If you pay too much attention to opinion polls, as most people do, doubtless you've heard that a plurality of voters has judged Barack Obama the worst president since World War II. Thirty-three percent, to be precise, which as it coincides almost exactly with the number of hard-core Republicans, merely tells you something you already knew: GOP partisans dislike Obama with irrational zeal.
In short, the Quinnipiac University survey reveals more about them than about Obama. But hold that thought.
A presidential poll whose results might be worth heeding would measure the opinions only of people who could actually name the 12 U.S. presidents since 1945. I'm guessing that'd be maybe 10 percent of the electorate, tops.
Anyway, to put the bad news about Obama in perspective, back in 2006 when George W. Bush was in his sixth year in office — typically the nadir of a two-term president's popularity — the same Quinnipiac poll found that 34 percent of Americans judged him the worst since 1945.
Even the sainted Ronald Reagan's job approval numbers took a sharp drop during his sixth year due to the Iran-Contra scandal — selling missiles to Iran to finance right-wing terrorists in Nicaragua.
This year, however, a reported 35 percent in the Quinnipiac survey judged Reagan the best president since World War II. Apparently all is forgiven, forgotten or — equally likely — never known.
Bill Clinton came in second at 18 percent; JFK third with 15 percent. Democrats, see, split their "best president" choices pretty evenly among Clinton, JFK and Obama. Meanwhile, 66 percent Republicans chose Reagan, a sharp rebuke to ex-presidents named Bush. Indeed, some 28 percent in the 2014 survey still think that Dubya established a new low in presidential ineptitude. More significant, exactly 1 percent called Bush the best. One percent! Even Nixon, who resigned the presidency ahead of impeachment, got 1 percent. Gerald Ford, who pardoned him, got 1 percent.
Historians agree about Dubya. A recent Siena College survey of 238 "presidential scholars" called Bush the fifth worst in U.S. history and the only chief executive since 1945 to make the bungler's Hall of Fame.
(Only one post-WWII president made the historians' top 10: Dwight D. Eisenhower, a judgment I wouldn't dispute.)
Politically, the make-believe rancher turned portrait painter has become The Man Who Wasn't There. Because Bush's record is pretty much indefensible — asleep on 9/11, imprudent tax cuts, an unfinished war in Afghanistan, weak jobs creation, a financial meltdown that damn near destroyed the world economy, trillion dollar budget deficits, an unjust, failed war and unfolding geopolitical catastrophe in Iraq — Republicans not named Dick Cheney make no serious effort to defend it.
Instead, they insist that the world began anew with the inauguration of Barack Obama. All references to the astonishing mess his predecessor left behind are forbidden lest one be accused of playing the "blame game."
Rhyming slogans often prove irresistible to simpletons. OK, so Obama asked for it. Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum gets that part exactly right:
"For years, I really didn't believe the conservative snark about how Obama supporters all thought he would descend on Washington like a god-king and miraculously turn us into a post-racial, post-partisan, post-political country. Kumbaya! The reason I didn't believe it was that it never struck me as even remotely plausible."
Of course Obama promised to transform America. "That's what presidential candidates do," Drum adds. "I believed then, and still believe now, that Obama is basically a mainstream Democrat who's cautious, pragmatic, technocratic, and incremental ... [But] by now, the evidence is clear that millions of Obama voters really believed all that boilerplate rhetoric."
Hence bitter disappointment on the sentimental left. Oh, you wanted single-payer health care? So tell me where Obama was supposed to get the votes.
However, the real believers in Barack the magic enchanter have been Republicans. His presidency has driven a substantial proportion of the GOP electorate completely around the bend. To a remarkable degree, the party of Lincoln has metamorphosed into a Confederate-accented political cult on apocalyptic themes suggested by fundamentalist theology.
"The unhinged versions of this sensibility," notes Jonathan Chait "held that Obama had launched a sinister ideological assault on the Constitution and American freedom, perhaps in the name of Islamism, or socialism, or, somehow, both."
Mentioning Obama's race as one cause of GOP panic is even more forbidden than bringing up George W. Bush. You want to argue about it? Check the comment lines to any online article about Obama, and then get back to me. It's in the Bible: "The guilty flee, where no man pursueth."
Along with existential panic goes an inability to keep things in proportion. Benghazi equals invading Iraq. The IRS "scandal" equals Watergate. Forty-five consecutive months of job growth and shrinking budget deficits get airbrushed out of the picture.
Over time, fear will abate. Then we'll see what we see.