Barack Obama leaves office Friday with 6 in 10 Americans approving of his job performance, capping a steady rise that vaults him above the average final mark for modern presidents, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds.
Obama's high-note finish comes with plenty of dissonance, including persistent pessimism about the nation's direction and deep divisions after Donald Trump's victory in last year's presidential race after campaigning strongly against Obama's policies.
Yet Americans grew significantly more positive about Obama's presidency through the acidic 2016 campaign as perceptions of the economy improved. The president's approval ratings were underwater in July 2015, when 45 percent approved and 50 percent disapproved of his performance. But his overall approval grew to a steady 50 percent by January 2016, and rose again to 56 percent in June, never falling below the mid-50s through the fall campaign.
The latest Post-ABC poll shows Obama hitting 60 percent approval, with 38 percent disapproving — his highest mark since June of his first year in office, when 65 percent approved of him. The latest poll finds 61 percent approve of Obama's handling of the economy, while a smaller 53 percent approve how he has handled the threat of terrorism and 52 percent rate him positively for handling health care.
Partisanship was the principal factor in ratings of Obama throughout his presidency. Republicans soured on his performance by his second month in office, and Democrats widely approved throughout his two terms. Independents are largely responsible for Obama's strong finish, as approval climbed from 44 percent at the start of 2016 to 61 percent in the latest poll.
Another factor that may have boosted Obama: the improvement in ratings of the national economy.
Only 5 percent of Americans said the economy was “excellent” or “good” when Obama took the oath of office, and this number did not grow beyond 20 percent during his first term. But in the last few years, the share of Americans with positive ratings of the economy has more than doubled to 51 percent in this month's survey, the highest level tracked by Post-ABC polls during his tenure. Very few say the economy is in excellent condition (6 percent), and nearly half rate it negatively. But the share of people saying the economy is poor has dropped from 62 percent in early 2009 to 14 percent today.
How Obama's ratings stack up historically
Obama's final job approval mark is well above the 50 percent average for presidents from Franklin Roosevelt onward, and nearly twice as high as the 33 percent approval of his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, as he left office in 2009.
Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan all held higher approval marks in final polls while in office than Obama does today. Dwight Eisenhower also had a slightly more positive image than Obama, with disapproval 10 points lower than Obama's despite trailing the current president by one point in positive marks. Besides Bush, Obama's final rating is clearly higher than those of George H.W. Bush, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon.
Obama's closest analog is Gerald Ford, whose 53-32 approve-disapprove rating (+21) closely resembles Obama's +22 margin of approval and disapproval.
The Post-ABC poll asked respondents to predict how history will judge Obama in the long run, and 51 percent said they think Obama will go down in history as an outstanding or above-average president. One-quarter said he will be remembered as “average,” while another 25 percent said he will rank as below average or poor. By comparison, a similar 47 percent thought Clinton would be remembered as above average, while 36 percent said this of George H.W. Bush and 16 percent said the same of George W. Bush.
Little satisfaction with nation's direction
Americans have been pessimistic about the country's future for much of the past four decades, and Obama's hope-centered campaign aimed to counter this long-running pessimism.
The president did appear to inspire optimism during his first year, with as many as 50 percent saying the country was headed in the “right direction,” up from single digits the previous fall among registered voters and the highest level since 2003. But pessimism clawed back during the next two years, peaking after the Standard & Poor's credit downgrade when 77 percent said the country was on the wrong track.
Optimism among Democrats helped boost the “right direction” ratings into the low 40s during Obama's reelection campaign, but they have yet to reach that level again. Today, only 29 percent say the country is headed in the right direction, while 63 percent see it as on the wrong track.
One major shift that has already occurred since Trump's presidential victory is a flip in the partisan divide on this question. Today, Republicans are 26 points more likely than Democrats to say the country is headed in the right direction (45 percent vs. 19 percent). Last July, Democrats were 37 points more likely to express optimism about the country's direction (45 percent vs. 8 percent).
If Obama's presidency is any guide, that split will grow even bigger once Trump takes office.
The Washington Post-ABC News poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 12-15, 2017, among a random national sample of 1,005 adults, including landline and cellphone respondents. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.