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How People Feel About President Obama’s Legacy Varies Greatly By Party Affiliation: Survey

3 minute read

In February of 2016, President Barack Obama revisited the site where his journey to the White House began, Springfield, Ill., and reflected on his eight years in office.

At the time, Obama admitted he had failed to fulfill a major promise—to bridge the partisan divide that exists in U.S. politics. “One of my few regrets is my inability to reduce the polarization and meanness in our politics,” Obama said.

The results from a new survey by the Pew Research Center show that beyond contributing to the nastiness of American politics, that failure will have an impact on Americans’ perceptions of his legacy.

Americans perceptions of the president vary greatly along party lines; according to Pew, a U.S. president’s average job approval rating has not been as polarized as Obama’s since President Dwight Eisenhower. A president leaving office with low expectations is hardly new—more Americans overall thought President George W. Bush left a below average legacy—but the partisan differences appear to be more pronounced than in years past, according to the report.

For example, about 78% of Democrats and left-leaning Independents believe Obama’s accomplishments will outweigh his failures when historians look back on his presidency, but only 13% of Republicans agree. With regard to past presidents, when Clinton left office, 76% of Democrats said the good of his presidency would outweigh the bad and, unlike under Obama, a full 45% of Republicans felt the same way. Under Bush, a full 77% of Democrats thought history would be unkind to the 43rd president, but 30% of Republicans agreed.

That being said, the president will leave office on Jan. 20 as a generally well liked commander-in-chief. The president’s favorability ratings, which soared during the contentious 2016 presidential election, are currently at 64% and a whopping 72% of Americans are fans of his wife, first lady Michelle Obama. About 58% of Americans surveyed said they approved of the job he did in the White House—the highest his job approval rating has been since his 2012 re-election. Pew reports that Obama’s job approval rating is only slightly lower than those of Presidents Reagan and Clinton when they left office. Nearly half, 45% of Americans even think the president will be remembered as an above average or outstanding president, a far more positive outlook than citizens had at the end of his predecessor President George W. Bush’s two terms in office.

Along racial lines, the divisions are just as stark for the nation’s first African American president. Pew found there’s a 38-point gap between black and whites on whether or not Obama will be considered an average or outstanding president.

The Pew study of 1,500 Americans was conducted between Nov. 30 and Dec. 5, it has an overall margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.

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