Poll: Americans high on Obama, divided on his legacy

Published 10:42 am Monday, January 9, 2017

WASHINGTON — More than half of Americans view President Barack Obama favorably as he leaves office, a new poll shows, but Americans remain deeply divided over his legacy. Fewer than half of Americans say they’re better off eight years after his election or that Obama brought the country together.

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted after the 2016 election illuminates one of the key contradictions of Obama’s presidency. By and large, Americans like him. Yet Obama has been unable to translate that approval to many of his policies, or to parlay his popularity into fulfillment of his goals.

Fifty-seven percent of Americans said they view Obama favorably, while 37 percent said they have an unfavorable view. Just over half said Obama’s presidency has been great or good.

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Those figures contrast sharply with how Americans viewed Obama just a few years ago. In December 2014, the month after Democrats lost control of the Senate, just 41 percent said they viewed Obama favorably in an AP-GfK poll.

Did Obama keep his promises? He did not, in the minds of 2 of 3 Americans. Forty-four percent say he tried to make good but failed, more than the 22 percent who say he didn’t keep promises at all or the 32 percent who said he did keep them.

Those figures reflect the frustrations felt even among many longtime Obama supporters about the lack of progress on major priorities such as overhauling the nation’s immigration laws, enacting gun control measures and shuttering the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“He acted very presidential, but he just couldn’t get things done,” said Dale Plath, a retired sales manager from Mason City, Iowa. He said he voted for Obama the first time, voted against him the second, and this year, Plath said: “I voted for change, frankly” — in the form of Donald Trump.

“Yes, I understand the Republicans were against Obama,” Plath said. “But there have been other presidents in the same situation, and they were able to pull through.”

Still, Obama will exit the White House in far better shape than his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who was viewed favorably by just 40 percent of Americans in polling conducted by Gallup as his presidency closed in January 2008. Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, fared better, with 62 percent viewing him favorably at the end of him time in office, despite his failure to win a second term.

Obama is roughly on par with President Bill Clinton, who was also viewed favorably by 57 percent of Americans at the end of his eight years in the White House.

The nation’s first black president and his complicated legacy come into sharper focus when it comes to race. Nearly 8 in 10 African Americans view him favorably, but far fewer see his presidency as having yielded the type of profound changes for black Americans that many once hoped.

Just 43 percent of African Americans said Obama had made things better for black people, while roughly half said they saw no difference. Six percent said Obama had made things worse.

For Ronald Thornton, a 62-year-old African American from Obama’s hometown of Chicago, change has come only around the margins. Thornton said he views Obama very favorably, but added that even Obama’s biggest achievement — the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare” — had come with downsides for people like him.

“The first year that it went into effect, I didn’t have insurance,” said Thornton, who later purchased care through the Obamacare marketplaces. “I was penalized for it that year, and I really don’t have money to pay for that penalty.”

The sharp divisions in American society exposed by the 2016 elections are striking given the high hopes for national unity that took hold after Obama’s historic 2008 election. Eight years later, just 27 percent see the U.S. as more united as a result of his presidency. Far more — 44 percent — say it’s more divided.

Nearly 9 in 10 Democrats and people who lean Democratic view him favorably, while 3 in 4 Republicans and GOP-leaning Americans have a negative view. Independents are roughly divided.

“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama said last January in his final State of the Union address.

When he took office, the nation was in dire economic straits, with jobs evaporating and a financial crisis deepening by the day. Near the end of Obama’s first year in office, the jobless rate hit a quarter-century high of 10 percent. He leaves the White House with unemployment at just 4.7 percent after 75 straight months of job growth, though it’s come with sluggish rises in wages and as many older Americans simply gave up on finding work.

It may be those persistent challenges that have fueled the perception that despite the economic recovery, things haven’t improved enough. Just 4 in 10 Americans said they and their families are better off than when Obama took office, while about a quarter say they’re worse off. About a third say they haven’t seen much change.

Irene Purcell said she felt the difference. The former paralegal from Austin, Texas, was struggling to find work as a nanny in an economy where few had the money to hire help.

“Just by virtue of him putting a large percentage of Americans back into the labor force, that made it possible for me,” Purcell said, as the 3-year-old she now watches squealed in the background. “That was a real good thing.”