On Presidents Day, CNN released its “poll of polls” (which averages national surveys). It declared that 53 percent of Americans disapproved of President Obama’s performance. It isn’t the worst approval rating he’s received. A CBS poll in November had 57 percent disapproval.
Obama has faced some severe criticism while in office. Personal attacks have filled the airwaves of conservative radio and television programs, dominated conservative-oriented publications and become the dinner table conversation (and probably television news-watching discussion) of many Americans who oppose the president. He has been called un-American, anti-Christian, a secret Muslim, a socialist, a Marxist and an imperial president.
Critics of Obama, particularly the most virulent ones, might be interested to know that the president is in good company as the object of personal attack by opponents. Past presidents have endured intense criticism while they served in office, regardless of who they were. None have been immune.
For example, Harry Truman was frequently disparaged during his presidency. He was considered mediocre, particularly compared to his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to his biographer David McCullough, when Truman became president, many Americans concluded that if Truman could serve in the office, so could “my next door neighbor.” Truman was lambasted for firing General Douglas McArthur, failing to settle labor strikes and not ending the Korean War. A popular line at the time was “To Err is Truman.” But since then, historians have ranked Truman among the greatest presidents.
Andrew Jackson, typically ranked by historians as among the top 10 best presidents, was called “King Andrew” because he vetoed a bill renewing a national bank. He also was labelled a bigamist because his wife mistakenly thought she was divorced when she married Jackson.
Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, was widely considered one of the most important presidents because he doubled the size of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase, kept the nation out of European wars, and cut the national debt by one third. However, at the time, critics dismissed him as an atheist, a coward and an adulterer.
John Adams, who preceded Jefferson, was called “His Rotundity” because of his weight. That was one of the milder epithets. He also was accused of being a monarchist, a warmonger and even being insane. Playing on those fears, Alexander Hamilton published a pamphlet claiming that Adams “is often liable to paroxisms of anger which deprive him of self-command and produce very outrageous behavior.”
Even George Washington was not immune from criticism. Thomas Paine called Washington a hypocrite and, speaking of him, said the American people wondered “whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.” Benjamin Franklin Bache published repeated attacks on Washington and even questioned his support of the American Revolution when he wrote in the paper he edited: “I ask you, sir, to point out one single act which unequivocally proves you a friend to the independence of America.”
Of course, anti-Obama readers of this column will fulminate at the suggestion that Obama can be placed in the same league with these predecessors in the office. My point is not to compare the current president’s performance with those of his predecessors. Rather, it is merely to point out that intense personal criticism has been the lot of presidents since George Washington.
Hopefully, Obama does not pay much attention to the personal critics. Nor should he be too concerned with the poll of the day. Presidential approval ranges widely and typically reflects the latest news. For example, according to the Gallup Poll, a little more than a year ago Obama had 56 percent approval, while a year before that it stood at 44 percent. In early 1991, more than 80 percent of Americans approved of President George H.W. Bush following the Persian Gulf War. The next year he was defeated for re-election.
Every president has his critics. That has been true since the beginning of the republic. Just as Obama has his now, so the next president will too. But critics are not always the best judges of what history says about presidents. Consider Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin Bache.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.