Barack Obama: Impact and Legacy
When President Obama left office on January 20, 2017, his impact and legacy were unclear. He will always be the first African American president in US history, and his administration was notable for its stability. With Republicans in control of both the presidency and the Congress in 2017, however, some of Obama’s most notable achievements—the Affordable Care Act, the Paris climate change agreement, and Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals—were overturned or under attack.
Obama’s lasting impact on American life may turn out to have been greatest in terms of the crises that did not happen. Despite teetering on the edge of economic catastrophe, the nation did not fall into the abyss of a second Great Depression in 2009. And despite calls for more aggressive military action, the nation scaled back on its troop commitments rather than launching additional wars. How long and in what form Obama’s policy changes will endure remains to be seen. Those that depended on unilateral executive action have been the most fragile, since they can be undone by subsequent actions by his successors in the presidency.
Obama’s job approval rating in polls of the American people rose during his second term, cresting at about 60 percent during his final months in office. The public also rated him highly in comparison with other recent presidents. A Quinnipiac University polls released in late January 2017 found that 29 percent said he was the greatest president since World War II, just one point behind Ronald Reagan, who was named by 30 percent and well ahead of every other postwar president.
Scholars who were surveyed at about the same time agreed. In a C-SPAN survey of 91 historians, political scientists, and other presidential scholars, Obama was ranked 12th among all presidents since George Washington for the overall quality of his performance as chief executive. Among his recent predecessors, Obama surpassed George W. Bush, who ranked 33rd, Bill Clinton (15th), and George H.W. Bush (20th), but not the president whose trajectory-changing legacy Obama once said he wanted to emulate: Ronald Reagan, who ranked 8th.