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Today’s opening of the George W. Bush library – a beautiful facility in Dallas – is one of those rare occasions that brings all living presidents together.

The two-term president bore the brunt of some difficult decisions during his time in the White House, taking heat for the invasion of Iraq, the banking crisis that sent the nation spiraling into recession and other issues.

To the library’s credit, displays within its halls do not shy away from controversial moments in the Bush presidency, asking visitors to hear the arguments and consider the choices.

As president, Bush was never the sort to back down from difficulty, even when poorly advised by Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney. Some Republicans now recognize an opportunity to revive his image comparative to the sometimes listless leadership they see in Barack Obama.

Thanks in part to this effort, a new ABC/Washington Post poll of retrospective approval found that 47 percent view the Bush presidency in a positive light--well above the 30 percent approval rating he garnered just before leaving office and just about equal to Obama’s current mark.

But we would caution the GOP from embracing the former president’s term so readily.

As the living former presidents who gathered in Dallas today know, retrospective approval does not necessarily correspond to actual approval. Jimmy Carter, who exited the White House with a 34 percent nod receives 52 percent in the retrospective polls. In fact, Bush’s retrospective rating falls below every president over the past 50 years except one – Richard Nixon.

In a 2010 Gallup poll of past presidents, John F. Kennedy topped the list with 85 percent of Americans looking back positively on his term. Ronald Reagan earned 74 percent from the public, Bill Clinton 69 percent and George H.W. Bush a solid 64 percent.

The Iraq invasion, new findings regarding torture and other issues still divide the public. Yes, George W. Bush took some unfair lumps during his time and stood up to every decision. For that he deserves belated admiration from those who labeled him unfit for the office. But if the Republican party hopes highlighting Bush’s presidency will help win seats in divided states during the next round of elections, they will likely run smack into the difference between real and nostalgic approval.

 

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