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.