contrast between Bush’s presidential performance and Obama’s. Bush hasn’t drawn this contrast, but it’s often implicit, perhaps unintentionally, in his defense of the administration on issue after issue.
Take Bush’s efforts to combat terrorism. After the surprise of 9/11, the country suffered no terrorist attacks on American soil during Bush’s presidency. In a recent interview, Bush referred to this as “one accomplishment.” He said historians will have to assess whether there were serious threats his administration had thwarted.
“As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11,” Bush said in his farewell address in January 2009. “But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation. I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe.”
Contrast Bush’s record with Obama’s. Last week, with a Department of Homeland Security now in place, terrorist bombs killed three people and wounded more than 200 in Boston. Earlier, would-be bombers fumbled attempts to blow up Times Square in New York and an airliner in Detroit. Those attacks weren’t thwarted. They were botched. So we were lucky. Obama, by the way, often reads an intelligence report rather than listening first-hand to a daily intelligence briefing.
Bush worries that 9/11 “has become just a day on the calendar. But for those of us who went through it, it was an unbelievably meaningful moment.” He said that when he took a family through the new museum with its sharp focus on 9/11, the young people showed no emotion. He was disappointed.
Consider the budget and government finances. In the interview, Bush didn’t cite a contrast with Obama, but he made one point passionately: “Just look at the record of the Bush administration in terms of deficits to GDP, debt to GDP, taxes to GDP, and spending to GDP, in spite of the fact that we fought a war that was expensive and changed the dynamics of protecting the homeland, which was expensive, and it worked.”
With deficits of $1 trillion or more, Obama falls short of Bush. On all four of Bush’s ratios to GDP, Obama hasn’t come close. But, again, Bush has never made this comparison, directly or otherwise.
Bush is sensitive to being called a big spender. He’s not, Bush says, “relative to other presidents. Debt to GDP was about the same as Reagan, but lower than Clinton or Bush (his father).” He didn’t mention Obama, appearing to go out of his way not to.
Besides the museum, Bush has created an institute, headed by James Glassman, a former journalist and State Department official. It’s a think tank that Bush refers to as a “do tank.” That’s because its aim is not to produce studies or reports but to achieve tangible results in its six areas of concentration: global health, veterans, women’s rights, economic growth, education reform, spreading democracy.
The institute has already trained women to organize a network in Egypt. Bush explained the goal this way: “As Egypt changes, and as Egypt threatens, or as Egypt gets violent, there will be a women’s network that will enable these women to remain emboldened and to demand their rightful place and to help develop civil society so that this young democracy will emerge as stable platform for peace in the Middle East.”
Bush describes his own role as “hands on.” When programs are being implemented, “I am aware of the developments. I am not involved in a lot of planning meetings. We hire good people, set the strategic agenda, and pay attention to what they’re doing.” At that point, Bush told me, it’s time for him to “butt out so they can get their work done.”