We don’t have presidential opinion polling for 1920 or 1921 so we don’t know what Woodrow Wilson’s approval ratings were when he left office on March 4, 1921, but I would wager that if Gailup had been polling the American people back then, that Democrat would have then had approval ratings rivaling those of the currently outgoing incumbent.
One measure we do have is the result of the 1920 presidential election. The year, James Cox, the candidate of Wilson’s Democrats had the lowest popular vote percentage (34.5%) of any major party nominee in a race with no significant third party candidate. He even ran behind Herbert Hoover in 1932 and Jimmy Carter in 1980, incumbents running for reelection during the two worst economic crises of the last century.
Last fall, the candidate of George W. Bush’s party ran a full ten points ahead of Davis.
In 1916, Wilson won reelection with a popular vote margin nearly identical to that of Geroge W. Bush in 2004, though the Republican did win a majority of the popular vote.
While both men, Bush and Wilson, leave office largely out of favor with the American public, both espoused an idealistic foreign policy, centered around the notion of promoting democracy abroad. Compare Wilson’s Fourteen Points to Bush’s Second Inaugural Address. The essence of those points, “free trade, open agreements, democracy, and self-determination” is not much different than the broad outlines of Bush’s foreign policy goals.
History has held Wilson in higher regard than did the American people when he left office.Â And I daresay, it will offer a similar opinion of George W. Bush.Â Both led our nation to victory in foreign wars and may well have been undone, in part, by their idealism.Â Neither will join the pantheon of the great, or even the “almost great” presidents, but neither will they be relegated to the list of presidential failures.