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As President Barack Obama serves his final year in office, the nation will attempt to evaluate his legacy. Was the Affordable Care Act a step forward or a step back? Did Obama’s policies improve the economy? And how did the president handle the threat of terrorism?
Naturally, opinion will be mixed, and in some cases, extremely polarized. Gun rights advocates believe Obama overstepped by issuing executive orders; gun control proponents don’t think the president has done enough. In 2013, a Gallup poll reported that Americans see the Affordable Care Act as both Obama’s biggest success and failure.
Despite all the disagreement today, however, presidential legacies have a habit of becoming more clear over time. For example, America’s impression of former President George H. W. Bush has improved significantly since he left office. Meanwhile, Americans view President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq very negatively now, despite popular support at the time.
With this in mind, InsideGov looked at the past year’s worth of CNN/ORC polling to gauge how America might come to remember the 44th president. Specifically, we tracked 14 surveys from December 2014 to January 2016, calculating the extent to which Americans approved or disapproved of the commander in chief across key issues like the economy, health care and terrorism.
For a few polling questions, more Americans approved than disapproved of the president's stance or the contents of his proposals, as we’ll see later on this list. While it’s still very early, it’s possible these initiatives will be counted among Obama’s successes.
Meanwhile, there were several more areas where more Americans disapproved than approved of Obama’s performance, on average. We don’t know whether history will come to define these areas as outright failures for the administration. But the polling data suggests America could potentially criticize Obama on these particular topics in the years to come.
We've organized the list into nine overall categories: foreign affairs, terrorism, Iran, ISIS, climate change, the economy, health care, gun policy, and overall job performance. While Americans disapprove of Obama's performance, on average, across all nine categories, the polling results were much more negative in some categories than others. We'll start with the least negative category (climate change), then count down to the most negative of all. For some categories, we'll also explore a series of more specific polls to draw out the details of the issue.
Further notes: Each CNN/ORC poll surveyed at least 1,000 American adults, then weighted the results to reflect the general U.S. population. For some questions, we combined responses like “somewhat likely” and “very likely” to represent one overall “likely” response.
Each visualization contains a link directly to a PDF containing the raw data for the corresponding poll.
#9. Climate Change
47% of Americans Disapprove of How Obama Handled Climate Change
Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling climate change?
No Opinion: 8%*
*Note that these numbers represent an average of all polling results for the question.
Americans were slightly more likely to disapprove than approve of the way Obama has handled climate change, on average. On the right, critics tend to think the administration’s proposals are expensive and overwrought. On the left, detractors worry Obama isn’t doing enough, and the recent Supreme Court defeat on carbon emissions only continues to delay action. Still, Americans are mostly split on this issue, and the topic only barely made this list.
#8. Job Performance
50.2% of Americans Disapprove of Obama's Job Performance
Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president?
No Opinion: 3.2%
Obama seems to be settling in at around a 46 or 47 percent approval rating. For historical context, this would put him well ahead of President George W. Bush (who ended his term around 27 percent), but well behind President Bill Clinton and President Ronald Reagan (who each ended their presidencies in the mid 60s).
Americans Think U.S. Is Headed in Wrong Direction
Do you think the policies being proposed by Barack Obama will move the country in the right direction or the wrong direction?
No Opinion: 3.5%
Here, Obama fares slightly worse than on his overall job approval ratings. A clear majority of respondents think Obama’s policies are taking the country in the wrong direction, though he still garners the support of 43.5 percent of Americans, on average.
#7. The Economy
52% of Americans Disapprove How Obama Handled the Economy
Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling the economy?
No Opinion: 1%
Obama gets slightly unfavorable ratings on his handling of the economy — almost exactly in line with his marks for overall job performance. Some Obama proponents point to the nation’s steadily decreasing unemployment as a signal of his success. Detractors often note, however, that many people have left the workforce altogether on Obama’s watch.
#6. U.S. and Iran
55.3% Disapprove of How Obama Handled U.S./Iran Relations
Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling the U.S. relationship with Iran?
No Opinion: 3.7%
Over 55 percent of Americans, on average, disapprove of the way Obama has handled the country’s relationship with Iran. Many Americans distrust Iran to honor the recent nuclear deal in the long run, and potentially shifty moves — like Iran asking to be paid in Euros, not dollars — don’t help the perception.
Most Americans Wanted to End Nuclear Sanctions on Iran
Do you favor or oppose an agreement that would ease some of those economic sanctions and in exchange require Iran to accept major restrictions on its nuclear program but not end it completely and submit to greater international inspection of its nuclear facilities?
No Opinion: 4%
A slight majority of Americans approve of the components of the Iran nuclear deal, despite the fact that most Americans disapprove of how Obama is handling the country’s relationship with Iran in general. Note, however, that this particular polling question never explicitly names the deal itself, only a hypothetical deal with the same components (like easing economic sanctions and requiring major restrictions).
Most Americans Wanted Congress to Reject Iran Deal
As you may know, the U.S. Congress must approve the agreement the United States and five other countries reached with Iran that is aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons before it can take effect. Do you think Congress should approve or reject the deal with Iran?
