Wow. A reputable poll shows the public believes Barack Obama is the worst president since World War II. Worse than Richard M. Nixon, driven from the presidency by Watergate? Much. Worse than Jimmy Carter, for decades the very symbol of the feckless chief executive? Loads. Worse than George W. Bush, still a lightning rod on the left and a symbol of disappointment on the right? Definitely.
These startling poll results set loose the predictable reaction: A flurry of told-you-so nods on the right and a fusillade of this-tells-us-nothing assertions on the left. For once, they're both right.
Obama is in trouble, no matter how carefully you peel through the Quinnipiac University poll that is causing such a firestorm. There's almost no good news there, or anywhere else, for the president. Then again, this worst-president poll sheds little light. Almost every veteran observer of polls and presidents will likely attest to that.
First, the trouble.
The public is split evenly -- 48 percent to 48 percent -- on whether the president is honest and trustworthy. It's split fairly evenly on whether he has strong leadership qualities, with a slight advantage to those who think he doesn't. The same for whether the president cares about "people like you," with the same slight advantage this time to the president.
Here's the big one. By a fairly substantial margin (45 percent to 38 percent), the public believes the nation would be better off had former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts been elected two years ago rather than Obama.
No one can possibly argue that these figures are good news for the president, who is dealing with an immigration crisis at the Mexican border, a crumbling Iraq, an uncertain Afghanistan and an economy that hasn't bounced back fully. How Barack Obama, employing the idiom of hope and change, would love to run against an incumbent president with a portfolio like that!
Now, the sobering bucket of cold water for the Obama critics.
With the exception of three occupants of the White House (all war presidents), presidents tend to grow in stature as their administrations grow more distant in the rear-view mirror. The exceptions, according to Gallup figures in The New Republic, are three of the most beleaguered modern presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson (Vietnam), Richard M. Nixon (Vietnam) and George W. Bush (Iraq and Afghanistan).
The message here is not that Obama isn't troubled as he rounds the clubhouse curve and heads toward his seventh year in office. It is that Americans' judgments aren't final.
"I knew from the bitter experience of all public men from Washington on down, that democracies are fickle and heartless, for democracy is a harsh employer," said the 31st president after he was defeated for re-election. Herbert Hoover, who lost the 1932 presidential race to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is still waiting for redemption. But most of his successors have won it. So, too, might George W. Bush and Barack Obama -- both hired twice by the country's harshest employers.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com).