Prof. Krugman delivers a column lead so fanciful that one wonders from what world he is writing:
Over the course of this week we'll be hearing a lot about Ronald Reagan, much of it false. A number of news sources have already proclaimed Mr. Reagan the most popular president of modern times. In fact, though Mr. Reagan was very popular in 1984 and 1985, he spent the latter part of his presidency under the shadow of the Iran-Contra scandal. Bill Clinton had a slightly higher average Gallup approval rating, and a much higher rating during his last two years in office.
People looking for false commentary will want to start with this. First, Krugman delivers the strawman - what news sources have proclaimed Reagan "the most popular president of modern times"? It may be that some enhusiastic talking head said such a thing on one of the many news shows. However, Google-News and I cannot find such a reference in the NY Times or the Washington Post. Amongst the more likely suspects, Fox News and the NY Post seemed to have managed a bit of restraint, as with this characterization of Reagan as "the hugely popular 40th U.S. president".
We did find this irrationally exuberant from the UK Independent ("Affable right-winger became the most popular president in history"), but the text of the story is more restrained:
He left office in 1989 with the highest popularity rating of any retiring president in the history of modern-day public opinion polls....
Which is puzzling - we understand that JFK did not retire, but what about Eisenhower? In any event, Prof. Krugman seems to think the case can be made for Bill Clinton's popularity, reminding us that "Bill Clinton had a slightly higher average Gallup approval rating, and a much higher rating during his last two years in office."
Is the approval rating the measure of popularity? The conventional wisdom is that Reagan's genial disposition charmed even his critics, while Clinton's antics prompted auto-hair-tearing amongst his supporters (an extreme case of torn hair here). Let's go to the videotape (on text...) for a comment on the Clinton's high job approval / low personal approval ratings:
It is remarkable for a president to have such disparity between his performance and personal ratings. The only analogous situation was, in the reverse, with former President Reagan, whom many people liked even while they were less impressed with his policies and performance.
Reagan left with very high favorables, but his approval rating wasn't all that high because of Iran-Contra and various other things. Clinton is leaving with a very high approval rating, but personally, people are remembering the scandals, kind of disliking the aura that he left them.
Fine, this is not mysterious, except perhaps to Princeton professors. The next question is, does history count? Clinton's ratings took a hit from his controversial last-day pardons. Beyond that, history will judge whether his reputation will suffer from having presided over what appear, in hindsight, to have been peace and prosperity bubbles.
And, in hindsight, Reagan's image surely benefitted from the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Empire in 1991.
Fortunately, the Polling Report has already seen the future! Without peeking, we can guess that Kennedy will be highly ranked (he is!). Having peeked, we see that the vox populi ranks Reagan ahead of Clinton, and ahead of the other recent exes such as Carter (whew!).
Now, ex-Presidents tend to age well (and I am still looking for info on the gap between Bush 41's approval and favorable ratings - I think we liked him personally even as we voted him out). However, Jon Stewart (Daily Show) was very funny on the subject of the Reagan memorials. Paraphrasing, he said that the guys he felt most sorry for while watching the Reagan tributes were Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford - they had to know they were never going to get this. I will offer my advice to you two (he went on) - die while saving a child. Maybe running into a burning building will do it. Maybe.
UPDATE: Quando does content - Krugman is having fun with his baselines and numbers; imagine my surprise.