PRINCETON, NJ -- George W. Bush's legacy may change in perhaps unforeseen ways as it seasons over time, but at the close of his administration, the American public perceives that more ground has been lost than gained in the United States over the past eight years on a whole range of issues. Bush leaves office with his efforts to combat AIDS being the achievement Americans are most likely to give him credit for improving.
Americans are more positive than negative about the fight against AIDS, with 38% saying the country has made progress over the last eight years and 19% saying it has lost ground, resulting in a net 19-point positive score for that issue.
The public also generally perceives that race relations have improved on Bush's watch -- 40% say the country has gained ground in this area versus 25% who say it has lost ground. But that could largely be ascribed to Barack Obama's election as the nation's first black president, something that doesn't reflect directly on Bush's leadership in this area.
While Bush argues that the country has been made safer by his anti-terrorism policies -- the proof being that no major terrorist incident has occurred on U.S. soil since 9/11 -- Americans are only marginally positive about the nation's progress on terrorism. Roughly 4 in 10 say the United States has made progress on terrorism and national defense -- two of the highest such marks for any issue in the poll. However, nearly as many say the country has lost ground in these areas, leaving net scores just slightly above 0 (+3 for both issues).
Americans are overwhelmingly negative about the paths the U.S. economy and the U.S. position in the world have taken under Bush, and in general are more negative than positive about how conditions have changed in 10 of 14 major areas since Bush took office.
Bush entered office hoping to make a positive mark on U.S. education with policies ultimately contained in the No Child Left Behind Act. He also pushed major tax cuts through Congress in 2001 and 2003 as core elements of his economic strategy. Nevertheless, more Americans perceive that education and taxes have lost ground than say they have gained ground in the past eight years.
Americans are largely negative in their reviews of conditions in healthcare, immigration, and energy, in addition to taxes. They are moderately negative about civil liberties, crime, and the environment, as well as about education.
While Democrats evaluate Bush more harshly than Republicans do in each of the 14 areas, the two groups differ most sharply in their perceptions of how terrorism, national defense, and the environment have fared under Bush. Half or more of Republicans think the country has made progress in each of these areas, while half or more of Democrats believe it has lost ground.
Wide gulfs also exist between the two parties' perceptions of education, energy, taxes, civil liberties, healthcare, and crime. Democrats and Republicans are in closest agreement on the economy and immigration -- with both groups more critical than positive -- and on AIDS, with both more positive than negative.
Given that Bush is one of the least popular exiting presidents, it is not surprising that Americans find few areas in which they think the country has improved on his watch. The administration's recent attempts to tout Bush's efforts to combat AIDS seem to square with public perceptions, as he receives his most positive scores on this issue. While substantial percentages of Americans see gains in the areas of terrorism and national defense, there are about as many critics as supporters in these areas, so the net scores are not all that strong.
During much of Bush's presidency, it seemed clear that foreign policy would dominate his legacy, for better or for worse. Americans' general sense that the U.S. position in the world has suffered under Bush is certainly a negative critique, but their more divided assessments of progress on national defense and fighting terrorism could temper their overall assessments of his foreign policy record over time. However, recent events have put more focus on the economy as a defining issue for Bush -- though whether that's the case in the coming years remains to be seen -- and on this, the public's overwhelming criticism of the Bush era is quite clear.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 3,037 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 2-4, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±2 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.