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Mark Bennett Opinion

February 19, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Favorable images

Assessments of Oval Office occupants often change with time

Movie critics take a lot of criticism.

The masters of that craft accept the guff. After all, they’re job is to assess the work of others, and most understand they’ll get the same in return.

Still, the backlash packs comic irony. Plenty of folks staunchly declare, “I only go to movies the critics hate … They’re always wrong … They’ve never spent one minute on stage or in front of the cameras … They have no idea what I would like.”

OK, fair enough. But when those anti-critics return from a flick and are asked if it was any good, few say, “You know, I need to let you decide that as an individual. Our tastes in cinematic entertainment may differ.” More likely, they’ll blurt out, “the special effects were awesome,” or “it was boring,” or “I laughed my butt off,” or “don’t bother, it’s two hours of your life you’ll never get back.”

In a nutshell, they’re giving their critique, just as professional film critics do day after day, year after year.

Annual job evaluations mirror that situation. We’re quick to rate others’ occupational performance, but question reviews of our own work — “They have no clue what I go through to do my job.”

Oh, to be a president. National polling organizations now track the president’s approval ratings daily. Talk about “what have you done for us lately?”

As critics of the sitting presidents, average people rarely temper their opinions. That’s the American way. But in recent years, being on the receiving end of those views feels like standing in a tanning booth. Some folks find it impossible to utter anything positive about President Obama. Their evaluation of him contains only negative check marks. They’re not part of the recent climb in the president’s approval ratings. As the economy has shown improvement, overall public opinion of his performance has risen, too. Gallup said 47 percent of Americans approved of the job he was doing in the second week of February — his best since June 2011. A CBS/New York Times poll gauged his favorable rating at 50 percent, up from 47 percent in January.

Any change, up or down, in those job-approval ratings comes from people willing to acknowledge progress or regression.

It was fascinating to hear Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ rebuttal to the president’s State of the Union address a few weeks ago. Not surprisingly, the Republican who served as President Bush’s budget director heavily criticized Obama on numerous fronts. But the governor began his critique with words of praise that didn’t sound insincere or cynical. Daniels lauded the president “for his aggressive pursuit of the murderers of 9/11,” and “for the strong family commitment that he and the First Lady have displayed to a nation sorely needing such examples.” Daniels also gave Obama credit for “bravely backing long overdue changes in public education.”

That balance made Daniels’ criticism more credible. His words set an admirable example, too. Portraits painted in the extreme seldom reflect reality. Much of life is gray, not black and white.

The passing of time tends to alter our grade-cards for presidents. Consider the Gallup overall job approval ratings for the 11 post-World War II presidents. The guy with the worst public approval rating — the overall average of polls taken throughout their presidency — is surprising. Jimmy Carter would be a popular choice as the most unpopular president, thanks to the Iran hostage crisis, the unsuccessful rescue attempt of the hostages, and the energy crisis. Nope. What about Nixon? He resigned amid a sea of dishonesty. Sorry. Perhaps George W. Bush? His presidency included two wars, and the onset of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. No cigar.

Actually, the lowest rating belongs to Harry Truman, who received favorable approval critiques from just 45.4 percent of Americans. Even Carter topped him, narrowly, at 45.5 percent, as did Nixon at 49 percent and George W. at 49.4. Truman got poorer ratings, according to Gallup, than (in order) John Kennedy (70.1 percent), Dwight Eisenhower (65), George H.W. Bush (60.9), Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson (55.1), Ronald Reagan (52.8), George W. Bush, Nixon, Gerald Ford (47.2), and Carter.

Looking back now, with historical eyes, Truman is widely regarded as one of the most honest and decisive U.S. presidents. Historians frequently perch Truman right behind the Mount Rushmore quartet (Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln) and FDR. Yet, while in office, Americans weren’t nearly as impressed. In fact, in early 1948 — just months before the election at the end of his first term — Truman’s ratings fell into the 30 percent range.

His performance in the dramatic close of World War II — when his approval hit 87 percent — had faded.

“Lincoln,” a biography by David H. Donald, contains a quotation from Kennedy on assessments of Oval Office occupants. Of course, as a president, JFK was obviously biased. But his words should give us all reason to pause, on this Presidents Day weekend, to consider their task, and our own acceptance of criticism. Kennedy told Donald, “No one has a right to grade a president — even poor James Buchanan — who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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