Like the cute but overlooked friend waiting in the wings in every boilerplate romantic comedy, Barack Obama, it turns out, is the president America has always been in love with—it just needed time to figure out. That, or in the midst of a particularly ugly campaign season, people are waking up to the fact that whatever the current president's faults may be, the next one could be a lot worse.
According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Monday, Obama's approval ratings are now the highest they've been since his second inauguration. Unsurprisingly, the numbers fall along partisan lines, with 88 percent of Democrats and just 8 percent of Republicans approving of the job Obama is doing. But the president scored above 50 percent among self-described independents, which confirms a polling trend that's been consistent for months: Most Americans actually like Obama.
Right now, being liked is a pretty rare thing for US politicians. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, for instance, are widely hated, even though millions of people cast primary ballots for each of them. Congress is even more despised: Only 11 percent of likely voters think it's doing a good job, according to a recent poll from Rasmussen. In the 2016 primary, Republicans hated their own party so much that they backed a reality TV star over a dozen Establishment candidates, while a sizable number of Democrats are so unhappy with the political status quo that they've thrown their support behind Bernie Sanders, a candidate the media largely dismissed as hopeless. And poll after poll has shown that Americans of all political persuasions think the country is on the wrong track.
In this environment, it doesn't seem to make sense that a sitting president should be popular. Yet Obama remains liked, if not loved. The Affordable Care Act, his signature domestic achievement, is still disparaged by most Americans, but that doesn't seem to be affecting his personal popularity. For years, the left has complained about the president's habit of governing as a cautious technocrat, yet Sanders supporters, who claim to be agitated and agitating for change, overwhelmingly favor him, according to that NBC/WSJ poll.
Gallup polls show that Obama is especially popular among young people, minorities, and college grads, but even a third of "liberal/moderate Republicans" (whatever that means) also approve of the job he's doing. In the NBC/WSJ poll, 39 percent of respondents said they would consider voting for a third Obama term if the Constitution allowed such a thing, compared to 34 percent who said the same thing about Bill Clinton in 2000. And Obama blows George W. Bush out of the water, of course—his predecessor's approval rating at this time in 2008 was in the 30 percent range.
When Obama's legacy is considered, there will be a lot of repetition of the criticisms that have dogged him for the past seven years. Many liberals don't think he did enough on key areas like immigration, climate change, or gun control; conservatives think he did too much. Journalists have complained about the administrations lack of transparency; civil libertarians have cause to be upset over his handling of the NSA and his drone wars; others have bemoaned the expansion of executive power under his administration, a continuation of a decades-long trend. Economic indicators have improved over the past few years, but Americans still feel anxious about their financial stability, possibly because of the rampant inequality that's everywhere they look.
But approval ratings are not based on voters breaking presidents down into component parts—they're about feelings, auras, vibes. And while Obama came into office on a wave of hope and change, he's become a symbol of rather dull day-to-day competence in his second term, popular simply for his ability to keep the country on a more or less even keel. There have been no new ground wars, no sudden dips into recession, no impeachment trials or FBI investigations threatening to consume his legacy. Maybe that's a low bar, but after the disaster of the George W. Bush years, merely avoiding a catastrophe does seem like an achievement.
More to the point, with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on the horizon, a president who doesn't preside over the country's collapse seems like a pretty nice thing to have. Top military officials are already dreading a Trump presidency, Clinton seems more likely than Obama to push the US into foreign entanglements, and whoever is sitting in the Oval Office will inevitably have to deal with a divided and deadlocked Congress that will make it difficult or impossible to do routine things like fill court vacancies. As we get further into the 21st century, it seems pretty likely that Americans are going to look back on the Obama Era as a time of great plenty because things were pretty OK.
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