Who is more popular: Barack Obama or George W. Bush? Turns out the answer isn't as clear as partisans on either side would have you think.
A Gallup Poll finding that Bush now had a net-positive approval rating, with 49 percent of respondents seeing him "favorably" and 46 percent disagreeing, has conservative websites such as the Drudge Report and Breitbart crowing that the 43rd president is "more popular" than the current one. As the conservative blog Scared Monkeys put it: "With the current state of affairs with the numerous scandals in the Obama administration, a continued poor economy, record number of Americans on Food Stamps, median household income down, and a Middle East that is on fire many Americans probably will pose the question to themselves, 'Miss Me Yet?' "
"Conservatives are conflating favorability rating with job approval rating," counters Mediaite's Noah Rothman. "Obama’s job approval rating, as measured by Gallup’s tracker, was last pegged at 47 percent approve and 44 percent disapprove … Gallup does not test the president’s favorably rating regularly, but the last time they did (April 11–14, 2013) they found Obama with a 55 to 43 percent personal favorability rating."
True, a Gallup apples-to-apples comparison puts Obama in the more flattering light, as does a Bloomberg National Poll conducted from May 31 to June 3, in which 53 percent of respondents had a net favorable opinion of the president, while 44 percent viewed him unfavorably. Yet a Quinnipiac poll released May 30 had Obama in negative territory, with 49 percent unfavorable and 48 percent favorable.
What, if anything, are we to make of this? First, that favorability polling during the doldrums between election cycles is a pretty patchy proposition. Second, that Bush is of course a beneficiary of Americans' tendency to see ex-presidents with rose-colored glasses: Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were all above 60 percent when last polled by Gallup. (This impulse to let bygones be bygones may have gone too far with the National Father's Day Committee's decision to give Clinton its Fathers of the Year Award.)
Still, Bush's rise is striking considering just how unpopular he was when he left office: In April 2008, his favorable rating was just 32 percent. And it may have actual significance: Jeb Bush's presidential aspirations no doubt hinge on minimizing the downward drag of his brother's favorability. The latest Quinnipiac data found that fully 42 percent of respondents have yet to form an opinion of the former Florida governor, with the remainder evenly split between positive and negative. Nonetheless, he trailed Hillary Clinton in a hypothetical presidential contest by only eight points. That big brother might not be so heavy after all.
(Tobin Harshaw writes editorials for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)