As political pundits put their spin on the Bush legacy and begin their analysis of the Obama Presidency, we wanted to take a quick moment to debunk two myths: first, that Bush's Presidency was largely viewed as an unfavorable one by the electorate and second, that Bush presided over an abnormally long period of voter dissatisfaction with the direction of the country. Neither is true and here is why.
This is truly a tale of two Presidencies. Bush's first term is markedly different from his second. Of course, the Iraq war dominated public discourse during both terms and its duration--along with the perception that the war was both poorly conducted and possibly unnecessary--led to an erosion in Bush's favorability. While his rating dropped significantly from 9/11 onward, it was at or above 60% for two years and then hovered around 50% for the balance of his first term (his numbers dropped into the high 40's at the end of 2004 but rebounded after his re-election into the low to mid 50s). His average favorability rating for the first 4 and ½ years of his Presidency--from January of 2001 through August of 2005--was a remarkably high 60%.
Then came Katrina. As we have said before, Katrina was debilitating for Bush's image, his ability to persuade the electorate and, ultimately, his ability to govern. It cut the political legs right out from under him. The chart below tells the whole story.
Bush never recovered from Katrina. Of course the war and other factors contributed to his increasing unfavorable numbers but it was voter perceptions of his performance regarding Katrina that sealed his image in his second term. Up until that point, while voters may have disapproved of his policies and the execution of the war, a majority still thought he was a caring President trying to do the right thing. That leg of the stool collapsed after Katrina.
Of course the financial and economic crisis has put an exclamation point on the period since Katrina but it really did not increase Bush's unfavorable rating. In a sense, he had hit bottom long before that. Bush's favorability rating during the post-Katrina period (September of 2005 through January of 2009) was 35%. The difference between the two periods is -25, an astounding drop from one time frame to another. Bush's Presidency can be broken into two distinct periods: one in which he was largely viewed in a favorable light and one in which he was seen unfavorably.
The Direction of the Country and Voter Dissatisfaction
The last five years have been one of the most protracted periods of voter dissatisfaction since Watergate. That much is true. However, long periods of voter dissatisfaction are the norm. When we looked at results to the "right direction/wrong track" question since 1972 we see that those 36 years have been marked roughly by three extended periods of "wrong track" attitudes: 1972-1983, 1987-1997 and 2003-2008. During those periods there were times when right direction approached or reached 50% (1989 in particular) but the prevailing sentiment during these periods was that the country was off on the wrong track.
Note that in only eight of the last 36 years has the public believed that the country was going in the "right direction." These included the years from 1984-1986 which marked Reagan's landslide re-election through the start of his second term to the mid-term elections, and the heart of the recent economic boom from 1997 through 2002. Stunningly, the average of the annual average over the last 36 years is 36% right direction and 52% wrong track.
Voter dissatisfaction with the direction of the country has become the norm. When "right direction" exceeds "wrong track" - it will be truly unusual.