As Obama's popularity rises in polls, so does nostalgia

With President Obama's days numbered in the White House, popularity ratings for him has soared as people reflect on the president's achievements.

Gary Cameron/Reuters/File
President Obama walks out of the Oval Office to comment on the Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, at the White House in Washington June 26, 2015.

For every Tuesday in the past year, Catherine and Jon Tuerk, a 70-something couple residing in Washington, D.C., have been sitting in front of the White House with placards staging an "anti protest."

In contrast to the other protesters who often occupy the space, demonstrating for causes ranging from marijuana laws to nuclear weapons, the couple hold up placards that read "Keep on keeping on, Obama," and "Obama, we believe in you," as The Washington Post reports. People often ask them: "What are you protesting against?"

"We’re not protesting anything. We’re trying to support our president," Mrs. Tuerk said. The couple first began the anti-protest when they saw all the "sniping" at Obama. "I think we have made a difference in people’s lives ... I think we put a face on the people who are supportive of Obama. We’re not crazy people."

The Tuerks, however, are not the only ones who are seeing the Obama’s presidency in a positive light. According to Gallup polls, Obama’s job approval ratings have gone up in the past year and now stands at 53 percent, which puts him among the top five presidents in history with high ratings at the end of their terms. The popularity surge is infused with a sense of nostalgia as the public reflects on Obama's accomplishments, failures, and character – even viewed through the lenses of his polarizing policy changes and disagreement with his methods.

"People would say back in 1988 … ‘We wish we could vote for him [Reagan] for the third term,’ " Barbara Perry, director of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center presidential studies program, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "I’ve heard that about Obama. I do think it’s partly that Americans are beginning already to be nostalgic about the presidents when they’re leaving office … and by comparison to the people running."

Professor Perry says that typically presidential approval ratings will go up toward the end of their terms. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan top the list in popularity, but Obama, whose numbers have been increasing, may soon catch up with them.

As the Monitor previously reported, Obama’s popularity may be attributed to fatigue with the current polarizing election, the strengthening US economy, and as some other experts point out, a lack of scandals plaguing his term.

Obama is also noted for revolutionizing the way he communicates with people, in what Politico terms a "casual, cool" style that other politicians may struggle to emulate. He's doled out jokes in the awkward comedy show "Between Two Ferns," slow-jammed the news with "The Tonight Show" host Jimmy Fallon, and has personalized (as only a black president could) the protests initiated by African-Americans against police violence.

Conservative writer David Brooks penned an op-ed titled "I miss Barack Obama" in February for The New York Times.

"Now, obviously I disagree with a lot of Obama’s policy decisions. I’ve been disappointed by aspects of his presidency," Mr. Brooks wrote. "But over the course of this campaign it feels as if there’s been a decline in behavioral standards across the board. Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply."

Respect for Obama as an individual may have spurred positive sentiments toward him, but his term has actually been marked by partisan gridlock and challenges, with some criticizing the president for failing to help build bridges in a country marked by divisions.

According to a Brookings blog post co-authored by Brandon Rottinghaus, professor at University of Houston in 2015, various surveys found that throughout his term, the number of people who view him as outstanding fell – and more than 60 percent believe he would go down in history as average, below average or poor. He is viewed as one of the most polarizing presidents after George W. Bush, especially in view of his overtures in health care, immigration, and foreign policy that drew fierce reactions.

Despite of that, Obama still remains popular.

"Certainly there was disappointment in what he was able to accomplish," George C. Edwards III, professor at Texas A&M University tells the Monitor in a phone interview. But "they basically think he fought a good fight," especially as Obama was dealing with a Congress that opposed his policies.

The willingness of Obama to tackle thorny issues and push bold solutions may be why people will view him favorably as well, Professor Rottinghaus tells the Monitor. According to his ranking of great American presidents (based on a Rottinghaus's survey of several hundred members of the American Political Science Association), when Obama was first ranked, he was placed at No. 15, a feat only achieved by Lyndon Johnson.

"Presidents who end up on the list tend to be big thinkers," Rottinghaus says. "I think he’ll probably go down as a big thinker, taking big challenges."

As for the Tuerks, they told The Washington Post that they’d be at their usual spot on Election Day.

"Maybe it would be a way to say goodbye to Obama," she said. "I think everybody is going to miss him. Well, not everybody, of course."

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