July 1, 2013

Describing Obama, Bush in a word

Public views of Barack Obama today are very different from those of George W. Bush at about this point in his second term. Obama’s job rating is in positive territory, while Bush’s tilted negative.

But a look at the one-word descriptions of the two men finds some common ground. Most notably, the word incompetent appears high on the one-word list for each.

In a recent Pew Research Center survey, conducted June 12-16, variations on the word good were used most often to characterize impressions of Obama. But incompetent shows up frequently as well. In fact, it tops the list of negative terms.

In July 2005, honest was used most often to describe Bush, followed by incompetent and arrogant.

A caveat is in order: The accompanying graphic shows the actual number of respondents who used each word. Even the words used most frequently account for less than 1% of all responses.

Yet the single-word descriptions of politicians give texture to blunt measures like job approval and favorability ratings. As Bush’s ratings declined through his second term, incompetent came to dominate his one-word descriptions. By December 2008, that word was used far more often than any other term in capturing impressions of the former president.

There are other telling comparisons in single-word descriptions of Obama and Bush. Among the positives for Obama are references to his intelligence (intelligent, smart) and effort (hardworking, trying). These concepts were seldom used to characterize impressions of Bush during his presidency.

There also were positive terms that came up consistently in Bush one-word surveys that have been mostly absent from the surveys on Obama. Bush was often described as determined and committed; Obama has seldom, if ever, been described this way.

Topics: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, U.S. Political Figures

  1. Photo of Carroll Doherty

    is director of political research at Pew Research Center.


  1. Amy Sterling Casil4 years ago

    Can you spin this any more positively? I mean, why not subtly make the negative circles smaller for President Obama. Be sure to highlight any areas where Pres. Bush came out “worse” than President Obama. Oh wait. You already did that.

    I don’t consider this type of survey to have any validity. At this point, I think few except diehard supporters, who will support any leader in any circumstances, are very enthusiastic about President Obama. Most people have given up. What survey do you have for that?

  2. Pam Miner4 years ago

    Obama has had to deal with the GOP which set out to make sure he would not succeed. M. McConnell had all of the GOP congress vow to do all the could to ruin him.
    I have never seen a president who was so hated before he even did anything.
    Big corporations, like Koch brothers, and their groups they made, like the heritage society, the tea party, and several more have spent vast fortunes to make sure the lies are put up with frequency and loudly.
    The media arm of the GOP, fox entertainment tells outrageous lies, half truths and things taken out of context.
    Yet people, who don’t follow the bigger issues believe them and the lies get even bigger.
    I admire Obama for handling all this with humor and patience.
    Yes, he has made some serious mistakes, but nothing compared to BUsh, who started wars of aggression and condoned torture.
    The biggest mistake Obama made was to re-sign the patriot act so the spying could continue.
    He should have never pardoned Cheney and Bush of war crimes.
    He signed an act that would allow the USA to hold people without a trial. But that is not him, only, that whole Guantanamo and Abu Grabbe, are black spots, or scarlet letters on our country.

    1. LES3 years ago

      None of that done by the GOP and McConnell was done until after Obama invited them to the Whitehouse and told them that he did not want to hear anything from them because he won and their opinions and ideas are not welcome. This is a fact that can be found in both the Congressional Record and the White House briefing. U Obama worshipers will not believe it but, it is true and can be verified with time line in reports. The non-believers just have personal opinion.

  3. DeclareTruth4 years ago

    Amazing that the word “Arrogant” which completely describes the man who currently occupies our White House, is used to describe Bush but NOT Obama??? Clearly there is something fundamentally wrong with the survey. Not up to your normal standards, Pew. Seriously, that is simply unbelievable.

    1. Hanna Glover4 years ago

      Yes it’s a shame, but that’s the world we live in now. It makes me wonder who and how our next president will be. #NoHope

  4. higmax4 years ago

    In an available students dictionary, socialism is described as ” a communistic philosophy of equal sharing”. Obama, with his appointed czars input, appears to be determined to promulgate this as an absolute doctrine to the American people to the intended demise of the Capitalistic system and the Constitution. Capitalism described as “an economic system based on profit and private ownership”.

    1. TPAKyle4 years ago

      Well, higmax, here’s what, Merriam Webster, a real dictionary says:

      1) any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
      2) a : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property
      b : a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state

      Aren’t you being overly dramatic?

