HealthCare.Gov vs. Bush's Wars: Which Do Americans Hate More?

With the most recent Gallup Daily Tracking Poll in, we now know that five years into their presidencies, President Bush actually had an approval rating one point higher than President Obama (40% vs. 39%.). Why does these two have such similar approval ratings when Obama’s presidency has been largely premised on distancing himself from the legacy of President Bush?

Upon seeing the new approval numbers for President Obama, I naturally understood that they are mostly dipping because of the debacles surrounding various facets of the Affordable Care Act roll-out, from inconsistent information about old health care plans continuing under the ACA to the technological embarrassment that is HealthCare.gov. And according to notable New York Times columnist (and in my opinion, one of the most brilliant political and critical minds of our time) David Brooks, we are only in the foothills of these issues with the ACA. But when I took a step back and thought about other contentious presidents, I got curious.

President Bush is the best example though which to understand Obama's slipping approval rating because of his historical proximity to President Obama and the dismally-low 25% approval rating he hit three separate times throughout his presidency. To some it may be clear that President Bush was viewed so poorly at times because two multilateral wars were started under his watch. Those events are not inconsequential.

So shouldn't the great finger-pointer masquerading as a compromiser, President Obama, have a much higher approval rating with no wars under his belt and the proliferation of affordable health care options (except for millions who already had health care policies, but are now in jeopardy) on his list of accomplishments? What does it tell us that Obama has a similar approval rating to Bush? Is the unsuccessful roll-out of the ACA really as unpopular as two massive, multilateral wars?

Given that the partisan split in the U.S. is roughly 50% for both parties — based on the votes cast in the most recent presidential election — you would expect Obama to remain popular with about half the country. Yet with Obama’s approval rating dipping to 39%, the numbers don’t add up. The seemingly overt reality is that the defining events of both presidents' careers are roughly equally popular, which I think is incorrect.

So, should we take away from Obama and Bush's comparable approval ratings? Is public opinion truly driven by policy? Or does the public doll out its goodwill in a more capricious manner? Should approval ratings even matter? I'll leave it to you to decide. Let me know what you think in the comments section.

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Philip Waggoner

Doctoral student in political science, studying at the University of Houston.

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