In the middle of July 2007, George W. Bush’s Gallup approval rating was 31 percent, with 63 percent disapproving. As of July 2015, President Barack Obama’s approval and disapproval are floating around the high 40s.
Let’s skip the math, Tea Partiers, and conclude: Obama is far popular than Bush was at this point in his presidency.
What’s even more remarkable is that a recent Suffolk University/USA Today poll showed that the president, after more than six bruising years in office, is more popular than any candidate for president. His approval and disapproval in that poll is 44 percent, and the only candidates whose approval is slightly higher than his disapproval — Scott Walker, Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders — are still completely unknown to 1 out of 5 Americans.
Approval ratings don’t signify success, of course.
But what they do show is that the Republican perception of Obama as a failure somewhere on the spectrum between George W. Bush and the Hindenburg towing the Titanic is unique to them. And despite their best efforts to destroy his presidency, it’s thriving because the very things they see as failures, much of the public perceives as successes.
In an era of remarkable “negative partisanship,” the current occupant of the White House is seeing hints of Reagan-like rise in his approval rating, while W. saw a Nixon-like crumble in his for a pretty simple reason: Obama has seen a long string of policy successes that may be unrivaled by any recent president.
“Obama may be singular as a president, not only because of his striking background,” Kenneth Adelman, Ronald Reagan’s arms control negotiator with the Soviets, told Politico Magazine. “It may turn out that unlike virtually any other president, his second term is actually better than his first.”
Historian Kevin Kruse — the author of the fantastic new book One Nation Under God — goes further:
I’m not sure there’s ever been a president before Obama who had his greatest string of successes in the final quarter of his administration.
— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) July 15, 2015
Time settles these arguments and history inevitably becomes, as William F. Buckley said, the polemics of the victors.
But since a disastrous midterm election, the president has made a series of decisions on issues like net neutrality, immigration, and diplomacy that have the potential to set his presidency as the defining point of new beginnings that have transformed this nation. In the same time frame, many elements of his long-term agenda have been vindicated and secured. All things are temporary, and the first presidency of a Bush brother showed us how easy it is to erase much of your predecessor’s achievements. But it’s worth noting just how much Obama has achieved in the last year alone.
1. Foreign Policy
Presidential historian Robert Dallek calls the deal the United States and its allies have signed with Iran to prevent the development of a nuclear weapon “what could prove to be the most significant international accord since the 1978 Camp David agreement.” This deal, along with the normalization of the U.S.’ relationship with Cuba, represents the potential fruits of a unique selling point Obama brought to the 2008 presidential election: I will speak to our enemies and do my best to end and avoid war.
It goes without saying that this policy has not been an unqualified success. Ending wars proved to be much harder than starting them, and these victories followed what could be considered the greatest foreign policy failure of Obama’s presidency: being forced to renew combat in Iraq. The horrifying rise of ISIS and the humanitarian disaster in Syria will inevitably be tied to Obama’s watch, even if their origins were sown before he took office. Likewise, diplomatic relations with Russia faltered dramatically as soon as Putin reassumed the presidency.
But it was cooperation with Russia that made the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table possible. And you can argue that the bilateral agreement President Obama made with China for the reduction of carbon pollution is nearly as significant as the Iran deal.
The failure or vindication of outreach designed to bring rogue nations into the world community will likely come after Obama is out of office. But if America avoids a war with Iran — a nation larger and more militarily advanced than Iraq and Afghanistan combined — the success will be measured in hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.
2. Health Care
The legal challenges against Obamacare were never serious. We know this because Republican attempts to destroy in the courts what they couldn’t destroy at the polls were rebuked by one of the most partisan conservative Supreme Court Justices of modern times. Still, the survival of Obamacare vindicates the policy Obama bet his presidency on. But the even better vindication is this:
The uninsured rate is lower than Gallup has ever recorded. Meanwhile, the deficit has also hit a 7-year low. Celebrating a low deficit when we could be rebuilding our infrastructure and putting millions back to work is silly. But Republicans made three huge arguments against the law: We couldn’t afford it, it would kill the economy, and it wouldn’t help. All have been proven ridiculously wrong.
