The FINANCIAL — Asked about the state of the nation over the past eight years, Americans say the U.S. gained ground in four of 19 policy domains, and they say it lost ground on 14 and held steady on one.
More Americans see progress than decline on the situation for gays and lesbians, energy, climate change and the economy. They see the biggest setbacks on the federal debt, crime, the gap between the rich and the poor, and race relations. They are divided on whether the nation has made progress or lost ground on healthcare, according to Gallup.
These results are based on a Jan. 2-3 Gallup poll in which U.S. adults were asked if the nation made progress, stood still or lost ground over the eight years since Barack Obama became president. Gallup asked the same question about George W. Bush’s presidency in January 2009 as his second four-year term was coming to a close.
The following analysis highlights key findings about some of the issues most central to Obama’s presidency.
Situation for LGBT Americans Is a Clear Bright Spot
Americans saw more progress on the situation for LGBT Americans than any other issue. Sixty-eight percent believe the situation for gays and lesbians improved under Obama, compared with 16% who say it lost ground. This likely reflects the shift toward majority approval of same-sex marriage during Obama’s terms in office and the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage legal nationwide.
Perceived Progress on Energy and Climate Change
Twice as many Americans say that the nation made progress over the past eight years on energy as say it lost ground. Americans were also more positive than negative about the nation’s progress on climate change, though to a lesser degree. The positive view of the energy situation may reflect gas prices, which rose to almost $4.00 a gallon in 2012, perhaps making today’s prices seem cheap by comparison. Shifts toward renewable energy and abundant natural gas may also be driving Americans’ views. Obama also championed and helped put into effect the Paris Agreement, designed to combat climate change, although President-elect Donald Trump has challenged the nation’s participation in this agreement.
More Say Economy Made Progress Rather Than Lost Ground
Obama took office as the U.S. was in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Since then, the unemployment rate has been cut in half, consumer spending has steadily climbed back to pre-recession levels and Americans’ confidence in the economy has shown sizable gains. Americans appear to recognize these and other economic improvements when asked about progress in the economy over the past eight years, but only to a modest degree. Forty-two percent of Americans say the economy improved, while 36% said it lost ground. Twenty percent said there was no change.
Possible explanations for the public’s tepid assessment of economic progress are that Americans clearly perceive that the federal debt (a -36-percentage-point difference) and the gap between the rich and the poor (a -34-point difference) have gotten worse rather than better. Americans are also more negative than positive about taxes (-11 points) and trade (-4 points).
Americans Split on Whether Healthcare Situation Improved or Lost Ground
Americans are divided in their views of the nation’s healthcare situation now compared with when Obama took office — 43% say the U.S. made progress on the issue and 43% say it lost ground. These views could be interpreted as a referendum on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), President Obama’s signature legislative achievement. The ACA became law in 2010 and led to a seven-point drop in the adult uninsured rate.
Americans’ divided views on whether the healthcare situation has improved over the past eight years underscore the general split in views of the law itself since its inception. The law’s fate is uncertain as President-elect Trump and congressional Republicans have prioritized repealing it and replacing it with a new law. While Obama no doubt hopes that the law will become a positive part of his historical legacy, the public at this point clearly has a wait-and-see attitude.
Americans Say Race Relations and Situation for Blacks Worsened
Although President Obama made history as the first black president, Americans perceive that race relations suffered during his two terms. Fifty-two percent say the U.S. lost ground on race relations over the past eight years, while 25% said the country made progress. The ratings likely reflect the racial strife surrounding the high-profile deaths of black people at the hands of police during Obama’s second term, as well as fatal shootings of white police officers by black men.
A separate item included in the list of 19 shows that 37% of Americans say the situation for blacks got worse under Obama, while 30% say the U.S. made progress. Twenty-seven percent say there has been no change.
Americans Negative on Foreign Relations Progress
Under Obama, most U.S. combat troops were removed from Iraq and U.S. special forces found and killed Osama bin Laden. At the same time, the Islamic State group has come to power, Syria remains in turmoil, the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan remains unsettled, and relations with Russia and China continue to be significant concerns.
Overall, 49% of Americans say that the U.S. lost ground in its position in the world over the past eight years, compared with 30% who said it made progress. Americans perceive that the U.S. lost ground in its fight against terrorism (-21 points) and the situations in Iraq (-22 points) and Afghanistan (-12 points).
Americans See Progress on More Issues Under Obama Than Bush
Americans are more positive about the nation’s progress under Obama than they were about U.S. progress under Bush on eight of the 12 policy domains, perhaps underscoring the relatively stronger state of the economy now compared with eight years ago. On the economy, Obama’s net score of +6 is far better than Bush’s -82. In addition to the economy, Americans were more likely to perceive progress under Obama than under Bush on healthcare, energy, education, climate change, immigration and the U.S.’s position in the world.
In contrast, Americans were more positive about situations regarding terrorism, race relations, crime and national defense/military under Bush than under Obama.
While it will take many years to fully assess President Obama’s legacy, these results provide an initial indication of how the American public sees his eight years in office. At the moment, Americans are more negative than positive on the progress made on the majority of issues tested.