Obama leaves office with average approval ratings how will his legacy fare?
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
Barack Obama is leaving the presidency popular and with a high approval rating, but his term average is lower than other recent presidents. According to a Gallup Poll released on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, the day Obama left office his final approval rating and the average for his presidency. According to Gallup Obama’s last approval rating was 59 percent, but his average is much lower at just under 48 percent with 47.9. With the President Obama’s final poll numbers set in stone, it is becoming easier to determine how he ranks against his predecessors, what his legacy will be and how history will look at him.
According to earlier Gallup poll on Obama’s favorability published on Monday, Jan. 16, Obama has a 58 percent favorability rating, when he entered office in 2009 the president had 79 percent favorability his highest. In general, Obama has averaged a 53 percent favorability rating; his first year was his best where he had a 55 to 69 percent rating, and most recently after the 2016 election where Obama saw a 61 and 62 percent favorability rating. At his lowest, the president had a 42 percent rating just after the 2014 mid-term elections, where the GOP regained control of the Senate and saw momentum.
Of the four presidents, Gallup tracked favorability ratings, Obama will see himself in second place after Republican George H.W. Bush, who left office in 1993 after losing his reelection bid, but still managed to have 62 percent favorability by January 1993. Ranking after Obama is Democrat Bill Clinton who had 57 percent favorability in January 2001. Only Republican George W. Bush embattled by two long and unpopular wars and an economic collapse fared the worst, with only a 40 percent favorability rating.
Obama’s favorability rating is on par with his approval rating, where last scored a 59 percent according to the Jan. 17–19 Gallup Daily tracking, with a 57 in his last weekly poll. Obama had an average of 49.1 percent approval rating for his first term and a 46.7 percent for his second term. Obama tied for second place with the smallest approval rating range, which was only 31 percent. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–1961) also had a 31 percent range, but John F. Kennedy, who died tragically in office, had the smallest range of only 24 percent.
Obama’s last weekly approval rating puts him in the high range of departing approval ratings of post-World War II presidents. Bill Clinton in 2001 had the highest exit approval rating with 66 percent. Next Reagan had 63 percent in December 1988; Obama comes in third with 59 percent, tying with Eisenhower with 59 percent in 1961 and Kennedy who had a 58 percent approval rating just before his assassination n November 1963. Of the recent presidents, George H.W. Bush with 56 percent in 1993 and George W. Bush, who only had a 34 percent approval rating the week before Obama took office in January 2009.
Despite this recent uptick in popularity Obama will not leave office as one of the most popular presidents, in fact, his term approval rating will only sit below 50 percent at only 47.9 percent. Obama’s highest approval rating was 69 percent just after his inauguration, Jan 22–24, 2009, with the highest weekly average that week with 67 percent. Obama’s lowest point was a three-day average of 38 percent approval rating “Eight times, most recently Sep 2–5, 2014,” with a lowest weekly average of 40 percent, which Obama saw 12 times during his presidency “most recently Nov 3–9, 2014.”
Of the 12 post-World War II presidents, Obama sits at ninth place. Obama’s numbers never really went far high or very low accounting for his low position. Gallup analyzed that Obama “subpar approval ratings for much of his presidency.” Gallup noted that Obama started out with high numbers for an incoming president but after his first year in office his numbers to around 50 percent and staying below the “majority level” until he just before his reelection in 2012 in his 16th quarter in office.
After his second inauguration Obama’s approval numbers fell to the 40s, and during that period, he saw his lowest numbers. With his presidency close to ending a contentious presidential election going on did Obama’s numbers rebound in 2016 his last year in office where he again saw numbers over 50 percent. As Gallup indicates, Obama’s “32nd and final quarter job approval average of 55.7% was his third-highest as president.”
The following is the term averages:
1. John Kennedy (January 1961-November 1963) 70.1
2. Dwight Eisenhower (January 1953-January 1961) 65.0
3. George H.W. Bush (January 1989-January 1993) 60.9
4. Lyndon Johnson (November 1963-January 1969) 55.1
5. Bill Clinton (January 1993-January 2001) 55.1
6. Ronald Reagan (January 1981-January 1989) 52.8
7. George W. Bush (January 2001-January 2009) 49.4
8. Richard Nixon (January 1969-August 1974) 49.0
9. Barack Obama (January 2009-January 2017) 48
10. Gerald Ford (August 1974-January 1977) 47.2
11. Jimmy Carter (January 1977-January 1981) 45.5
12. Harry Truman (April 1945-January 1953) 45.4
Despite the rankings, Obama’s lowest approval rating was only 38 percent, which he saw in August and October 2011, “after contentious negotiations over the debt ceiling limit and subsequent downgrading of the U.S. credit rating.” Obama saw a 38 percent approval rating again in September 2014, when as Gallup indicates, terrorist group ISIS beheaded American journalists, and after a particularly tense summer in the US, with racial tension, and international conflicts between Russia and Ukraine and Israel with the Palestinians. Most post-war presidents saw approval rating lower than Obama with five below 30 percent. Only Eisenhower and Kennedy never saw number lower than the 40s.
