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Poll asks: Is Obama a great president or the worst ever?

Tribune Washington Bureau logoTribune Washington Bureau 13/12/2016 David Lightman
US President Barack Obama speaks during the third night of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. (ROBYN BECK / AFP) © AFP US President Barack Obama speaks during the third night of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. (ROBYN BECK / AFP)

America’s first vote on President Barack Obama’s place in history teeters on the edge as some find him a great president — but plenty find him among the worst, a new McClatchy-Marist poll finds.

As Obama heads toward the exit, almost the exact same number of Americans put him at the top as put him at the bottom: 16 percent said he’ll be remembered as one of the nation’s best presidents; 17 percent called him among the worst chief executives ever.

The rest are in the middle, with 24 percent calling him above average, 28 percent calling him average and 14 percent saying he was below average.

Obama’s current job approval numbers are near his all-time high. But that doesn’t translate into a comfortable place in history. He has been and remains a polarizing figure.

“It follows party lines,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York, which conducted the survey, of the longer views of Obama’s presidency.

“He will be remembered as an ethical president,” said Annette Tantillo, a nurse from Philadelphia who saw Obama as a potentially great president. “He used his moral compass to guide his decision-making.”

One-third of Democrats saw Obama as a potentially great president. Forty-one percent of Republicans said Obama was among the worst. Among supporters of the tea party, the movement that helped the GOP win a House of Representatives majority in 2010, half saw him as among the worst.

“He falls into the category of the worst,” said Jerry Ruby, 69, a retiree from Grapeland, Texas. “He put us in so much debt we’ll never get out of it.” The national debt doubled, to nearly $20 trillion, during Obama’s presidency.

History’s view of presidents can change from the first views of the public at the end of a presidency.

Harry Truman’s Gallup approval rating hit 22 percent in February 1952, his final year in office, still the worst showing of any incumbent president since modern polling began. Yet by 1962, as his Cold War strategies proved an important deterrent to Soviet aggression, he was regarded as a near great president by presidential scholar Arthur Schlesinger Sr.

Recent presidents’ ratings have fluctuated as new information is disclosed or new developments put their performance in a different perspective.

For instance, the Siena College Research Institute has since 1982 conducted surveys of scholars to rank presidents in 20 categories. President Jimmy Carter was ranked 33rd in 1982, two years after he lost 44 of 50 states in his re-election bid. He rose to 24th in 1990, then dropped back to 32nd in 2010. He dropped as historians assessed his handling of the economy, executive abilities and “failure to avoid crucial mistakes,” Siena’s researchers found.

Obama does better in the present. His latest approval rating is 55 percent. He’s been at 50 percent or above since the spring, after enduring most of his two terms stuck in the 40s. The last time he hit 55 percent was in August 2009 as the nation was emerging from its worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

His all-time high is 56 percent, in the early months of his presidency. Last month Obama’s approval stood at 51 percent.

Part of his improving appeal stems from better economic times. “People have some recognition things were substantially different than when he took office,” Miringoff said.

Part of Obama’s appeal now is the sharp contrast with the two candidates who competed to succeed him, President-elect Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state. Both had unusually high negative ratings for major presidential candidates.

“As Trump and Clinton kept going lower and lower, and shooting for the bottom, President Obama looked better and better,” Miringoff said.

Obama’s been strongest among African-Americans and Latinos: 4 of 5 African-Americans and two-thirds of Latinos approved of the job he’s doing, while 46 percent of whites felt the same way.

Obama was above 50 percent in every region of the country, among all income groups and with people under 60.

“He showed incredibly good judgment,” said Sandra Goffinet, 66, a retired educator from Orofino, Idaho. She appreciated how “he didn’t react too harshly to a lot of the criticism that was unfounded.”

Obama did continue to lag among those who have been opposed, often bitterly, throughout his two terms. Four of 5 Republicans disapproved. So did 70 percent of white evangelical Christians, and nearly the same percentage of conservatives.

“He’s doing some things I don’t approve of, such as legalized abortion. I’m not for that,” said John Kinlaw, 70, a retiree in Bishopville, S.C.

Obama’s approval rating jump follows a recent trend. According to Gallup, every president since Ronald Reagan in 1988 has seen his approval number go up right after his successor’s election. “People look at what the president has done and not done,” said Miringoff, and have a broader perspective.

HOW THE SURVEY WAS CONDUCTED

This survey of 1,005 adults was conducted Dec. 1-9, 2016, by The Marist Poll, sponsored and funded in partnership with McClatchy. Adults 18 years of age and older residing in the contiguous United States were contacted on landline or mobile numbers and interviewed in English by telephone using live interviewers.

Landline telephone numbers were randomly selected based upon a list of telephone exchanges from throughout the nation from ASDE Survey Sampler Inc. The exchanges were selected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population.

Respondents in the household were randomly selected by first asking for the youngest male. This landline sample was combined with respondents reached through random dialing of cellphone numbers from Survey Sampling International. After the interviews were completed, the two samples were combined and balanced to reflect the 2013 American Community Survey one-year estimates for age, gender, income, race and region.

Results are statistically significant within plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. There are 873 registered voters.

The results for this subset are statistically significant within plus or minus 3.3 percentage points. The error margin was not adjusted for sample weights and increases for cross-tabulations.

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