PRINCETON, NJ -- Asked to compare Barack Obama with George W. Bush, Americans are more inclined to say Obama has been a better (43%) rather than a worse (34%) president, with 22% seeing no difference between the two. Obama compares much less favorably to Bill Clinton, with half saying Obama has been worse than Clinton and 12% saying better.
These results are based on a Sept. 15-18 USA Today/Gallup poll. Obama succeeded Bush as president during a down economy that is still struggling to recover. Thus, a key comparison voters will make is whether Obama is doing better than his predecessor, which would enhance his chances of re-election, or worse than Bush, which makes it less likely Americans would reward him with a second term.
It could be argued that saying Obama has been about the same as Bush is also a negative evaluation, given that Bush left office with low approval ratings and Americans generally did not judge his presidency to be very successful.
Indeed, those who say Obama has been about the same as Bush generally view Obama negatively, with 27% approving and 62% disapproving of the way Obama is handling his job as president.
Thus, in order to win re-election, Obama likely needs to convince voters he is doing a better job than his predecessor did.
Republicans, Independents Widely View Obama as Worse Than Clinton
It is not surprising to find Democrats overwhelmingly believing Obama has been a better president than Bush and Republicans saying Obama has been a worse president. Independents are divided in their views, with roughly equal proportions saying he has been better, the same, and worse. However, given that those who say Obama has been as effective as Bush are generally negative on Obama's job performance, it can be said that independents give Obama a largely negative review.
Republicans' and independents' unfavorable reviews of Obama also come through in their widespread belief that he has been a worse president than Clinton. Republicans widely disapproved of Clinton during his eight years in office. Democrats are decidedly neutral in their evaluations of Obama and Clinton, with 51% seeing them as about the same.
Independents and Republicans may view Obama less favorably than Clinton because of the state of the economy during their respective presidencies, even though Clinton's presidency was plagued by scandal and impeachment, while Obama's presidency has been relatively scandal free.
The outcome of presidential elections, particularly for incumbent presidents, largely turns on performance evaluations. If Americans are generally happy with the state of the nation, they are generally likely to re-elect the incumbent. If they are dissatisfied, the incumbent is at risk of defeat.
Americans are currently highly dissatisfied with the state of the nation, with 11% satisfied and 88% dissatisfied. That certainly is a threat to a second Obama term, but that by itself may not doom him. Though Obama's job approval rating is in the low 40s, he is currently competitive with both of his main Republican rivals in voters' 2012 general election preferences.
Voters may give Obama more leeway because of the poor state of the nation when he took office, and as of now, they appear to be doing so, as Americans still blame Bush more than Obama for the country's economic problems. At the same time, the fact that less than half of Americans say Obama has been a better president than Bush, given the low regard Americans have for the Bush presidency, poses a clear challenge for Obama.
The 2012 election remains more than a year away, and surely those perceptions can change. How they change in the coming months will go a long way toward deciding whether Obama or a Republican is inaugurated in January 2013.
Results for this USA Today/Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 15-18, 2011, with a random sample of 1,004 national adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents by region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2010 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.
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.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.