Obama is the “worst president since WWII,” says meaningless poll

Pollsters routinely ask who the "worst president" is, and it's usually the guy in office (or Nixon)

Topics: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, presidency, Polls, Public opinion polling, Media Criticism, Media, Politics, ,

Obama is the "worst president since WWII," says meaningless poll (Credit: AP/Matt York/Reuters/Jason Reed)

Quinnipiac has a new survey out with a sexy and exciting headline: “Obama Is First As Worst President Since WWII.” The poll found that 33 percent of Americans picked Barack Obama as worst president of the last 75 years, with George W. Bush coming in a close second at 28 percent. Because it’s summertime and we’re all bored, every single political news outlet picked up the story with some variation of “Obama is the worst president” as their headline.

Conservatives in particular are very excited that the American people are finally coming around to what they’ve known in their heart of hearts since 2009: Barack Obama is, in fact, the worst president who ever presided.

Here’s the thing about Quinnipiac’s question: It’s largely meaningless. Pollsters have been asking some variant of this question for over 15 years, and the person occupying the Oval Office at the time the question is asked always finishes at or near the top of the “worst president” rankings.

Quinnipiac asked the same question in 2006, when the Bush administration was just beginning to slip into its irreversible skid in public opinion. The result? “Bush Worst President Since 1945.” Is it true that George W. Bush had, by that point, done more damage to the country than, say, Richard Nixon? Hard to say! But Nixon and his administration were long dead by that point, and America was angry at Bush, so they named him the worst.

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In early 2000, as the Clinton administration was winding down, Gallup asked respondents “which of these ten presidents we have had since World War II would you consider the worst president?” Bill Clinton finished second, with a 20 percent share. He was saved from the top spot by the comic supervillainy of the Nixon administration, which transcended the short-term memories of the American populace. Was Bill Clinton’s presidency the second-worst presidency of the previous half-century? Absolutely not. But Clinton had an affair with an intern so, at the time, that was obviously worse than Vietnam.

In 1998, ABC News asked respondents which president had done the worst job in their lifetimes. Clinton and Reagan finished at a near tie for second, behind (you guessed it) Richard Nixon.

So what are we to learn from this? When Americans are frustrated with a president, they tend to express that frustration by calling him the Worst. President. Ever. They also tend to have short political memories, except in the case of Nixon, whose transcendent evilness persisted in the American consciousness. (But even that has abated with time.)

Americans are frustrated with Obama because the economy isn’t doing all that well and veterans can’t get care at VA hospitals and #Benghazi. Is any of that worse than starting two pointless wars and getting thousands of people killed and watching the economy spiral into near ruin? Probably not! But since those wars are largely over and Obama’s the president now, people say his presidency is worse than the legitimately terrible presidency of George W. Bush.

What the Quinnipiac poll shows is that Americans are down on President Obama. We already knew that, but now we have a new talking point to express it with.

Simon Maloy
Simon Maloy is Salon's political writer. Email him at smaloy@salon.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SimonMaloy.

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