  5. apetra4 years ago

    George W. Bush was then and is now higher rated, and thought of as a better President, than Obama is today, according to Gallup.

    1. SharonUP4 years ago

      Interestingly, Gallup was the least accurate in the last election and had a red bias. fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.co…

  6. Chris Slowik4 years ago

    I think I understand why you would consider “socialist” neutral for Obama, but that’s not really accurate if you consider the people that are actually using the word socialist to describe Obama. They don’t really know the meaning of the word, and they are definitely using it as a negative. Likewise, “christian” for Bush is likely being used as a positive. But that one is a little more of a gray area.. so makes sense to shade it gray.

    Interesting chart otherwise though!

    1. DeclareTruth4 years ago

      I’m with you. How, in America of all places, can the term “socialist” be considered neutral. Clearly, this is not the same country I was born in.

      1. Pam Miner4 years ago

        socialist comes from the word social. According the Webster’s thesaurus it is called;collective,communal, community, companionable, friendly, sociable, general, gregarious, group, neighborly,organized, public, sociable, societal. These are all positive words. It does not have the word socialism.
        It doesn’t have capitalism but capital is the root. Assets, cash,finance, finances,financing, fonds, funds, investments, means, money, principal, property, resources, stock, wealth, wherewithal.
        These 2 root words are not opposite, they are not even in the same category.

        The word liberal is abundant,advanced,altruistic,, ample, beneficent, bounteous, bountiful, broad, broad-minded, charitable, copious, enlightened, flexible, free, generous, handsome, high-minded, humanistic, humanitarian, and more, such as kind, open-hearted,progressive, unbigoted, and Whiggish. I need to look that one up, but if someone calls me a liberal, I consider it a great compliment.
        Conservative is, cautious, conventional, die-hard, establishmentarian, guarded,hidebound, moderate??, quiet, reactionary, right-wing, sober, Tory? traditional,stick-in-the-mud, unexaggerated, unprogressive, and verkrample. Now I need to see what Tory and verkrample mean.
        Just to clear a few terms up.
        Socialism has”enormous variety. economic production has an essential social as distinct from individual element.
        This seems to me that means that one person can’t build big bridges, it takes many to build it and it will be used by many. So to me socialism, devoid of certain parties and politics, Is a neutral to positive term.

  7. Thoughts4 years ago

    A snapshot of an eight year movie. Even Twitter uses more than one word to express an opinion. Meh.

  8. Rod V., from Folsom, CA.4 years ago

    My belief is that President George W. Bush was a poor president and I am a registered Republican. I feel that he was not engaged with the office as he should have been and that VP Cheney, really had a great influence with the office and ‘contractors’ for the ‘wars’. I feel President Obama is less biased on issues and I also believe that this ‘survey’ is skewed due to the far right wing media. Of course my biggest gripe is our US Congress and the lack of true devotion they hold for their job and for the American people. It is really a sad point of time/ in our history for this country of ours that we remain so embattled with each other, GOP and Democrats, that they put their personal agenda first while doing nothing in regards to passing legislation that would significantly help the American people.

    Thank you for listening—

    Rod V.- Folsom, CA.

  9. Jimbo4 years ago

    What you miss is how consistently honor was attributed to Bush and the gap with Obama. Most of the descriptors of Obama relate to personal warmth, while those for Bush relate to job performance. Many think of Obama as a good man possessing intelligence, but they don’t seem convinced of his integrity or capability in the job. Bush remains vilified by much of the country for supposedly being dumb, but few doubted his ability to get things done. Truman and Carter are the two recent presidents that might serve as examples of this dichotomy. It’s a difference worth exploring more in your analysis.

  10. Greg4 years ago

    Just how in the wide, wide, world of sports do you consider socialist to be a neutral term???? In the USA of A and a lot of other countries we consider that a derogatory term reflecting an always failing type of eventually oppressive government. I think you missed it on this one PEW. Liberalism creeping in? That would make your studies less valid.

    1. Carroll Doherty4 years ago

      Thanks for the comment Greg. We try not to pass judgment on any terms – we don’t call “Christian” positive, for example, or consider “Democrat” or “Republican” valenced (intrinsically positive or negative) terms. To be sure, “Socialist” is probably meant as a criticism by most, if not all, of those using the term, but unless it’s completely unambiguous we err on the side of placing it in the neutral category.

