Lesson for Obama: Bush and Clinton show redemption comes with time

Lesson for Obama: Bush and Clinton show redemption comes with time
President Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former President Bill Clinton in the East Room of the White House. (Olivier Douliery / McClatchy-Tribune)

If there is sustenance for President Obama as his popularity plummets, it could be seen twice over the last 24 hours.

On Tuesday night, former President George W. Bush, whose name was so toxic that it barely came up in the 2012 presidential campaign, held forth from the couch on the "Tonight Show" set, drawing repeated laughter from the audience. Which — significantly — was laughing with him, not at him.


On Wednesday morning, Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, accepted the presidential Medal of Freedom from his onetime nemesis, President Obama, in the same building where he once vowed that he had never had sexual relations with the intern with whom he'd had sexual relations.

Of the three, Obama is arguably in the worst straits now. His job approval rating on the weekly Gallup roundup was most recently at 41%. A separate Pew Research Center poll also found him at 41%, with 53% disapproving of how he's handling the job.

Which probably means that, down the road, he'll be swimmingly popular, as history dons its rose-colored glasses.

In the instant, popularity is measured against expectations, a fraught comparison for politicians most of the time. But the popularity of past presidents is detached from the hot passions of the moment; past crises, which are generally solved by time, tend to take a back seat to the tensions of the present.

At least that is one explanation for the fact that all past presidents rise in the public's estimation as they recede into memory.

President Bush left office with a 40% popularity rating, which fell to 35% two months later, in March 2009. Now? He's at 49%.

President Clinton left office at 66%, according to Gallup, and still has risen a few points.

Every president since Jimmy Carter — the first for whom such polling comparisons were made — has risen in the public's mind after leaving office, the pollsters said. And all but Bush reside in the stratosphere in this highly partisan age, in the 60s and above.

Time and circumstances are two healers, as is the American propensity toward redemption. As Bush put it from the "Tonight Show" couch Tuesday night, after saying he had done the best he could as president:

"I'm also very comfortable with the fact that it's going to take a while for history to judge whether the decisions I made are consequential or not. And, therefore, I'm not too worried about it. In other words, I've read some biographies of Washington. And my attitude is if they're still writing biographies of the first guy, the 43rd guy doesn't need to worry about it."

Twitter: @cathleendecker