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Obama and Bush: A Contrast in Popularity

Obama and Bush: A Contrast in Popularity

Transition marked by sharp divergence in leaders' ratings

PRINCETON, NJ -- Monday's White House meeting between President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama presents a remarkable contrast between one of the least popular two-term presidents in modern times at the close of his administration, and one of the most popular candidates to win the presidency.

According to Gallup Poll Daily tracking from Nov. 6-8, only 27% of Americans approve of the job Bush is doing as president. This contrasts with the 70% of Americans holding a favorable view of Obama.


Although this contrast between Obama and Bush is based on different measures -- presidential job approval and general favorability -- the ratings produced by the two typically track very closely for U.S. presidents, and thus provide a good indication of the vast popularity gap that exists between Bush and Obama.

Additionally, nearly two-thirds of Americans say they are confident in Obama's ability to be a good president, similar to his 70% favorable reading.


Gallup will be tracking all three of these measures -- Bush job approval, Obama favorability, and Obama confidence -- for the entire presidential transition period, and reporting the results on the basis of three-day rolling averages, similar to Gallup's previous reporting of the presidential trial heats.

Obama's Historic Popularity

Obama's favorable ratings from the American people have increased since the election -- rising to 70%, up from 61% in Gallup Poll Daily tracking from Nov. 1-3. But even the pre-election 61% reading broke records, marking the highest rating for any presidential candidate in the 1992-2008 period in which Gallup measured favorability using the current question.

Gallup also occasionally measures favorability using the "scalometer" format that it routinely employed between 1956 and 1992, in which respondents are asked to rate individuals on a 10-point scale, from "+5" at the high end to "-5" at the low end (with no zero midpoint).

In an Oct. 23-26 poll, Obama scored a 37% highly favorable rating on this measure (+4 and +5 on the scale), on par with several earlier popular presidential candidates, including Ronald Reagan in 1984, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, and John Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. (Obama's +37 contrasts with McCain's +28.)

Bush's Unwelcome Distinction

With barely two months remaining in his second term, Bush could quite possibly finish with the lowest final job approval score of any president serving out his term in at least a half century. His current 27% job approval rating is below Harry Truman's final rating of 32% in December 1952, as well as Carter's 34% in December 1980. No other president since the advent of polling was rated below 49% as he was leaving office.


As was recently reported by Gallup Poll Managing Editor Jeff Jones, the 29.4% average job approval rating for Bush in the third quarter of this year (from July 20-Oct. 19) was one of the worst Gallup has measured for any president in the last half century and, thus far, it appears his rating for the fourth quarter could be even worse.

Over the next two months, Gallup Poll Daily tracking will document whether Bush receives an "exit bounce" in job approval ratings similar to the one that occurred for his father in the three-month period between October 1992 and the time he left office in January 1993. The elder Bush's approval rating rose from 34% right before the 1992 election (which he lost to Bill Clinton) to 56% by the end of his term. Lesser exit bounces were seen for Clinton and Reagan, who each completed two terms in office.

Bottom Line

Presidential transitions are always fascinating spectacles, but Monday's White House encounter between Bush and Obama promises to be especially so because of the historic aspect of the nation's first black president-elect taking a step closer to assuming the highest office. It will also be fascinating because of the sharp contrast between Bush and Obama in popularity. At no time in a half century -- and maybe more -- has a president as beleaguered in public opinion as Bush been replaced by someone so highly esteemed. The transition from Truman to Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 may have approached this, but while Gallup documented Truman's final approval rating of 32% in December 1952, Gallup had not yet instituted favorability readings, and thus provided no measure of Eisenhower's popularity at that time. What the Bush vs. Obama contrast might mean for Obama's ability to enjoy an extended honeymoon with the American public after his inauguration on Jan. 20 remains to be seen.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,546 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 6-8, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.



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