Poll: Clinton Outperformed Bush

A new CNN poll shows that Americans think Bill Clinton was a better president than George W. Bush.

In a new poll comparing President Bush’s job performance with that of his predecessor, a strong majority of respondents said President Clinton outperformed Bush on a host of issues. The poll of 1,021 adult Americans was conducted May 5-7 by Opinion Research Corp. for CNN. It had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Respondents favored Clinton by greater than 2-to-1 margins when asked who did a better job at handling the economy (63 percent Clinton, 26 percent Bush) and solving the problems of ordinary Americans (62 percent Clinton, 25 percent Bush). On foreign affairs, the margin was 56 percent to 32 percent in Clinton’s favor; on taxes, it was 51 percent to 35 percent for Clinton; and on handling natural disasters, it was 51 percent to 30 percent, also favoring Clinton. Moreover, 59 percent said Bush has done more to divide the country, while only 27 percent said Clinton had. When asked which man was more honest as president, poll respondents were more evenly divided, with the numbers — 46 percent Clinton to 41 percent Bush — falling within the poll’s margin of error. The same was true for a question on handling national security: 46 percent said Clinton performed better; 42 percent picked Bush.

The problem with such surveys is that they don’t measure what they purport to measure. The results say far less than the comparative executive competence of the two men than about public sentiment about the status quo and their vague feelings about the past.

It is undisputedly the case that Clinton was a better public speaker and that the economy was better under Clinton. Further, Clinton never dropped as low in the polls, even while under impeachment, than Bush has. Foreign policy comparisons are a lot more complicated. Integrity? The answer to that will likely break on partisan lines–and also be a proxy for overall sentiments about the men.

As I’ve written dozens of times, presidents–like quarterbacks–get way too much credit and way too much blame for things that happen on their watch. People have this sense that presidents are far more in control of world events than is objectively the case.

Take the economy. Bill Clinton was an effective manager who had a strong bent toward free trade. Indeed, pushing as hard as he did for things like NAFTA, where he had to fight his own base, is the thing for which I’ve always given him the most credit. Yes, the economy was already booming when he took over and started to trail off his last six months in office, neither of which were his doing. But he had the good judgment not to get in the way of the Internet boom or to grandstand on windfall profits at the dot.coms or pander to the unions on outsourcing and the other major revolutions the transformation into the Information Economy brought.

With the notable exception of trade issues, I was never a fan of Clinton’s foreign policy. The end of the Cold War was helped along by Ronald Reagan and the transition was managed superbly by George H.W. Bush, so he doesn’t deserve credit for the relative peace of the 1990s. Still, especially in hindsight from a period of war, the public will be inclined to give it to him. Conversely, Clinton gets far too much blame for “tearing down our military,” despite the fact that the reduction in force was a natural response to the collapse of the Soviet threat and was started by Bush 41 and SECDEF Dick Cheney. On the other hand, he did play politics with the drawdown in ways such as keeping alive the worthless Seawolf sub program; interfering in the BRAC process to help his reelection chances in California and elsewhere; and shifting money for R&D, training, and spare parts into various nation-building adventures that I continue to believe we were wrong to undertake.

Most importantly, in hindsight at least, Clinton was a disaster at fighting terrorism. Al Qaeda grew to maturity on his watch and he did essentially nothing despite numerous attacks on the United States and two declarations of war on America. The consequence was that bin Laden and company got more confident, had several successes to use in recruitment, and had plenty of time to plan for bigger, bolder attacks. Republicans, including the current president, rightly criticized him for his token effort at fighting back. At the same time, however, it would have been next to impossible for Clinton to have taken the bold action necessary to defeat al Qaeda prior to something like a 9/11. That was especially true by the late 1990s, as he was embroiled in a series of scandals and every use of force was being second guessed.

Natural disasters? Clinton was a master at conveying empathy and loved to show up in the aftermath of tragedy and feel people’s pain. Bush’s tendency has been to want to stay out of the way. Regardless, there was nothing the scale of Hurricane Katrina on Clinton’s watch. The public perception is that FEMA did a lousy job responding to that crisis. This is because public opinion simultaneously think government is manned by corrupt, lazy, incompetents and yet expects government to solve every problem with godlike efficiency.

Clinton was a popular president who had both the benefit and the curse of serving during relatively good times. Despite impeachment and personal scandals, he is unlikely to go down among the worst presidents. Given the lack of great events to grapple, he will certainly not be ranked among the greats.

Bush, on the other hand, is an unpopular president leading the country during very troubling times. He has, therefore, the potential to be a great success or a great failure; mediocrity is not an option. At the moment, it’s not looking good for him. If events in Iraq continue their recent upsurge, however, that could change. Iraq is, after all, at the heart of almost all of his troubles. Further, whether it started out that way or not, Iraq is at the center of the war against Islamist terrorism. Victory in Iraq would be a crushing blow.

