History's view of George W. Bush will be harsh, Americans predict.The judgement of the younger Bush will mellow as well. This poll is way too partisan to be meaningful. President Carter's presidency is widely considered one of the worst of the late-20th century. The Camp David Accords were the highlight of his adminstration, but he floundered on the economy and the Iranian hostage crisis. President Reagan was despised by liberal Democrats in the 1980s, and this poll has him first among recent presidents.
In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday, a 54% majority says Bush will be judged as a below-average or poor president, more than double the negative rating given any of his five most recent predecessors.
Just 19% expect him to be seen as outstanding or above average, placing him last among the six. Bush, re-elected in 2004, now trails three presidents who were rejected by voters when they sought second or full terms, including his father, George H.W. Bush.
"The public sees this war in Iraq as a failure, and that's at the center of it," says Robert Dallek, a presidential biographer and author of Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents.
Criticized for the war and the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush "has lost his credibility," Dallek says, "and you can't govern when people don't trust you."
"Presidents are often viewed very differently by history than they are by their contemporaries," counters White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. "While the president is aware of the polls and recognizes there's a call for a change in direction in Iraq, he will continue to make decisions as commander in chief that he believes are in the best interest of the citizens he swore to protect."
Rated most highly: Ronald Reagan, seen as outstanding or above average by 64%, below average or poor by 10%.
Bill Clinton ranks second; 45% say he will go down in history as an outstanding or above-average president. He is followed by Jimmy Carter, the elder Bush and Gerald Ford.
Ford's positive rating is 23%, only slightly better than the current president. However, just 12% give Ford a negative rating, less than one-fourth of that given Bush.
That may reflect today's polarized politics. Half of Democrats but just 3% of Republicans say Bush will be seen as a poor president. Ten percent of Republicans but just 1% of Democrats predict he will be judged outstanding.
Overall, Republicans rate Bush third, below Reagan and the elder Bush but above Ford and the two Democrats. They rank Clinton last.
Democrats rank Clinton first and Carter second, followed by Reagan, Ford and the elder Bush. The current president is last.
The telephone poll of 1,009 adults has a margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.
Predictions of Bush's standing in history are much more negative than they were about two years ago. The proportion who rate him positively has dropped by a third. Those who give him the lowest rating has doubled.
Near this point in their second terms, Reagan was seen as an outstanding or above-average president by 62%, Clinton by 36%.
The passage of time could boost Bush.
"Things change," says Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton. "Presidents who were viewed as failures become lionized and presidents who were idealized at one point in time become marginalized."
Consider Carter. When he lost his bid for a second term in 1980, 14% called him above average or outstanding; 46% called him below average or poor.
Judgments have mellowed since then. Now 38% rate Carter positively, 22% negatively.
I predict that President Bush will rise to near-great stature in the decades ahead. Iraq is dragging him down, but it's still early in the consolidation of the Iraqi regime, as well as the war on terror, which is akin to the Cold War. When President Truman left office his ratings were among the lowest on record. Truman's now considered a top-ten American president. A similar historical recovery will take place with the Bush legacy. I blogged about a Bush historical comeback earlier this year.