On January 27, 2018, a familiar comedian (and one of his trademark characters) returned to New York to host “Saturday Night Live.” Will Ferrell, and his bro-type rendition of 43rd President, George W. Bush, returned to the stage for an opening “Saturday Night Live” skit. He reminded us that things were “really bad” during his time in office from 2001–2009, which is at least partially true. He also quipped, “I’m looking pretty sweet,” and added, “I might even end up on Mount Rushmore, right next to Washington, Lincoln, and I want to say, uh… Kensington?”

Ferrell’s skit references an SSRS poll that found 61% of Americans now give George W. Bush a favorable rating. To put that in perspective, consider that a Gallup poll had Bush’s average approval rating at 49% during his time in office, and a CBS/New York Times poll had him at 22% approval rating during the last month of his administration. Bush has largely stayed out of the public spotlight since he left office. Maybe that’s what made people changed their mind. But if not… what the heck changed?

President-Gerald-Ford-President-Jimmy-Carter-President-Ronald-Reagan-President-George-H-W-Bush-President-Richard-Nixon
Wikimedia Commons – From left to right: President Gerald Ford, President Jimmy Carter, President Ronald Reagan, President George H. W. Bush, and President Richard Nixon.

Well, to be sure, this is not the first time this sort of opinion reversal has happened to an unpopular president. “Sentiment becomes more charitable after their presidencies,” says Professor Margaret O’Mara of the University of Washington. “Once they’re not in charge anymore, generally, their approval picks up.” Professor O’Mara knows all about presidential legacies and how they change over time. She teaches a presidential history course and worked in the Clinton administration between 1992–1997. Some of her insights might explain this shift in Bush’s popularity. She’s boiled it down to factors such as lasting policy decisions, nostalgia and the current political climate.

“Nixon for example, resigned in disgrace,” continues O’Mara. “He never fully rehabilitated. But by the time of his death, he received a proper presidential funeral, and there’s been a reassessment of his foreign policy and his accomplishments.” President Nixon averaged a high approval rating and won his elections by margins that President Bush could only dream of, but scandal ruined his presidency — for a time.

Another president whose legacy took a 180 after he left office was President Johnson. Johnson won his presidential election by one of the widest margins in history. His Great Society campaign was wildly popular. However, he’ll never escape the stigma of leading the United States into the quagmire that became the Vietnam War. Even today, when we look at his policies and what’s still around, it’s glaring. “Johnson passed Medicare and Medicaid,” Professor O’Mara reminds us. “That has an impact on the way the economy and our lives work today. FDR’s New Deal and remaking of the monetary system and social welfare also show us that policy really matters. But personality is what we remember.”

Personality is indeed important, and it shouldn’t be lost on folks that President Bush’s boyish charm was endearing to a lot of people. As Professor O’Mara previously pointed out, sentiment changes after presidents are out of office. That can obviously go one of two ways. For most presidents, they become more popular. Looking at the only two full, one-term presidents since 1932 (there were two other presidents with incomplete terms), we find ourselves examining Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush. “One-term presidents have a hard time ranking high in these assessments,” O’Mara explains. “There’s just simply not a lot of time to get their policies to stick. But Carter and H. W. have had these presidential afterlives as statesmen that have rehabilitated any opinion of them being ineffective — their political afterlife has been quite positive.”

She’s not kidding. Carter had a dismal 34% approval rating when he left office in 1980. Twenty years later, he shot up to 66%. Likewise for George H. W. Bush, who only received 37% of the popular vote in 1992, but his approval rating was 64% in a poll taken in 2018. This likely has to do with the incredible humanitarian work both men have done since they left the Oval Office. Carter established the Carter Center in 1982 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. George Bush Sr. mostly concerned himself with his sons Jeb and George’s political campaigns, and he teamed up with President Clinton to raise money and awareness for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

President Clinton has done a lot of humanitarian work since he left office. While he was a decidedly popular president, he has not enjoyed the same nostalgia as many of his predecessors. “He never left the political game,” O’Mara says. “One thing that’s very interesting about when presidents leave office is they have this statesman side, but then this money-making side also, as they know they’re not running for office again. Clinton made a lot of money… It was hubris, it was out of touch, and [he and Hilary] paid the price.”

Not to mention the fact that the current political climate has us cringing when we look back at President Clinton’s time in office. With the advent of the #MeToo era, the scandals that shook the White House during his presidency are looked at with new eyes. This case is indicative of the effect of the changing face of politics. “Bush has had a popularity surge because of the drama of politics the past two years,” O’Mara reminds us. “This has overshadowed the great drama and polarization that accompanied his terms, particularly the last years he was in office.”

President-Bill-Clinton-President-George-H-W-Bush-President-Jimmy-Carter
Wikimedia Commons – From left to right: President Bill Clinton was popular in office and less popular now, while President George H. W. Bush and President Jimmy Carter have enjoyed favorable post-president ratings.

This helps explain Bush’s shift a great deal, and we must applaud Will Ferrell for hitting the nail on the head when he said, “Donnie Q. Trump came in and, all the sudden, I’m looking pretty sweet by comparison… I’m suddenly popular A-F.” He can remind us all he wants about the bad things that happened while he was in office, but right now, it matters very little. “Give it more time,” O’Mara says. “The only way to properly evaluate a legacy is to let things settle, then look back.” In other words, history may indeed judge President Bush kindly in the end, but it’s far too early to tell. “For the long term view, you need at least a quarter century — and often times longer — to decide where he falls.”

There’s also many factors that we just can’t see coming. The face of politics and the role of the president changes all the time. O’Mara explains that the criteria for judging presidential legacies, “…doesn’t change with one occupant, it changes over time.”

So I had to ask her: If there was one piece of advice she could give a president who’s concerned about their legacy while in office, what would it be?

“The patients ones and the brave ones are regarded as our greatest presidents. Abraham Lincoln bucked pressure and did the right things instead of the expedient things. You may not win political points in the short term, but what’s right in the long term may be what’s right for the country.” Only time will tell how we view President George W. Bush — or those who have taken his seat in the Oval Office since.