I must admit that I was really shocked by a recent Pew Research Center poll that found that 33 percent of Americans believe that Barack Obama was the best president of their lifetime. Were these people even paying attention from 2009 to 2016? While a third of Americans thinking he was the best is bad enough, when you combine people’s first and second choices, the poll gets even more interesting:
When asked which president has done the best job in their lifetimes, more Americans name Barack Obama than any other president. More than four-in-ten (44%) say Obama is the best or second best president of their lifetimes, compared with about a third who mention Bill Clinton (33%) or Ronald Reagan (32%). [emphasis mine]
Obama’s strongest support came from millennials. “Sixty-two percent of people in that generation — described as those aged from 22 to 37 — named our nation’s first black president as one of the best they’ve seen.”
Sixty-two percent? How is that possible? Well, consider the fact that the oldest millennials were first old enough to vote in a presidential election in 2000, and the youngest in 2016. So, most millennials are too young to remember (at least as adults) any presidents besides George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump. Seeing as how young people tend to be liberal, Obama’s inflated numbers in that generation are, while not understandable, at least explainable. The question is, will millennials in time come to their senses? Probably.
I still wouldn’t put too much stock in this poll because public perceptions of presidents will always be stronger, negative or positive, for more recent presidents. In the same way, the left always considers any current Republican president or presidential nominee to be the worst in history—a phenomenon I covered in a column a couple months ago.
Let me prove this point. This comes from the very same poll:
Not yet halfway through his term, 19% say Donald Trump has done the best or second best job of any president of their lifetimes. That is comparable with the share who viewed Obama as one of the best presidents in 2011 (20%). [emphasis mine]
What these numbers prove is that it’s really impossible to assess recent presidents objectively… especially given how divided we are politically. Considering that Trump’s numbers are comparable to Obama’s early in his presidency, it’s hardly a stretch to suggest that Trump will top the “best president of my lifetime poll” after he leaves office. So, I would recommend that Obama supporters not put too much faith in these polls.
Simply put, the passage of time makes it easier to assess a president on his record with less partisan influence. For example, public perception of George W. Bush has improved a lot since he left office. Bill Clinton’s popularity, however, has taken a beating in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Had Hillary Clinton won in 2016 you can bet many on the left would have immediately crowned her the best president in history. Because “glass ceilings” and stuff.
What about negative perceptions of recent presidents? Earlier this year, a Quinnipiac poll found that while most respondents considered Trump to be the worst president since WWII (a dubious assessment for anyone who’s only been president for just over a year), Obama came in second place.
Looking at the best president since 1945, 28 percent say Ronald Reagan. Another 24 percent list Barack Obama, with 10 percent each for Bill Clinton and John Kennedy.
President Trump is fifth on the list, with 7 percent, the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN- uh-pe-ack) University Poll finds.
Trailing Trump are Dwight Eisenhower, with 4 percent; Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter with 3 percent each; Lyndon Johnson, with 2 percent, and Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, all with 1 percent each. Gerald Ford scores less than 1 percent.
In 2014, Obama topped the Quinnipiac poll with 33 percent of respondents calling him the worst president.
President Obama has topped predecessor George W. Bush in another poll, but not one he would like.
In a new Quinnipiac University Poll, 33% named Obama the worst president since World War II, and 28% put Bush at the bottom of post-war presidents.
“Over the span of 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies, President Barack Obama finds himself with President George W. Bush at the bottom of the popularity barrel,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.
Of course, Obama and Bush are the most recent presidents; historians will tell you that it takes decades to truly measure an individual president’s performance.
While it is disturbing that so many people view Barack Obama so favorably, and are so quick to judge Donald Trump so poorly, history will have the final say. The best we can hope for is that the truth about Obama is made known. Perhaps what is most troubling about polls that place Obama so high in the public’s eye is that people should not remember him in such a positive light. The economy struggled on his watch, wages were flat, the debt skyrocketed, and his economic “recovery” was the worst since the Great Depression. His foreign policy was a disaster, and he had perhaps the most scandal-plagued administration in history. There is no excuse for people not being aware of this. Instead, many believe he was scandal-free and credit Obama with saving our economy.
I wish I could take comfort in the belief that the passage of time will allow people to assess Obama’s presidency evenhandedly and realize that he was not a top-tier president. But, I’m not confident that will happen. Many people still believe that Franklin Delano Roosevelt ended the Great Depression even though there is ample evidence his policies prolonged it. Many people believe Bill Clinton was impeached “over sex” rather than for perjury and obstruction of justice. Will young people be too starry-eyed about the first black president to look at the facts of his presidency objectively? I sincerely hope not. But it is all too easy for false narratives to become “truth” if they’re repeated enough times.
Matt Margolis is the author of the new book, The Scandalous Presidency of Barack Obama and the forthcoming re-release of the bestselling book The Worst President in History: The Legacy of Barack Obama. You can follow Matt on Twitter @MattMargolis