How Americans are changing their minds about Obama

President Barack Obama at the White House Correspondents' dinner 2016

Of all the bizarre phenomena in present-day American politics, one that is largely going unnoticed is the recent and unexpected upshot in the approval ratings of President Barack Obama.

Whilst Europe has been charmed and enthused by Mr Obama’s infectious charisma, his fellow citizens have largely viewed his tenure as one characterised by divisiveness, economic frustrations and ultimately – considering the boundless optimism upon which he was elected – with disappointment.

Whereas Gallup places his average approval rating at 47%, he is, as of late July, now sitting on 53%, with a net approval rating of nine points: approval ratings of George W. Bush at this stage in the cycle, for comparison, averaged a meagre 31%. Not since the honeymoon period following his re-election in November 2012 has Mr Obama seen positive net approval ratings so consistently.

Many Americans may be starting to view the prospect of Mr Obama leaving the White House with feelings of dread, as opposed to relief

Derided by the right-wing, and often by the left as well (Michael Moore has claimed Obama’s sole legacy resides in him being the first black president) and with a wave of populism sweeping both the Democratic and Republican parties, Mr Obama’s popularity may seem inexplicable. Yet there are clear factors helping to explain why many Americans may be starting to view the prospect of Mr Obama leaving the White House with feelings of dread, as opposed to relief.

Firstly, although America’s economic recovery has hardly seen it relive the boom of the 1950s and 1960s, with figures wage growth being especially indicative of the difficulties faced in the in the post-recession economy, growth has returned.

Despite the general pessimism among Americans regarding the direction of their country, indicators such as job-creation, consumer spending and finally real wages, are seeing an upturn. With Obama’s time in office coming to an end, it is clear that the United States economy is on surer-footing than at the time of him taking office. A reflective mood on Mr Obama’s economic record is thus likely to have reaped some dividends.

The implementation of Obamacare has been a messy and unconvincing. Its benefits were poorly communicated and thus as a result most took a dim view of what could have been one of Mr Obama’s crowning achievements of his time in office. Yet in purely statistical terms, it has seen significant successes. As of May 2015 12.3% of Americans were uninsured, down from 16.2% in 2009. Figures like this suggest that an inevitable softening will occur among those previously hostile to such policies.

Most importantly though, Mr Obama’s popularity is a direct result of the often virulent hatred felt by much of the American electorate towards the two candidates for the upcoming presidential election, Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton.

Mr Obama was elected on a platform of hope and change: the conclusion reached by Americans is that he has, ultimately, disappointed

Whereas the 2008 presidential election proposed the now enviable choice of John McCain, a war hero and respected senator, and Mr Obama himself, to replace the now hated George Bush, the next president of the United States is likely to be one of the most unpopular figures in American politics of all time: Mr Trump’s favourability ratings stand at minus 26%, Mrs Clinton’s at minus 10.2%, according to a Real Clear Politics average.

For opponents of Mr Trump, Obama represents moderation and tolerance. For opponents of Mrs Clinton, Mr Obama is not quite so tainted by her deep-roots to the establishment and does not suffer from the same general distrust felt by many towards her.

Mr Obama was elected on a platform of hope and change: the conclusion reached by Americans is that he has, ultimately, disappointed. Yet the deep ambivalence, apathy, distrust and even outright hatred felt by Americans towards the candidates for the November election means that an increasing number have softened their views on Mr Obama’s record and his vision for America.

With Mr Trump attempting to replace Mr Obama as the new champion for hope and change, there is an increasing sentiment: be careful what you wish for.

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