- Kennedy’s retrospective approval rating reaches 90% for first time
- Most former presidents rated positively by majority of U.S. adults
- Ratings of Kennedy, George W. Bush, Nixon improve modestly since 2018
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- John F. Kennedy remains the most highly rated former president when Gallup asks Americans whether, in retrospect, they approve or disapprove of the job each did as president. Ninety percent of U.S. adults now approve of the job Kennedy did, 21 percentage points higher than second-place Ronald Reagan’s rating.
Seven of the nine past presidents included in the poll receive majority retrospective approval ratings. The two exceptions are Donald Trump, with 46% of Americans approving of the job he did in his initial retrospective approval rating, and Richard Nixon, at 32%.
Gallup has periodically measured past presidents’ retrospective approval ratings since 1990. This year’s poll, conducted June 1-22, includes nine of the past 11 presidents, excluding Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford, about whom nearly 20% of Americans could not offer opinions in the prior survey five years ago.
The retrospective approval ratings of Kennedy, George W. Bush and Nixon have all increased slightly -- by four points -- since that 2018 poll.
Meanwhile, Bill Clinton’s approval rating has dropped four points, from 62% to 58%, following a seven-point decline in his rating between 2010 and 2018. As a result, Clinton now ranks behind Kennedy, Reagan, George H.W. Bush (66%) and Barack Obama (63%), whereas in 2010, he ranked third.
Still, Clinton’s current rating is significantly better than Gallup's first retrospective reading after he left office -- 51% in 2002. In fact, most presidents’ new retrospective ratings are better than Gallup’s initial post-presidency ratings of them, by an average of seven points. Only Nixon’s and Obama’s current ratings are not significantly higher than their initial retrospective ratings.
Retrospective Approval Usually Exceeds Approval While in Office
Not only do retrospective approval ratings tend to improve over time, but they also are generally higher than presidents’ average job approval ratings while they were in office. Across the nine presidents in the survey, the current retrospective approval exceeds their term average approval by seven points. Nixon is the only president with a lower retrospective rating (32%) than term average (49%).
For Nixon and other former presidents, a president’s final job approval rating in office is often a better indicator of how they are remembered historically than their average level of approval while in office. Nixon left office amid the Watergate scandal with a 24% job approval rating. In contrast, Reagan, Clinton and Obama were significantly more popular at the end of their presidency than throughout it.
Current retrospective ratings for the nine presidents in the survey are an average of 12 points higher than the presidents’ last ratings while in office.
Party Gaps Exist on All but Kennedy
As might be expected, Republicans remember Republican presidents more fondly than Democrats do, while the reverse is true for Democratic presidents. The exception is Kennedy, who gets similar ratings near 90% among all party groups.
Democrats rate all four Democratic presidents more highly than any of the five Republican presidents. Democratic ratings range from 73% for Jimmy Carter to 94% for Obama, while their ratings of GOP presidents range from 12% for Trump to 60% for the elder George Bush.
Apart from Kennedy, Republicans rate the GOP presidents, including Nixon, better than the Democratic presidents. Republicans are most positive about Reagan, Trump and Kennedy, and less positive about the Bushes.
Perhaps not surprising given increased political polarization in presidential approval ratings in recent years, the biggest partisan gaps are for the past two presidents -- 79 points separate Democratic and Republican ratings of Trump, and 69 points separate their ratings of Obama.
Independents’ ratings generally mirror those of the national adult population, although their 41% approval rating of Trump is lower than the national average of 46%.
Democrats, Republicans Have Shifting Opinions of the Two Bush Presidents
The most notable partisan changes since 2018 concern the two George Bushes. Since then, Republicans’ ratings have become less positive, dropping seven points for the elder Bush and eight for the younger Bush. At the same time, Democrats now view both more positively, each by 11 points. Independents’ evaluations of the younger Bush have also improved, by seven points.
In addition to those changes, Democrats’ ratings of Clinton are down eight points since 2018, Republicans’ ratings of Obama have improved by eight points, and independents are less positive toward Reagan (down six points).
Americans tend to be more charitable in rating presidents after they leave office than while they served as commander in chief. Those evaluations tend to grow increasingly positive the longer former presidents are out of office. Kennedy stands head and shoulders above other former presidents, but majorities approve of how most former presidents handled their job, except for Trump and Nixon.
Trump’s retrospective rating takes on special significance as he campaigns for a second, non-consecutive term as president. His 91% retrospective approval rating among Republicans underscores the challenge of his competitors for the nomination in trying to convince the GOP base why they, rather than Trump, should be the party’s candidate for president.
However, to return to the White House, Trump must convince Americans more broadly that he did a good job as president so they view him as a better alternative than his would-be opponent, the incumbent Joe Biden. At this point, a 54% majority of Americans, including 59% of independents, say they disapprove of the job Trump did, underscoring the challenge for Trump and the GOP in winning the 2024 general election.
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