Obama's approval rating is at a peak

President Obama's approval rating is now at its highest point since his 2012 reelection.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
U.S. President Barack Obama attends the pardoning of the national Thanksgiving turkey, accompanied by his nephews Aaron Robinson and Austin Robinson, at the Rose Garden of the White House on November 23, 2016.

Fifty percent may not be the grade you want to see on an essay or a calculus test, but as President Barack Obama’s final approval rating, it looks pretty good. Why, then, is the United States still dissatisfied with the way things are going?

CNN/ORC polls show Mr. Obama’s approval rating to be 55 percent, while a Quinnipiac poll gives the departing president a 50 percent approval rating. The results of both polls are consistent with some of the highest ratings that the president has received throughout his presidency.

Yet despite Obama’s seemingly rosy ratings, about 72 percent of Quinnipiac survey respondents indicated that they were at least somewhat dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country. Are these ratings as good as they seem?

"President Barack Obama's final scorecard is a passing grade overall, but barely," the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll, Tim Malloy, said in a news release.

After a presidential election dominated by professions of bad feeling from every corner – including claims of marginalization and neglect from many white working class Americans, racial minorities, and women – perhaps the Quinnipiac poll results should not be surprising.

But with Quinnipiac’s polls showing Obama’s approval ratings just three points off his high mark in 2012, and CNN/ORC polls showing a seven-month run of better than 50 percent approval ratings, the juxtaposition of America’s dissatisfaction and approval ratings is stark.

In May, Carol Graham reported for Real Clear Politics that although unhappiness is prevalent among poorer populations, disparate attitudes towards poverty and future outlooks deepened the divides among racial and ethnic groups, even within the same economic class.

Optimism levels vary greatly among ethnic groups, with whites of all economic classes expressing higher levels of pessimism than other groups – a factor some observers point to in explaining white voters' support for Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign. Poor African-Americans, for example, are 52 percent less likely to experience stress than poor whites, according to Ms. Graham.

Another Quinnipiac poll, released in April, found that 76 percent of voters surveyed believe that their opinions do not matter to people in government. Fifty-seven percent of American voters surveyed agreed with the statement, “I am falling further and further behind economically.”

Despite Obama’s decent ratings in the most recent polls, as many as 33 percent of Americans say that his policies have hurt them financially. Another 44 percent say that his policies have made no difference, according to the most recent Quinnipiac poll.

Since the 1950s, four presidents have left office with second-term approval rating averages of 50 percent or above, while three others – Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush – have left with second-term averages between 34.4 and 36.5 percent, according to historic Gallup polls.

Bill Clinton, for example, averaged better than 60 percent approval during his last term as president. Ronald Reagan scored higher than 55 percent on average during his own final term as president.

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