Essentially, Bush has bet everything on Iraq. When things get bad, he keeps doubling his bets. He’ll end up among our greatest presidents if that bet pays off. Otherwise, he’ll be the miserable failure the long-ago Googlebomb labeled him.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Maggie says:

    Let’s see what Dubya says on Monday…and then look at the polls. I’m hoping he takes a very strong stance on our borders.




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  2. DaveD says:

    I like your quarterback analogy. Clinton was what few NFL teams have, a very talented second stringer. He was clearly adept and very able at holding on to a lead that was handed to him. He was never tested in any major “come from behind situation”.




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  3. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Clinton sold pardons, rented out the Lincoln Bedroom in the Whitehouse and sold Cray supercomputers to the Red Chinese. If not for a fool named Perot, he never would have attained the office of President of the United States.




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  4. Roger says:

    James, you continue to mislead in characterizing the Clinton/Gore influence on the 90s boom as related to i-net commerce. Gore in particular was one of the strongest advocates for internet development long before it was on most any other politico’s radar. The Clinton admin didn’t just “stay out of the way” as you’ve mistated before. They actively supported i-commerce and opposed taxation of or other stumbling blocks to the emerging economic i-market. As I’ve said before, I believe you took too much of the bait when the Repubs were engaged in their ridiculous lies re Gore “inventing the internet,” etc. and have not yet recovered enough to give credit where it is due.

    Your statement that “Clinton was a disaster at fighting terrorism . . . however, it would have been next to impossible for Clinton to have taken the bold action necessary to defeat al Qaeda prior to something like a 9/11 . . . as he was embroiled in a series of scandals and every use of force was being second guessed” presents a mastery of illogic worthy of LJD. The “disaster” was a Repub Congress and SCLM that put their desire to push manufactured partisan attacks against a Dem Pres ahead of the best interests of the country. Then came the Bushco group who totally ignored Al Qaeda despite Clinton’s strong warning to make them the top priority.

    Had the Repubs provided Clinton even a small fraction of the support they are giving Bushco back when a small group of thugs known as Al Qaeda was the problem, the globe infesting “GWOT” might well have never become the finely scripted fiction it now is. (I.e., we’re really fighting a relatively small group of wackos, leaving aside Bush’s terrorist manufacturing operation in Iraq.)




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  5. Jeremy says:

    Gore in particular was one of the strongest advocates for internet development long before it was on most any other politico�s radar. The Clinton admin didn�t just �stay out of the way� as you�ve mistated before. They actively supported i-commerce and opposed taxation of or other stumbling blocks to the emerging economic i-market. As I�ve said before, I believe you took too much of the bait when the Repubs were engaged in their ridiculous lies re Gore �inventing the internet,� etc. and have not yet recovered enough to give credit where it is due.

    Actively supported “i-commerce” what in the world does that mean, how can you “support” something if they are apart of the government. The government just stayed out of the way when it came to the internet boom of the 1990s. Actively supporting non-taxation is government staying out of the way.
    When Gore said “I took the initiative in creating the Internet” he didn’t specifically say “internet” and technically you are right, but what exactly is “taking the initiative in creating” something called, innovating?

    Your statement that �Clinton was a disaster at fighting terrorism . . . however, it would have been next to impossible for Clinton to have taken the bold action necessary to defeat al Qaeda prior to something like a 9/11 . . . as he was embroiled in a series of scandals and every use of force was being second guessed�

    Hahahahahah, lobbing missles over in Iraq in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal. And just because he was being investigated for impropriety doesn’t mean he can’t do anything, and what caused him to get in those scandals in the first place, let’s see, like not doing the job.

    presents a mastery of illogic worthy of LJD. The �disaster� was a Repub Congress and SCLM that put their desire to push manufactured partisan attacks against a Dem Pres ahead of the best interests of the country.

    You provide no examples, and what is LJD and SCLM?

    Then came the Bushco group who totally ignored Al Qaeda despite Clinton�s strong warning to make them the top priority.

    And if Clinton was President, 9/11 would have never happened.




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  6. floyd says:

    i dispute the “indisputable”. those who could see through the “eddie haskel” facade of clinton would prefer bush’s “wally cleaver” delivery any time!




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  7. Roger says:

    Jeremy, you are too incoherent to respond to. I’ll wait to consider any response James wishes to provide.




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  8. Roger says:

    Oh, Jeremy, I didn’t answer your questions. LJD is an often illogical neocon who posts here occasionally. SCLM is an acronym for “So-Called Liberal Media.”




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