Around the time George W. Bush left the White House in 2009, a CNN poll found the Republican with abysmal public support: only 34% of the public had a favorable opinion of Bush, while 62% had an unfavorable view.
Earlier this month, another CNN poll found that his support had completely reversed: 61% of Americans now have a favorable opinion of George W. Bush, while 33% have an unfavorable view. And while it’s generally true that throughout the polling era, presidents’ support improves after they leave office – rough edges tend to get rounded over time – this kind of dramatic shift is extraordinary.
It’s against this backdrop that Will Farrell opened “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend by reprising his portrayal of the 43rd president, marveling at his popularity, and delivering a message to the public:
“Donnie Q. Trump came in and suddenly I’m looking pretty sweet by comparison…. A lot of people are saying, ‘Man, I wish George W. Bush was still our president right about now.’ So I just wanted to address my fellow Americans tonight and remind you guys that I was really bad.”
It was funny, of course, but it was also true. I don’t begrudge Bush for “looking pretty sweet” compared to Trump, but to pretend his failed presidency was anything short of disastrous is a mistake.
Let’s go ahead and concede that it’s understandable to reflect on Bush’s time in office, compare him to the current Republican president, and conclude that Bush had a degree of personal propriety and impulse control that Trump has no use for. I remember Bush visiting a mosque six days after the 9/11 attacks, for example, and it’s difficult to envision Trump demonstrating that kind of decency.
But Trump’s ability to personify the platonic ideals of the worst presidential qualities imaginable doesn’t change the fact that Bush was among the worst presidents in American history. I’m reminded of a good piece from the Washington Post’s James Downie in October:
[Bush] and his administration helped facilitate the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. They misled the country into a war that cost tens of thousands of lives. They spied on Americans without warrants and violated legal prohibitions on torture. They botched the response to Hurricane Katrina, costing 1,800 lives while Bush talked about his FEMA director doing a “heckuva job.”
They blew a budget surplus on tax cuts that failed to help the economy and exacerbated inequality. They gutted environmental regulations, distorted climate change science and lay down for companies to exploit natural resources at will. They exploited homophobia to drive up voter turnout. And in one of several scandals not out of place in the Trump administration, when it came to light that Bush’s Justice Department had fired nine U.S. attorneys for political reasons, Bush sheltered advisers under executive privilege.
Well, sure, when you put it that way….
Around the same time, the Boston Globe’s Michael Cohen made the case that Bush’s disastrous presidency may have even helped lay the groundwork for Trump’s disastrous presidency.
Like Trump, Bush staffed his administration with hacks, incompetents, and ideologues. Lobbyists were practically given oversight of environmental and business regulation with predictably awful results.
Like Trump’s band of mediocrities, the Bush administration was dismissive of science, facts, and truth-telling, and also like Trump, Bush’s White House openly sought to politicize the Justice Department.
He proposed a constitutional amendment in 2004 that would have prevented gay Americans from getting married and used that issue to mobilize religious voters in key swing states like Ohio. And in his reelection that same year, he engaged in divisive political rhetoric that portrayed Democrats and those opposed to his counter-terrorism policies as somehow unpatriotic. His presidency more than laid the groundwork for the angry, fractured politics and ideologically driven policy decisions that we are seeing today. And of course, Bush — like so many other prominent Republicans — largely remained silent as Trump took over the Republican Party.
Back in 2016, Brian Beutler made a compelling case that in the wake of Bush’s presidency, Barack Obama and Democrats in general didn’t make a meaningful effort to remind the public – frequently and with great vigor – of Bush’s historic failures.
Perhaps Dems thought Bush’s dreadful tenure was so obvious, the public didn’t need reminders. Maybe it was widely assumed that Bush’s name would be synonymous with failure for at least a generation, and making a concerted effort along these lines would be overkill.
But as Bush’s favorability rating reaches new heights, there’s reason to believe Americans’ memories are short. It’s why it fell to “Saturday Night Live” to deliver the reminder that Bush “was really bad.”