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Posted at 12:24 PM ET, 05/12/2008

Bush's Brain on Bush's Heart

By Michael Dobbs

The most unpopular president?

"Get your facts right -- there are at least three president who had worse approval ratings [than George W. Bush]: Truman, Johnson and Nixon."
--Karl Rove
on-line chat
, May 7, 2008

In a post last week, I faulted Karl Rove for slapping down a reader who claimed that his old boss George W. Bush is the "most unpopular" president in U.S. history. The reader was citing a Gallup poll showing that Bush's disapproval rating reached an all-time high of 69 percent in April, the highest figure ever recorded for a president. He was followed by Truman at 67 percent and Nixon at 66 percent.

I have now received a more detailed explanation from Rove for his interpretation of the Gallup poll, which I am posting in slightly abbreviated form, along with the comments of two leading pollsters.

The Facts

Karl Rove's response:

My source for saying three Presidents had lower approval ratings is Gallup. At their nadir, these three Presidents had lower ratings:

Carter 28% approval
Nixon 24% approval
Truman: 22% approval

"Disapproval" is not the more relevant measure, as you suggest, for two reasons. First, the question posed to me refers in its opening sentence to "approval ratings." And second, "approval" is a more accurate measure to examine over the history of the Gallup Poll than is the "disapproval "rating. Early Gallup polling tends to show much larger percentages of people who don't have an opinion on Presidential performance. Rather than say they disapproved, a larger number of respondents hid out in the "do not know" category in Gallup's earlier years than offer that answer today. Over the years, Americans have shown a growing willingness to express an opinion on presidential performance.

If you look at the marks given Presidents such as Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, you will see a persistently larger number of Americans who offer no opinion on President performance than have chosen that answer in the last thirty years or so. [See Gallup's explanation for this phenomenon here.]

Today, as the percentage of 'no opinion' responses to the presidential job approval question has declined, Americans appear to be more willing to give a negative response, resulting in the situation in which Bush's disapproval rating is at a record high while his approval rating is not at a record low."

Comparing absolute disapproval numbers from today and thirty years ago is comparing apples to oranges. Approval is the better number to look at, not disapproval, because of consistent respondent willingness - over the span of the Gallup Poll - to offer an opinion on this measure.

A couple of points before I turn it over to the experts:

(1) Rove originally said that Johnson had a lower approval rating than Bush. That is not the case. According to Gallup, Johnson's nadir was 35 per cent in August 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war. Bush was 28 per cent in April.
(2) Carter and Bush both recorded approval ratings of 28 percent, so Rove is wrong to say that Carter's rating is "lower" than Bush's.

The main point made by the polling experts I consulted (Frank Newport of Gallup and Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center) is that you have to look at both approval and disapproval ratings to make a fair-minded assessment of Bush's relative standing compared to other presidents. His disapproval rating is higher than any other president, but he outperforms Truman and Nixon on his approval rating.

"You can always spin these numbers to make them look better from your point of view," said Newport, editor-in-Chief of the Gallup Poll. In a blog item here, Newport makes the point that Bush's figures are less-than-stellar whichever way you look at them.

Kohut made a similar point. The approval and disapproval figures are all within the margin of error. "A global statement on where Bush stands has to take both of these indexes into account. It is a complicated picture--but that's the way the world is."

The Pinocchio Test

I may have been a little harsh in awarding Karl Rove three Pinocchios last week. You can make an argument about whether approval or disapproval ratings are a more valid metric for judging unpopularity. (My feeling is that you have to look at both.) The bottom line is that Rove put the best possible spin on a pretty dismal picture. He was wrong about Johnson and only half-right about Carter, so let's settle for two Pinocchios.

(About our rating scale.)

By Michael Dobbs  | May 12, 2008; 12:24 PM ET
Categories:  2 Pinocchios, History, Web Watch  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: The Tuskegee Experiment, Part II
Next: Did he really say that?


