The Unpopular President

Why was Harry Truman as unloved as George W. Bush?

Harry S. Truman

A CNN poll released May 1 pegged President Bush’s approval rating at 28 percent, among the lowest in modern American history. The rating hasn’t yet reached the all-time low of 22 percent, which Harry Truman received in a February 1952 Gallup poll. How did Truman manage to be less popular than George W. Bush?

The Korean War, a weak economy, and “tax fixing.” Truman had struggled in opinion polls before—most notably before his comeback victory in the 1948 election—but his approval ratings suffered a steady downward decline from early 1949. By February 1952, military operations in Korea had reached a stalemate, with congressional Republicans hammering Truman for “botching” the war. The conflict was also contributing to rapid inflation, despite an unpopular set of price controls the president had implemented. Although Democrats controlled Congress, splits within the party—particularly between Truman and Southern Democrats—meant Truman faced a constant struggle in moving his agenda forward.

Truman was also mired in the continued fallout of a tax-collection scandal that had erupted a year earlier. Throughout the course of 1951, dozens of Bureau of Internal Revenue officials resigned or were forced out due to allegations of corruption. The White House was initially slow to respond to the wrongdoing, and the effort to appoint an independent investigator became mired in the internal politics of the administration. Coming on the heels of a loan scandal at the Reconstruction Finance Corp., the tax-fixing row tied into long-standing associations between the former “senator from Pendergast” and machine politics. (It didn’t help that the chief alternative for the 1952 Democratic nomination appeared to be Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver, who had made his name with televised hearings into organized crime.) In a February poll conducted by Gallup, just 22 percent of respondents nationwide—including only 35 percent of Democrats—said they thought the Truman administration would succeed in cleaning up corruption in Washington.

But while Truman spent most of his second term mired in low approval ratings, it isn’t obvious why February 1952 was his low point. The president’s controversial firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur had occurred a full 10 months earlier. And his attempted seizure of the steel industry—a move later stopped by the Supreme Court—didn’t occur until April. After February, Truman’s ratings slowly began climbing upward—particularly after his announcement March 29 that he would not seek another term in the White House. When the final Gallup poll of Truman’s administration was conducted in December, his approval ratings had bounced back to 32 percent.

But while Bush still hasn’t reached Truman’s low point in Gallup’s approval ratings, he has earned the highest disapproval rating in the poll’s history at 69 percent. (Truman’s highest disapproval rating was 67 percent in January 1952.) According to Gallup pollsters, the difference can be explained by the fact that people were more likely in the 1940s and 1950s to give no answer when asked whether they disapproved of the president. Respondents may have been especially shy about criticizing the president in Gallup’s face-to-face interviews—which have since been replaced with random calls to respondents’ land lines and cell phones. On the other hand, Bush may just be a more polarizing president than Truman was—meaning that fewer people have no opinion about him.

Of course, since modern-day opinion polling dates back only to the 1930s—the Gallup Poll itself was started in 1935—presidential failures like Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, and Warren Harding were spared the shame of anemic approval ratings.

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Watch a video Explainer from 2007 that illustrates how Bush stacks up against not only Truman but Martin Van Buren, Andrew Johnson, and other reviled presidents.

Explainer thanks Robert Eisinger of Lewis & Clark College, Charles Franklin of the University of Wisconsin, Alonzo Hamby of Ohio University, and Brandon Rottinghaus of the University of Houston. Thanks also to reader Andrew Fyfe for asking the question.