The out-going president had the third highest job approval low of all post-war presidents.
Job approval lows:
1. John Kennedy (September 1963) 56
2. Dwight Eisenhower (March 1958) 48
3. Barack Obama (2011, 2014) 38
4. Bill Clinton (June 1993) 37
5. Gerald Ford (January 1975 and March 1975) 37
6. Lyndon Johnson (August 1968) 35
7. Ronald Reagan (January 1983) 35
8. George H.W. Bush (July 1992) 29
9. Jimmy Carter (June 1979) 28
10. George W. Bush (October 2008) 25
11. Richard Nixon (July 1974 and August 1974) 24
12. Harry Truman (February 1952) 22
President Obama’s low overall ranking is also because he has never had high peaks in his approval ratings, and only ranks ninth in job approval highs, with 67 percent. Only Nixon and Reagan also never saw approval ratings over 70 percent during their presidencies. Obama’s presidency never had a “rally event” a threat to public security as Gallup calls it that bolsters an approval rating to very high numbers. The only thing Obama had that was close was when his administration caught “Osama bin Laden in May 2011,” but then Obama’s approval rating only bumped up to 52 percent.
Job approval highs:
1. George W. Bush (September 2001) 90
2. George H.W. Bush (February 1991) 89
3. Harry Truman (June 1945) 87
4. John Kennedy (April 1961) 83
5. Dwight Eisenhower (December 1956) 79
6. Lyndon Johnson (February 1964) 79
7. Jimmy Carter (March 1977) 75
8. Bill Clinton (December 1998) 73
9. Ronald Reagan (May 1981 and May 1986) 68
10. Barack Obama (January 2009) 69
11. Richard Nixon (November 1969 and January 1973) 67
12. Gerald Ford (August 1974) 71
Obama average approval and favorability numbers come as historians will start assessing his presidency as a complete picture. Gallup analyzes that “Obama’s average job approval rating for his entire presidency was lackluster.” The poll blames it on the lack of a rally event and polarization caused by Republican opposition throughout his term.
Still speaking of the relation between Obama’s approval rating and ranking in history, Gallup concluded, “A president’s overall approval average is one indication of how well he did his job, but often a president’s ratings at the end of his presidency have a greater impact on how he is remembered. Reflecting this, Americans believe that Obama will be judged more positively than negatively by history, and predict he will go down in history as a better president than several of his predecessors who had higher average approval ratings.”
Although it is still early, Obama ranking as president and afterward might not be the same, Obama was not able to accomplish all that he wanted to as president because of his and the Republican Congress’s impasses and stubbornness, and a growing partisan divide. Obama was a go it alone president making his mark through executive actions, with just eight alone in his last month as president. Still, he failed to reform immigration neither through Congress, not through executive action, which the Supreme Court struck down.
Still, in his first year as president, he accomplished what no other modern president could a health care law, the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare. The GOP will try to repeal it, but they will face resistance from a public who views it as part of the rights. Obama’s other greatest accomplishment is turning around the economy from a great recession to a flourishing economy with the lowest employment rate in decades. He reformed the education law and saw the nation’s highest high school graduate rates, Obama also believed in second chances, reforming federal sentencing laws, and granting more clemencies and commuting more non-violent drug sentences than any previous president.
According to a recent article in the New Orleans Tribune, “Historians Rank President Obama’s Legacy” historians see psychological effects as part of his success. Obama broke boundaries as the first black president; he was also a professor president who was “disciplined” and often made unpopular decisions, which he saw fit. Obama believed in the American people being the best they can, which was behind his 2008 campaign slogan, “Yes We Can;” he made Americans hope and believe they all could aspire to equality and even the highest office in the land.
We are still too early to assess Obama’s place in history and ranking among the presidents. Time magazine in their article “The One Reason We Can’t Assess President Obama’s Place in History,” spoke to three prominent presidential historians, Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton, Timothy Naftali, Clinical Associate Professor of History and Public Service at NYU and Doris Kearns Goodwin. All three agreed that perspective, context and time are necessary to assess Obama’s legacy to see how his policies and accomplishments hold up.
As Zelizer told Time, “Those policies have to last to be significant, they can’t fade away. If a president does a lot of things that are still around two decades later, I think that’s a great measure of whether a President’s been successful.” Naftali believes that “presidents’ reputations… improve with time,” and Kearns Goodwin says what is important is “whatever historically ends up helping towards social justice or economic opportunity.”
Just as his soaring hallmark rhetoric, Obama had so much potential for greatness, but like his ratings, in the end, he came off as just average according to the numbers. Only in the years, ahead looking back with clearer and less rose-colored views will historians really be able to see how much or if Obama truly changed the country during his tenure.
Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.