      You may also be interested to know that when we tested reactions to the word ‘socialism’ in December of 2011, 60% had a negative reaction to socialism while 31% reacted positively. Among under 30s, as many had a positive as a negative reaction. So it’s not universally viewed as a negative term. Here’s a link to the survey: people-press.org/2011/12/28/litt…

      1. Capitalist Infidel4 years ago

        Carroll, no word is “unambiguous.” For example “intellectual” is more of a negative term to me. It’s someone who has “book” smarts but is dumb as a box of rocks when it comes to the real world. Your own survey shows that “socialist” should be a negative term. A whopping 60% consider it negative while a paltry 31% see it as a positive. I bet you’ll find similar percentages if you substitute the word “intellectual.” That is if you poll more than the upper east side of Manhattan.

        1. dave4 years ago

          the fact you find intellectual negative speaks volumes about you. The computer you used to post your comment was first thought of by a man named Alan Turing, an intellectual. He also did more to save the UK during WW2 than just about any person (he broke the Enigma code machine allowing the UK to have advance warning of German attacks). Didn’t get polio, thank that intellectual named Jonas Salk. In the future you get your pancreatic cancer detected in time, that will be another intellectual Jack Andraka. I could go on but that might get embarrassing.

          1. Amy Sterling Casil4 years ago

            I find the term “intellectual” derogatory in terms of leadership as well, Dave. It’s positive to have intellectual interests, but to “be an intellectual” is antithetical to American ideas of leadership. The fact that so many people are cowed by perceived “intellectualism” and faux-intellectualism, doesn’t strike me as anything positive. People used to value thinking for themselves. Being uncritical of someone who has a reputation as an “intellectual” is hardly a positive quality in what is theoretically a representative republic.

            Anyone who listens to a candid interview with President George W. Bush or who reviews his actions since he’s been out of the presidency could form an informed judgment as to his intelligence and discernment. People made fun of how he spoke. He did not suffer from “uh” disease and President Obama is in need of inpatient treatment for it. Uh. But to some – that’s smart – based I’m certain on their pedant professors. Look up “Thwackum and Square.”

  11. maquignon4 years ago

    How the hell did Barack Obama get a reputation for being an intellectual? During the first presidential campaign the news was full of descriptions of Barack Obama as “brilliant.” In five years we have seen absolutely NO evidence of any brilliance or even of any intelligence!!! Of course many brain dead sycophants of Obama will believe anything positive they hear about him and will even believe his most blatant and outrageous lies. He is not even good at lying. He is prolific but not very good at it. He lies when it is obvious that he is lying.

    1. emjayay4 years ago

      Please list Obama’s lies. I am continually disappointed by his timidity and general aquiescence to Wall Street and corporations among others, but I don’t in any way get the right wing chanting of Liar and Dictator. Or Communist or Kenyan or Muslim for that matter.

      1. SharonUP4 years ago

        Agreed – please source your “lies” accusation. Comments like that do not add to the overall discourse.

        1. OspreyDave4 years ago

          Listen (if you can stomach it) to Fox chatter and you will see why so many people call Obama, or virtually anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their POV, liars and socialists, etc. Rarely will you see them offer any substantiation for their accusations. To so many, it’s very simple: if you disagree with what Hannity, Beck, and the bunch, your points are lies. It’s anti-Obama, and that’s good enough for them!

      2. flipalka4 years ago

        You can quite easily Google it. There are a plethora of lies that have spewed from his mouth.

      3. Jim4 years ago

        Obamacare is not a tax!
        Obamacare will not increase the deficit by one dime!
        No American should be forced to pay for healthcare!
        Healthcare legislative debates will be broadcast on C-Span!
        No tax payer money will be used to pay for abortions!
        No lobbyists will work in my administration!
        I will post all legislation online for five days for public comment before signing!
        If the economy does not improve, I will not seek reelection!
        This will be the most transparent administration in U.S. history!
        My budget will cut 4 trillion from the deficit over 10 years!
        I will save the average family $8,000 in gas!
        I am not someone who promotes same-sex marriage!
        Benghazi was caused by an Internet video!

        Okay, these are the ones I remember off the top of my head. If given a few minutes, I could double the number of lies listed here. Point is, President Obama is a pathological liar. Now be quick with your “it’s all Bush’s fault” retort.

    2. flipalka4 years ago

      Exactly. The guy doesn’t even know how many states there are in the US. Duh…