No Opinion: 3.5%
A clear majority of Americans thought Congress should have rejected the Iran nuclear deal — yet another example of the discrepancy between opinions on the deal itself and its individual components. Though Congress was unable to stop the deal, it is now pushing for more non-nuclear sanctions, on top of those already in the agreement.
#5. Foreign Affairs
56% of Americans Disapprove of How Obama Handled Foreign Affairs
Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling foreign affairs?
No Opinion: 2%
Obama earns only 41.8 percent approval on foreign affairs, on average. Obama earned a big victory during his first term — the killing of Osama bin Laden — but America has gradually turned against the president in the years since. From the ongoing war in Iraq to the civil war in Syria to the growth of ISIS, Americans are unhappy with the president, as we’ll see in more detail further along on this list.
Most Americans No Longer Want U.S. to Be International Peacekeeper
Do you think the United States should or should not take the leading role among all other countries in the world in trying to solve international problems?
No Opinion: 1%
Throughout America’s history, citizens have debated whether the country should take a lead role in solving the world’s problems, or err on the side of caution, staying out of conflicts until absolutely necessary.
Over the last year of polling, Americans have leaned toward caution, preferring to focus on problems at home. While this does not necessarily reflect directly on Obama, it speaks to the nation’s sense of unease about overseas activity and drawn-out, expensive conflicts. It’s likely this sentiment doesn’t help the president’s overall marks on foreign policy.
Americans Blame Iraq On Obama Almost as Much as Bush
Whose policies do you blame for the problems that the U.S. is currently facing in Iraq — the policies of George W. Bush or the policies of Barack Obama?
No Opinion: 2%
While Americans still blame George W. Bush most for the nation’s problems in Iraq, Obama now comes in a close second. As promised, the president pulled most U.S. troops out of Iraq, but to some, the resulting chaos in the region now makes the decision look questionable.
Most Americans Do Not Want to Close Gitmo
As you may know, since 2001, the United States has held people from other countries who are suspected of being terrorists at a detention facility in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Based on what you have heard or read, do you think the U.S. should continue to operate this facility or do you think the U.S. should close this facility and transfer the prisoners to other facilities?
No Opinion: 3%
Back in 2008, Obama campaigned on closing Guantanamo Bay, the detention camp for war criminals, terrorists and other enemies of the United States. Many Americans have heard horror stories about how the prison treats its inmates, and Obama’s humanitarian appeal to close Gitmo’s doors resonated with many voters.
Today, however, a slight majority of Americans favor leaving the detention center open. The Obama administration still says it wants to close the institution, but political and legal experts aren’t convinced it will be able to, due to a series of international laws and regulations. Regardless, Guantanamo Bay has become a sore spot for Obama.
#4. Health Care
55.5% of Americans Disapprove of How Obama Handled Health Care
Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling health care policy?
No Opinion: 1%
A majority of Americans disapprove of how Obama has handled health care. The Affordable Care Act — or Obamacare — remains unpopular, and the botched rollout of the health care website didn’t help. While Americans actually tend to approve of the individual provisions of the law, they dislike the overall package, and decry the complicated, bloated nature of Obamacare.
55.5% of Americans Disapprove of How Obama Handled Terrorism
Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling terrorism?
No Opinion: 3%
A majority of Americans disapprove of how Obama has handled terrorism, and the numbers moved even further against the president after the Paris attacks in November 2015.
Americans Changed Their Perspective On Refugees After Paris Attacks
Before the Paris attacks:
Do you favor or oppose the United States taking any of the following actions in response to the migrant crisis in Europe? [...] Answer choice: "Taking in some of the refugees"
No Opinion: 1%
After the Paris attacks:
Do you favor or oppose allowing refugees from Syria to seek asylum in the United States?
No Opinion: 1%
Before the Paris attacks, a majority of Americans favored letting Syrian refugees seek asylum in the U.S. After the attacks, however, the opinion has more than flipped, plummeting from 55 percent in support to just 38 percent. Here, it seems Americans fear terrorists will infiltrate the country’s borders, and have moved closer to Donald Trump on the issue (who favors blocking refugees).
Most Americans Thought a December Terrorist Attack Was Likely
How likely is it that there will be acts of terrorism in the United States over the next several weeks?
No Opinion: 2%
A solid majority of Americans in December believed a terrorist attack “over the next several weeks” was somewhat likely — a polling result that further underscores the country’s sense of unease and growing concern about terrorism.
#2. Gun Policy
56.8% of Americans Disapprove of How Obama Handled Gun Policy
Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling gun policy?
No Opinion: 4.3%
On gun policy, Obama’s approval dips below the 40 percent mark, and it stands as one of Obama’s worst issues, by the polling numbers. The president himself admits that his efforts on gun laws have been his biggest frustration.
Here, Obama suffers from a polarized electorate, where neither side is happy with his performance. Gun control advocates wish he would do more, while gun rights proponents believe he’s already overstepped.
Most Americans Favor Stricter Background Checks on Guns
As you may know, this week Barack Obama announced several executive orders that change the nation’s gun laws so that background checks are required for more gun purchases online and at gun shows, and which make it easier for the FBI to complete background checks efficiently. Overall, do you favor or oppose these changes?