You are too kind, Michael. Karl Rove deserves an additional Pinocchio for his BS argument that the approval rating is more relevant than the disapproval rating. Politicians, and Karl Rove in particular, have a difficult time making any statement that is 100% honest and devoid of spin. I think that you should challenge each and every dubious statement that they make, as the rest of the media seems all to happy to report most of these half-truths as if they were reasonable statements.

Posted by: Dave | May 12, 2008 1:28 PM | Report abuse

The fact that Karl Rove thought it important to respond to you shows that you're doing good work.

Keep it up.

Posted by: MikeA | May 12, 2008 2:15 PM | Report abuse

LOL -- I think I've made my case on the prior thread -- I guess it's better than THREE Pinocchios at least.

Posted by: JakeD | May 12, 2008 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Jake - you forgot to post Michael's name in ALL CAPS.

Posted by: Fairlington Blade | May 12, 2008 2:47 PM | Report abuse

What about looking the "average" approval rating over time -- especially compared to Johnson and Nixon -- wouldn't that help "factor out" the extremes? We know that Nixon's approval rating (especially in the U.S. House) was so low, that he resigned rather than be impeached. At least Nancy Pelosi took THAT option off the table.

Posted by: JakeD | May 12, 2008 2:49 PM | Report abuse


You mean Dobbs? He's not running for any office.

Posted by: JakeD | May 12, 2008 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Karl Rove just can't stop spinning, can he? I would have been better able to accept his statement about comparing apples and oranges if he had said, "comparing rotten apples with rotten oranges." Rotten is rotten.

Posted by: Peter Demian | May 12, 2008 2:56 PM | Report abuse

I will say one thing to Dobbs and his assistant(s) -- you'd better be consistent from now on -- if anyone, including Barack HUSSEIN Obama, "put[s] the best possible spin on a pretty dismal picture" even if they correct it when they personally give you their source or they were only "half-right", they'd better all get TWO Pinocchios at minimum. So much for "Significant omissions and/or exaggerations" being the standard.

Posted by: JakeD | May 12, 2008 2:59 PM | Report abuse

I think that the Fact Checker should rename the Pinocchio the JakeD. You could use this as the icon:

Posted by: Why do you ask, Two Dogs? | May 12, 2008 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Very funny. What, exactly, are you implying that I am lying about?

Posted by: JakeD | May 12, 2008 3:49 PM | Report abuse

This has to be the funniest bs effort yet on their part to spin fact. Rove should check into selling used cars.

Posted by: fortheclueless | May 12, 2008 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps in the past those undecided respondents were really embarrassed to dish out praise. So really Johnson and Carter would have had higher approval ratings than today. I mean, if we're going to blatantly fudge the numbers, why that direction?

Posted by: Will | May 12, 2008 3:58 PM | Report abuse

Rove's spinning has a scent of desperation attached to it. Let's not forget his boast of using his "talents" to assure a permanent Republican majority. There seems to be a long term majority in the offing, but a Democratic-Congressional one.

So dumb. How hard would it have been, with moderate policies (rather than 50% plus 1 bullying), to have morphed Bush's earlier popularity into a true governing majority? Instead, giving way to political immaturity and greed, Bush and Rove tried to turn a narrow win in 2004 into a declared mandate to throw out the underpinnings of the existing Social Security system. Had he reached lower, ie. to make permanent the stupid tax cuts, his administration might be seen to have had a lasting effect other than a stupid, politically motivated war and a long-term deficit. now, in 2011, even the tax cuts will sunset.

Even the Democrats, who enabled Bush and Rove, are unwilling to admit what a gigantic failure this administration has been. And if McCain doesn't back off from supporting a continuation of these policies, we are about to get a hard-left administration under Obama.

Posted by: dyinglikeflies | May 12, 2008 4:37 PM | Report abuse

This is really kind of dumb. Rowe is trying to protect Bush from being the worst president in US history by saying he's not the worst just in the bottom four. That is certainly damning with faint praise. Ok, Bush is not the worst but he's the 4th worst. I agree, now there is a legacy to be proud of.