But Obama’s legacy on health care is even more impressive when it comes to Medicare. When he came into office, it was predicted that the program would only be self-sufficent until 2017, which helped feed Paul Ryan’s attacks on it. The latest prediction is that it will be solvent until 2030, and expect another even rosier estimate next month.
Obama should be known as the president who saved traditional Medicare — which is extremely popular with all Americans — from its most serious assault.
3. The Environment
Historians can’t drive across this country without thinking of Dwight D. Eisenhower. And they won’t see solar panels without thinking of Barack Obama. The stimulus created a renewable energy juggernaut that has begun to redefine how America gets its power.
Weird how that line just explodes right at 2009, huh? And solar is just part of the story.
Removing the main conservative argument against fighting climate change by getting China in the game is huge, but helping to regulate the demise of the worst pollutant, with the help of some very powerful and savvy allies, is transforming the future of climate action.
Given the scope of the problem, you can argue that Obama should have done more, and he should be blocking Arctic drilling instead of sanctioning it. And the true scope of his achievements will be determined by future courts and presidents.
What is clear is that he’s done more than any other president to move us away from policies that are dooming our planet. But that’s like stepping over a low limbo bar.
4. Civil Rights
President Obama — as his critics love to note — was a latecomer to the marriage equality issue. But conservatives at least believed he bet his presidency on it:
Amazing ad placement there, right?
Since getting on the equality bandwagon, Obama has proven to be a forceful ally in the White House to facilitate the remarkable charge for LGBTQ rights that has taken place during his time in office. In the wake of two historic Supreme Court decisions, the administration has done most everything it can to expand rights to gay couples and rhetorically he became the first president to use the word “gay” in his inaugural speech, and included the struggle of LGBTQ Americans in the wide scope of greater civil rights struggles in his speech at Selma. To many, he is now clearly the “gay rights president.”
The war on drugs and mass incarceration is another issue Obama did not press in his first term, but seems to be turning up the heat on now. Seizing this unique moment when crime and incarceration went down for the first time in decades, he’s joined a bipartisan coalition to reverse the discriminatory policies — many introduced by Democrats — that have led to America’s prison explosion that some call “The New Jim Crow.” The #BlackLivesMatter movement, born out of the police brutality scandals across the United States, is now aggressively driving the debate on these issues with the same vigorous, righteous contempt for authority and stasis we saw from the LGBTQ and immigrant communities. Hopefully we’ll see the same sort of positive policy ramifications.
5. The Economy
Last year wasn’t just the best year of job creation this century, it was the first full year of Obamacare implementation and the second year of new taxes on top earners. Again, doing the exact opposite of what Republican trickle-downers want has given us new peaks in job creation.
What also goes unstated is that layoffs are at an all-time low per capita:
Weird. That started to improve dramatically in 2009 too! What are the odds?
Obama’s second term is on pace to show the second best job creation of any single presidential term. With a little luck, it could be the best ever.
The improvements in the job market have given the president the confidence to take on the biggest weakness in our economy: stagnant wages. His administration’s revised overtime threshold rule could give millions of Americans a raise right as the 2016 campaign that will settle many of the questions of his legacy truly kicks off.
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid into law. He also ended a rapid troop buildup in Vietnam by proposing new peace talks. These three laws transformed America for the better but the talks flailed, leading to tens of thousands more American deaths. The right sees Johnson’s great achievements as abominations and insists that Vietnam could have been won. These bipolarities tend to be how the legacies of American presidents unfold. Reagan is considered a right-wing savior even though he tripled the debt and put policies into place that have forged record wealth inequality.
Obama’s legacy in the near term will be seen through the same sort of partisan lens. Republicans hated him from his first day in office. But he has now at least achieved much of what he set out to do. And the fact that only they see what he’s done as a “failure” is making them miserable.
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the recent Iran nuclear deal during a news conference at the White House in Washington July 15, 2015. (REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)