No Opinion: 2%
Two-thirds of Americans support stricter background checks and more FBI oversight on gun purchases, both of which are key components of Obama’s executive orders on gun laws. As the polls indicate, however, Americans are less likely to approve of Obama’s method in enacting this policy reform.
Most Americans Disapprove of Obama's Executive Orders on Guns
Obama announced that he will implement these policies [background check for guns] by issuing executive orders, which means that they will take effect without any action by Congress. Do you favor or oppose Obama using executive orders to implement these policies?
No Opinion: 1%
Despite the fact that most Americans support some key components of Obama’s executive orders on guns, the majority don’t think Obama should resort to executive orders to get the laws implemented. Here, Americans’ dissatisfaction seems to be focused more on the president’s potential executive overreach, rather than the contents of the proposal.
Most Americans Do Not Think Executive Orders Will Reduce Gun Deaths
And do you think these changes will be effective or will NOT be effective in reducing the number of gun-related deaths in the United States?
Not Effective: 57%
No Opinion: 3%
On top of disapproving of Obama’s use of executive orders, most Americans do not think the orders will actually help reduce gun-related deaths. Some critics believe the new policies will do very little in the grand scheme of gun violence, while others think Obama is tackling the wrong problem altogether.
A Plurality of Americans Think Obama Has Gone Too Far on Guns
When it comes to gun control laws, do you think Barack Obama has gone too far, has taken about the right amount of action, or has not gone far enough to change the nation’s gun laws?
Gone Too Far: 38.5%
About the Right Amount: 25.5%
Not Gone Far Enough: 34%
No Opinion: 2%
A final question underscores Obama’s problem on gun laws. More than one in three Americans think Obama has gone too far on gun laws. Before Obama issued executive orders, a similar proportion of America believed he hadn’t gone far enough. More recently, however, that number has dropped to around 30 percent.
A Majority of Americans Report They Do Not Own a Gun
Do you or does anyone in your household own a gun?
No Opinion: 9%
A slight majority of Americans report they do not own a gun. But perhaps more telling is the fact that 9 percent of Americans declined to answer the question. While there could be multiple reasons for this response, it might indicate that some respondents consider the topic a private matter.
61.5% of Americans Disapprove of How Obama Handled ISIS
Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling ISIS, the Islamic militant group that controls some areas of Iraq and Syria?
No Opinion: 4.5%
In by far Obama’s worst polling result among the nine broad topics on this list, 61.5 percent of Americans disapprove of how the president has handled ISIS. Much of the criticism surrounds the assertion that Obama has been too cautious, dismissing the Islamic State as the “JV” (junior varsity) team. ISIS has since claimed responsibility for the terrorist attacks in both Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.
About Half of Americans Oppose Sending Ground Troops to Combat ISIS
Do you favor or oppose the United States sending ground troops into combat operations against ISIS forces in Iraq or Syria?
No Opinion: 2.6%
While Americans, on average, slightly opposed sending ground troops to defeat ISIS, the nation flipped in favor in the most recent polls — notably, after the Paris attacks.
Still, Obama remains opposed to sending ground troops, concerned the country could face a repeat of the war in Iraq. He maintains the ensuing conflict could slowly drain resources, cost American lives and help with ISIS recruitment. Still, Americans seem to be moving in the opposite direction of the president here.
A Majority of Americans Believe the U.S. Will Eventually Send Ground Troops
How likely do you think it is that the U.S. will eventually send ground troops into combat operations against ISIS forces in Iraq or Syria?
Not Likely: 25.5%
No Opinion: 1.5%
Not only are Americans gradually moving away from the president on ground troops, but a strong majority believe the country will eventually have to send troops to the Middle East to defeat ISIS. With various military proponents calling for quicker, more decisive action, Americans are likely wondering whether Obama has been too timid.
A Clear Majority of Americans Believe ISIS Terrorists Are Currently in the U.S.
Do you think there are terrorists associated with ISIS who are currently in the
United States and have the resources to launch a major terrorist attack against the U.S. at any time, or not?
No Opinion: 2.5%
Nearly four out of five Americans believe ISIS terrorists are currently in the United States and ready to launch a major attack — a belief that likely puts Americans at odds with Obama’s lack of aggressive action on refugees and ground troops. Still, some argue these fears are at least somewhat exaggerated.
A Clear Majority of Americans Believe the U.S. Military Response to ISIS Was Not Aggressive Enough
Overall, do you think the U.S. military response to ISIS has been:
Too Aggressive: 4%
Not Aggressive Enough: 68%
About Right: 26%
No Opinion: 3%
In perhaps the most telling poll of all, 68 percent of Americans believe the nation’s military response to ISIS hasn’t been aggressive enough, while only 4 percent think the nation has been too aggressive. While about one in four Americans think Obama’s response has been about right, the overwhelming majority wish the president had done more.
At this point, Obama’s response to ISIS stands as the most likely blemish on his presidency, at least from what the polls would indicate. But just as we’ve seen with past presidents, the coming years will verify whether today’s polls will truly reflect the president’s eventual legacy.
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