AP-NORC Poll: Obama won nation's approval, didn't unite it
WASHINGTON (AP) -- More Americans feel Barack Obama's presidency divided the country than feel it brought people together, a new poll shows. Yet he leaves office held in high esteem by a solid majority.
Eight years after Obama's historic election, just 27 percent see the U.S. as more united as a result of his presidency, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted after the 2016 election. Far more - 44 percent - say it's more divided.
Those figures underscore one of the key contradictions of Obama's presidency. By and large, Americans like him. Yet, aside from the big "Obamacare" health care overhaul, he has been unable to translate that approval into congressional majorities to fulfill many of his goals.
"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.
Still, 57 percent say they view Obama favorably, putting him way ahead of his predecessor, George W. Bush, and on par with Bill Clinton at the end of their two terms. Clinton had the same 57 percent but Bush just 40, according to Gallup polling at the time. Bush's father fared better, with 62 percent viewing him favorably at the end of his time in office, despite his failure to win a second term.
Just over half say Obama's presidency has been great or good. Thirty-seven percent view him unfavorably.
Did he keep his promises? He did not, in the minds of 2 of 3 Americans, though 44 percent say he tried.
There's frustration even among many longtime Obama supporters about the lack of movement on major priorities such as overhauling the nation's immigration laws, enacting gun control measures and shutting 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."
Obama leaves office more popular than he was just a few years ago. In December 2014, the month after Democrats lost control of the Senate, just 41 percent said they viewed him favorably in an AP-GfK poll.
His complicated legacy comes into sharper focus when it comes to race. Nearly 8 in 10 African-Americans view the nation's first black president favorably, but far fewer see his presidency as having yielded the type of profound changes for black Americans that many had hoped.
Just 43 percent of African-Americans say Obama made things better for black people, while roughly half say they see no difference. Six percent say Obama has 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 he 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."
By and large, Americans' views of Obama break along partisan lines. 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.
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 many older Americans simply giving 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 says she felt the difference. The former paralegal from Austin, Texas, was struggling to find work as a nanny in an economy where too 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."
The AP-NORC poll of 1,017 adults was conducted Dec. 14-19, 2016 using a sample drawn from NORC's probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
Interviews were conducted online and using landlines and cell phones.