Posted by: Moi | May 12, 2008 6:29 PM | Report abuse


I believe the main contention is that Bush will REBOUND from 4th worst just like Truman has ; )

Posted by: JakeD | May 12, 2008 6:44 PM | Report abuse

Don't worry Karl. There's still plenty of time for your man George to own the record.

G.W.'s certainly the worst in recent history. I'd bet the remaining point spread that he will get there before next January.

The end is near. Change is good.

Posted by: DonJulio | May 12, 2008 7:25 PM | Report abuse

People and the media frequently talk about the president's flagging approval rating, but rarely if ever mention that the approval rating for the Democrat-controlled Congress has consistently trailed the president's by a good five to 10 points.

I wonder why it is they don't talk about that? No I don't, an "inconvenient truth" being what it is.

When looked at in that context, it may be that the polls indicate a general dissatisfaction with all politicians -- not just the president -- and members Congress in particular.

I hear a new bumpersticker brewing: "Worst...Congress...Ever."

Posted by: jblog | May 12, 2008 8:48 PM | Report abuse

You are worse than Obama! Carrying on with a known War Criminal, our own "Minister of Propaganda"

I couldn't do it. I would let the guy have it, the old fashioned way. Bare knuckle.

Posted by: Rove's a Jerk | May 12, 2008 9:37 PM | Report abuse

Bush is brainless, no Consious and heartless, I don't know if he will be considered as a humanbeing.

Posted by: Ida | May 14, 2008 11:19 AM | Report abuse

The reason that people don't often compare the congressional approval numbers with the Presidents is that Congress is a group of people and the president is one (1) person.
Try to finding a sitting congressman (1) who has an approval rating approaching Ws' and you might have a point to make. Otherwise, apples and oranges.
The other thing that you might want to consider if you drill into the Congresses approval ratings what you find is that people are discontented they can't stop the presidents ill advised policies. The reason for that is universally acknowledged to be the Republican members, not the Dems.
That's probably why the GOP will be able to hold their Congressional caucuses in a phone booth after this November.

Posted by: Dijetlo | May 14, 2008 12:50 PM | Report abuse

From: "Head of State"

Thursday, May 15, 2008
Golf as Expiation

From Reuters:

"U.S. President George W. Bush said on Tuesday he quit playing golf in 2003 out of respect for the families of Americans killed in the war in Iraq."

Golf As Expiation

By Guru Alano Jeffries Lipmiano, adviser to former heads of state Amin, Taylor, Nixon et al.

Many have criticized President Bush for his statement that he gave up golf as a way of making a personal sacrifice to show solidarity with those fighting and risking their lives in the war in Iraq, a war that he largely created.

However, I think that it is difficult to see the value and importance--the weight and value of such a personal sacrifice--until we examine it more closely.

I recall meeting with Mobutu Sese Seko, I believe it was in the late 1960s. He had just finished his plundering of the Zairian (Now Congolese) economy after deposing Joseph Kasavubu in a bloody coup, raping the natural resources of the nation, and had lured the former Minister of Education back to the nation on the assumption that he would be amnestied, only to be tortured and then murdered by Mobutu's minions. I recall the scene vividly, Seko sitting atop an ornate Louis the XVII original, running his right hand through a hand of rubies. "I am satisfied, Guru, but I cannot yet find full and complete satisfaction. There is a vague feeling of irritation, or disquiet. Perhaps I am taking my people in the wrong direction."

Table tennis, I recommended. Give up table tennis, your favorite sport after your evening repasts. With this sacrifice, you will show that you too are willing to deny yourself what is important, that you too will bear the burdens of want, as does the nation. Seko smiled, as several rubies fell from the bag to the floor.

I, too, remember vividly, the events of 1973. Pinochet had just overthrown Allende in a bloody coup, and he had just then declared himself "Supreme Chief of the Nation". The General had begun his "disappearing" of political opponents, in which over 2000 were killed and about 30,000 tortured. "Guru," he said one evening, as we sat in the Massage Room of the Presidential Palace, "There is a pain in my lower back that emerges whenever I hear the shouts of imprisoned former associates from the courtyard, a pain that no massage can remove. Please, tell me, how can I rid myself of this continuous suffering".

