Exiting the presidency with a low 30s approval rating, a war you started, corruption

A president leaves office with an approval rating in the low 30s, and it had recently been down to about 25%, and at one point in his presidency was 22%, lower than Nixon at the height of Watergate, making him one of the least liked presidents in American history. His cabinet and administration is racked with corruption, a point hammered upon by the opposing party. He led the country in a very unpopular war. The economy has been a shambles, and he is unable to get much of his agenda passed in Congress. He is made fun of for gaffes when speaking to the press. After years of his party being in control of Congress, voters express their fatigue and dissatisfaction via a midterm election that puts the opposition party in power, and he fights them bitterly on many issues. There are significant calls for his impeachment in his second term. His Supreme Court appointees were assessed as a significant push of the Court to the right.

Obviously no one here will be fooled into thinking I’m talking about Bush - most will recognize the paragraph above as a description of Truman, especially with a lot of headlines right now pointing out the similar exit approval ratings. Living up the road from Independence, MO and the Truman library, I just started studying him and his presidency, just acquired a couple of biographies to dig into (I’ve read one before but it was some time ago.) But I’m struck at how reviled he was in and at the end of his presidency, only to be considered today one of the great presidents.

Now, I don’t think even lifelong Republicans expect Bush to ever be elevated to “great” or even “real good” status. But I am curious, to what do people today attribute the enormous turnaround in the assessment of Truman?

Well, Jason provided his assessment just a little while ago.

I think he is admired for making tough decisions, like using atomic bombs to hasten the end of the war against Japan, forming our containment policy against the Soviet Union, including the Berlin Airlift, and standing up to Macarthur in Korea.

I suppose should Iraq actually become a stable democracy Bush could see some kind of turnabout in popular opinion. I’m not sure what else he has done that would be viewed more favorably later on.

We fought a war in Koera to potect an ALLY, and we did a fanastic job despite the loss of American life. We won that war, and in the follow-up venue Vietnam, we lost miserably.

Iraq is a billion shades of different. Truman took over from a beloved President so he already had that against him. He wasn’t as cozy as FDR. Johnson fits the bill as well.

And Truman did not decimate our economy to any comparable factor that Bush did. It’s like comparing an elephant to an ant. The 50’s saw explosive growth of the middle class so it’s evident Truman did no long term damage to the economy if you want to argue he did any. “Bush and co.” have damaged this country so badly its effects will last for GENERATIONS.

Ah, not reading that thread…

Well, his approval rating was low over more than the Korea issue. The corruption issues were also pretty disheartening, based on what I’ve read so far. He also said a lot of dumb things that were just a matter of open mouth before engaging brain. The economy sucked, etc.

Yeah, but my curiosity is not if there is a parallel with Bush, but - with no comparison to Bush - how did a president that was disliked and considered a failure at the level Truman was, at the time, make such a turnaround to be considered one of the top 3?

Low 30’s? It was 22 this morning.

I blame it all on MASH.

By whom?

You tell me; before I read this thread he was middling at best, he was “one of the great presidents” in your OP, and a half hour later he’d been upgraded to “top three” status.

Suggestion for your next post:

Ignoring the snark: Some polls have him in the top 5 (I thought I’d read 3, went back and checked;) almost all have him in the top 7 -9.

The point is still valid though - based on the views at the time he left, it would have been far more likely that he would be in the bottom 5 to 10. Which I find fascinating.

Jeff what’s your point? That history often has a different judgement of presidents than the public did at the time?

Not trying to make a point, wrong choice of word above, just a question from curiosity for those who have studied Truman more than I have regarding how/why history’s judgement on Truman changed so radically in a relatively short period of time. I was looking last night to see if there were any other presidents with equivilant 180 degree turnarounds.

I thought McCullough’s (not me!) Truman book covered it pretty well.

He ended the OP with a question. It appears to me that his point was to see what everyone thinks.

Fair enough, apologies all around. But I think it’s extremely unlikely that that will happen with Bush. Guys like Truman and (Lyndon) Johnson start looking better in hindsight as time passes, emotions die down, more facts become known, and people can focus more on their achievements than on the couple of serious problems that felt like the only thing that mattered at the time.

Bush isn’t one of those guys, I don’t think. He’s more in the mold of Hoover or Harding–a complete fuck-up whose administration was marked by nothing but disaster and corruption. He’ll go down in history the way he deserves to: as an abject failure.

Again, the question was not relative to Bush, though obviously the surface parallels are there and it has been mentioned in the press. But rather how a guy like Truman could be so disliked and seen as a failure in his time, then years later held up as an example one of the top 10 presidents of all time.

Jason, I just started McCullough’s book, I’m interested in how he presents things.

I tried to cover that too!

I’m about 2/3 of the way through McCullough’s book (up to the start of the post-war period, where his troubles began).

I think that in retrospect historians are able to appreciate the challenges he faced (winning the war, retooling a wartime economy, the start of the cold war, etc) all of which were largely due to external factors.

Perhaps history will shed a different light on Bush. I doubt it, though - aside from 9/11 (which he bears a decent part of the blame for), his challenges were all self-imposed.

To quote this article:


“Truman, who took over the presidency following the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945, presided over the end of World War II. He ushered in the atomic age by ordering the bomb dropped on Japan. He and his aides devised a series of pathbreaking institutions to contain communism during the Cold War. Among Truman’s innovations: the founding of the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund in 1945; the creation of the CIA, the National Security Council, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the promotion of the Truman Doctrine, which declared America’s intention to help nations combat communist insurgencies around the world, all in 1947; starting the Marshall Plan to provide massive economic aid to Europe in 1948; the Berlin airlift in 1948-49; and the NATO treaty in 1949, which placed Europe under an umbrella of U.S. security.”

I would also add that it is probably impossible to have a rational discussion about GWB and how history will ultimately judge him and if he gets any type of bounce, it’s just too close to the end of his term and I would imagine any discussion would almost immediately digress into a flame war…nevermind that we have no idea what might happen over the course of the next 50 years that will impact how history views him.

Regardless, I do find it hard to believe that things will play out and history will elevate Bush to the levels that Truman is considered to be at now(a top 10 President).

truman also did a lot of things differently from bush. he had the well respected general marshall and often listened to him, instead of tossing him to the side (see colin powell and how postwar iraq duties were taken from him and given to rumsfeld).

when he appointed people, more often than not they were competent.

truman read a lot of books (it was said as a boy he read every book in the library) and retained the information from them (see primary debate moment where bush is unable to answer a question about lessons from dean acheson, after stating to the press he was reading his biography).

he listened to the opposition and if he went against them, at least he knew the possible negative consequences instead of it being a giant nasty surprise (israel’s creation vs iraq’s aftermath).

truman knew a large amount of government spending could lead to corruption so he set up the truman committee in the senate and prevented a lot of corruption and waste. bush on the other hand…

he laid the foundations for peace and security by strengthening our alliances (nato, seato, truman doctrine) instead of pushing our allies away.

he knew nuclear war was a bad thing so he did a lot to avoid an all destructive war with russia, and didn’t start flinging nukes at everyone. he listened to the political and military experts and decided containment was a better policy than nuking them a la Ambassador Nanclus’s “Mr. President, they are vulnerable… there will never be a better time.”

wtf, north korea was sitting there all quietly and then the evil rok forces crossed the border as part of their plan for global domination? going past the 38th parallel was a mistake, but the north koreans started the war, not truman.