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Barack Obama Revived George Bush's Popularity (But Not for the Reason You Think)

A piece of news this week seems to be vexing progressives enormously: George W. Bush is no longer as unpopular as he used to be.

Approval of the 43rd president’s handling of his job now stands at 47 percent. Fifty percent still disapprove, but there has been significant movement in Bush’s favor. When he left office, according to Gallup, a mere 34 percent approved and 61 percent disapproved. Bush’s all-time low was in the low 20s, which in Democrats’ view is more like it. Meanwhile, President Obama’s approval rating in the ABC/Washington Post was exactly the same as his predecessor’s, 47 percent. The most recent Gallup survey had Obama at 50 percent approval and 43 percent disapproving, which means Bush is definitely within the margin of error.

Jonathan Chait, author of the seminal Bush-hating article “Mad About You” in TNR in 2003, has stepped into the breach to reassure everyone that “Yes, George W. Bush Was a Terrible President, and No, He Wasn’t Smart.” No doubt more will follow, if for no other reason than that opportunities to do a full-dress recital of one’s Bush grievances don’t come along every day. But, comrades, the writing is on the wall: Bush will never again be as unpopular as he was when he left office.

Part of this is simply that at 34 percent, tied with Jimmy Carter upon his exit from office, Bush really had nowhere to go but up. Once presidents leave office, they generally cease to produce additional grievances with the American public and are passive in terms of people’s ability to sustain existing grievances.

But in Bush’s case, it’s quite possible that there’s a little more to this comeback than just the organic retrospective benevolence of the American people. It seems to me that the key agent of Bush’s comeback may well have been a certain Barack Obama.

No, that’s not because I am claiming that Obama makes Bush look good by comparison, a popular line on the right these days. The people who think that probably made up the ranks of the 34 percent of Bush-approvers in January 2009.

The point is that Obama, in ending the Iraq war and in setting Afghanistan on a path toward U.S. withdrawal in 2014, has removed two key sources of ongoing vexation with Bush. Additional combat fatalities after January 2009 were still on Bush’s account. Most Americans concluded a while ago that the Iraq war was a mistake; they weren’t willing to hold Bush personally responsible for taking the country to war on the basis of mistaken intelligence by voting him out in 2004, but their disapproval of the enterprise has been heartfelt. Obama has made it no longer an ongoing grievance.

Afghanistan has always been more of a mixed bag because so many Democrats, Obama included during the 2008 campaign, thought it was the right war for the country to be focused on in the wake of 9/11, again in contrast to Iraq. Nevertheless, twelve years (!) later, no one is exactly clamoring for U.S. military involvement there to go on for another 12 years (even if our departure in 2014 might be militarily premature). So another Bush account is getting closed.

Progressives may grant that an uptick in Bush approval is a price worth paying to end Bush’s wars. They may not be so keen on another Obama contribution to Bush’s rehabilitation: His administration has largely embraced the counterterrorism strategy and tactics of the Bush years. From targeted killings to Guantánamo and detention policy to surveillance to legal rationales for U.S. action, the story of Bush and Obama is more one of continuity than difference. This is true despite the fact that many prominent Obama supporters, including some who went on to serve in his administration, were sharply critical of Bush administration practices at the time. The net effect of this has been to blunt the erstwhile critique of Bush.

In the ABC/Post poll, 53 percent still express disapproval over Bush’s handling of the economy. Perhaps if the economy had more swiftly recovered from the financial crisis, Obama would look better. Perhaps, on the other hand, even the slow progress has eased people’s minds about Bush as a cause of a second Depression.

Finally, although it’s an article of faith among Republicans that President Obama has spent four-plus years blaming Bush for the nation’s troubles at home and abroad, they are missing a nuance. Obama has spent four years targeting the blame, but the target is the GOP and the policies the party favored when Bush was in office. Obama rarely mentions the name of his predecessor, and that matters.

One exception was at the opening of the Bush library Thursday, when Obama said, “To know the man is to like the man.” Now, you could say Obama is here drawing a distinction between Bush himself and more or less everything Bush stood for. But some people are probably going to hear that statement and think: Huh, Obama likes Bush. Maybe he wasn’t so bad.