Why Is Bill Clinton So Much More Popular Than Barack Obama?

President Obama and former president Bill Clinton during the annual Clinton Global Initiative. TIMOTHY A. CLARY

Here's a fun fact from the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll: Bill Clinton is the most popular political figure in the country. The former president, who never won an outright majority of the popular vote and was impeached by Congress, enjoys a 55–23 favorable/unfavorable rating. Clinton left office with an approval rating of 68 percent according to the CBS poll at the time, so his continuing popularity is not surprising.

But here's the interesting contradiction: Clinton has not disappeared from the national scene since 2001. He has been active and vocal—not only on philanthropic efforts but in political activism. His annual Clinton Global Initiative addresses climate change, education, and women's rights, among other liberal priorities. Clinton is pushing a green-jobs agenda similar to that of erstwhile White House "green-jobs czar" Van Jones, who was dumped by the Obama administration when his radical past became a political liability.

Clinton's and Obama's policies are virtually identical. That is no coincidence: the bitter primary battle notwithstanding, the Obama administration is stocked with Clinton-era veterans and loyalists. Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, economic adviser Larry Summers, Attorney General Eric Holder, and, of course, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are just a few former Clinton officials who have held prominent roles in the Obama campaign, transition team, or administration.

So why is Clinton's favorability so high while Obama is mired in a 46–49 approval/disapproval rating of his job performance? NBC offers a partial explanation, noting, "One of the main reasons for Clinton's positive score is that he no longer remains a GOP target. In the survey, 47 percent of Republicans view the ex-president negatively, compared with 78 percent of them who view Obama negatively."

Certainly Clinton has been by replaced by Obama as the victim of the malicious rumors circulated on right-wing radio. And if Republicans take over Congress, they will surely seek to embarrass the administration through investigations in the same manner as they did to Clinton.

But if voters were rational, none of this would matter. NBC's insight about GOP attacks is actually just a symptom of the larger point: that the roughly one third to one half of voters who are not fully committed partisans are incredibly inconsistent and incoherent in their estimation of political figures. How else can you explain Ronald Reagan leaving office with the same approval rating as Bill Clinton, according to CBS, despite their wildly different policies? And how do you explain that George W. Bush left office with an abysmal 22 percent approval rating despite aping not only Reagan's policies but getting many of the same results, such as increased inequality and big budget deficits?

The answer is that presidential favorability ratings reflect a lot more than ideological agreement with the president's agenda. The strength of the economy, the proximity of a flag-rallying moment like the attacks of September 11, the president's charisma, and the effectiveness of his opposition's attacks are all factors. Most intriguingly, the successful shift in GOP animus from Clinton to Obama among Republicans suggests that a significant portion of Republicans can be whipped into a fervor against any Democrat when their leaders and news sources criticize him, even if they would be softer on him once the attacks subside and they can assess his record more rationally. (The reverse—that Republicans may be charmed by a Democrat whose policies they dislike—may also be true. Certainly Reagan's high approval numbers suggest as much with regard to Democrats.)

None of this proves that President Obama's agenda is, or isn't, popular on the merits. But it does suggest that a decline in his popularity should not be overinterpreted as a major rejection of his policies when the last president to articulate the same agenda is much more popular than he is.