I looked to the plate of Maté and Alfajores (fried Argentinian bread) that sat on a tray beside the massage table. "You must make a show of sacrifice to rid yourself of the tension of the difficult removal of your treasonous enemies, General." I pointed to the tray--"Mate' es fine. No mas."
He smiled, instructed a satrap to remove the tray. The following day, the vanishing of the Disappeared once again flowed without imposition or bar.

It was only months later that I sat with Nixon and Kissinger. It was late at night, the three of us seated in the Oval Office, tumblers of scotch before us--all but Nixon's untouched--and Nixon shoulders hunched low over his desk, the desk lamp against the night sky framed in the window behind him casting his face in an eerie glow. "It's the goddamn press, Henry. They want to hang us. Why don't they realize what I am trying to do for them, Henry? Peaceniks, Hippies, Yippies, and the damn New York Times. One day, when this has all passed, passed us on, then they'll realize, then they'll understand how hard I worked, how hard I tried..." The tumbler shook in his hand, and all that could be heard was the ice lightly clinking against the heavy glass. "What can I do, Guru? What can I do?"

I looked to the gilt framed picture on his desk, of Nixon playing the piano, Pat beside him. "You must sacrifice. You must abstain. The piano is your sacrifice to the lives so bravely being lost in Vietnam. Just as they have given up their freedom to play stringed ebony instruments in the Southeast Asian jungles, so you too shall put aside this desire. For them. "

He looked at me with a silent, poignant, smile, as a tear slowly ran down his cheek. "Henry", he said, waving his hand "Tell Ramon to remove the piano from the East Room and put it in the basement. And have him bring another bottle of Scotch."

There are many such tales of deep sacrifice for the good of one's nation, taken with a full and insightful vision of what the nation has suffered, and taken with a full understanding of what that suffering entails.

The sacrifice of golf is no mere folly, by a man so out of touch throughout his entire life with the meaning of actual suffering, by a man whose lifelong values have been so skewed by the cosseting of pain, infliction of deprivation, error, and the human consequence of his actions by an ever-present familial safety net that he cannot even conceive of the notion of risk inherent in actual sacrifice, by a man in thrall to his own limitations and such fears of those limitations that he has walled himself in from all that might possibility contradict it.


Golf is a sacrifice, a man giving up the very peace and solace, the removal from daily life, that his war has removed from those that his actions have sent into sands of Iraq.

And so I say, Mr. President, put your putter aside with honor, with pride, and with the knowledge that you too have made a great sacrifice fully in keeping with the actions and goals that you have taken on behalf of this nation.

Head of State

Posted by: Anonymous | May 15, 2008 6:57 AM | Report abuse

Bush has no brain for which he can judge his heart.

Posted by: Michael | May 15, 2008 9:31 AM | Report abuse

arrest Carl Rove and look him in the little cell under congress that has not used in a while ...check out his waterboarding not torture theory then hold for treason

Posted by: Anonymous | May 15, 2008 11:24 PM | Report abuse

Funny that the very person who traded in dividing and polarizing the electorate would suddenly argue that the increased polarization, as defined by the reduction in no-response poll metrics, actually paints his candidate in a better light. It's obvious that he feels like he needs to defend himself from charges of destroying his party - he engineered brilliant short term victories at the cost of long-term loss of credibility. It will take a generation to overcome the crimes of the Cheney-Rove-Delay era.

Posted by: Jeremiah | May 19, 2008 12:38 AM | Report abuse

GEORGE w bush... or perhaps george w BUSH... or even george W bush. there is something fishy going on, something foreign, perhaps even communist...

Posted by: Carl | May 21, 2008 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Who even cares what the PILLSBURY DOUGH BOY has to say about anything? He has a worse approval rating than Bush since NO ONE BUT BUSH approves of him!

Posted by: MadasHell | May 23, 2008 3:47 PM | Report abuse

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