WASHINGTON — One American politician is currently dominating the cultural landscape, from social media to late-night television. His poll numbers look great, his Twitter posts are often among the most read in the world, and with every utterance, his impassioned base of supporters reacts with a fervor more typical for celebrities than former civil servants.
Meet Barack Obama.
The former president left office last January with favorable approval ratings, but historians, former staffers, and political observers now say his societal standing has reached a new echelon — and it’s partly due to his successor.
Donald Trump spent much of his first year in office attempting to erase Obama’s policy legacy, but experts, backed by loads of anecdotal evidence, say Trump’s unconventional and often divisive conduct has actually deepened the connection to Obama for liberals and independents. As the current president spent 2017 buffeted by scandals and igniting Twitter controversies, Obama seemed to increasing numbers a throwback to simpler political times, more deeply admired by those who find Trump ever more deeply objectionable.
Most presidents — even the most unpopular ones — tend to grow in public esteem after they leave office. But only one of them may score an invite to the upcoming royal wedding in England; rumor has it that Obama may make the coveted list. Trump, after a string of tweets and remarks ill-received in post-Brexit Britain, may not.
“Obama’s legacy is being bolstered by Trump,” said Michael Days, author of an Obama biography called “Obama’s Legacy: What He Accomplished as President.”
“People are waking up every morning to tweets that some find upsetting and frightening. And they’re realizing whether they liked or didn’t like Obama, people know they were rarely embarrassed by him,” Days said.
The former president’s enhanced public profile could, however, be a double-edged sword for Democrats. While Obama provides them a ready counterpoint to Trump’s chaotic presidency, he also represents the past, not the still-forming future of the party.
In 2016, the party, without Obama topping the ticket, failed to excite key constituencies — especially black Americans and other minorities — and many party operatives acknowledge that this remains a threat going forward. An adviser close to Obama said that he wants to help empower the next generation of Democrats, not overshadow them, but the party still lacks a singular figure who can energize the party.
Douglas Heye, a GOP strategist and former spokesman at the Republican National Committee, said Democrats are now seeing Obama through “rose colored glasses.”
“It’s as if Democrats are turning the 1992 Clinton slogan on its head and are singing ‘Don’t stop thinking about yesterday,’ ” Heye said. “But while it may be a nostalgic diversion from today’s reality, it won’t help Democrats address why they lost to Trump and how they can beat him in 2020.”
On Twitter, Obama’s growth in popularity can be quantified. When he wished the country a Merry Christmas in his last year as president, the message was retweeted about 100,000 times. But when Private Citizen Obama wrote an almost identical message in 2017, it was retweeted 250,000 times, dwarfing his previous total and the response to Trump’s holiday greeting.
The same is true for well-wishes for Senator John McCain, who has cancer, or posts about the new year. When Trump and Obama tweet about the same topic, it’s Obama — not Trump — whose messages resonate more. And it’s not just because he has almost twice as many Twitter followers — 98 million to 46 million — as Trump, whose presidential image has been shaped, as Obama’s never was, by his many, often scalding, tweets.
“He represents a different type of presidency,” Robert Shrum, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said of Obama. “And it’s one that resonates more and more with people when they’re constantly reminded of the type of person he is, and the type of person Trump is.”
Polling shows Obama’s favorability rating has hit heights unseen since his first inauguration. The latest polling compiled by HuffPost had Obama’s favorability rating near 60 percent, up almost 15 points from when he entered his final year in office. A Gallup survey last month found Obama was the man that Americans admired most in the world, marking one of the few years the sitting president didn’t win (Trump came in second in the survey of American adults). He was recently serenaded on “Saturday Night Live” with a song titled “Come Back Barack,” which became so popular the network reportedly contemplated a commercial release. His end-of-the-year favorite songs list was the talk of music blogs, and he was just announced as the first guest for late-night TV host David Letterman’s highly anticipated return broadcast.
A part of this post-presidential bloom is the natural outgrowth of leaving the Oval Office and the role of national lightning rod. Most presidents experience a popularity jump after leaving the presidency, and June data from Gallup showed George W. Bush, who polled at near-record lows near the end of his second term, has also experienced a significant popularity boost in retirement. Even the last two one-term presidents — George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter — are now seen in a favorable light by the majority of Americans, polling shows.
Since bursting onto the political scene in 2004, Obama has long been reviled by Republicans — a backlash that helped energize Trump’s conservative base — but there are also some signs that even that opposition is growing softer. A survey done for Fox News in November found that among registered voters in Alabama — a state that Obama lost by more than 20 points in 2008 and 2012 — the former president had a higher favorability rating than Trump, 52 percent to 50 percent.
But in some ways, all the ex-presidents look better when measured against the current occupant of the White House, whose fervent base has remained steady but who has done little to try to appeal to the majority of Americans who did not vote for him.
David Blight, a Yale professor and presidential historian, called it a “surging nostalgia for a hopeful, more honest era of meaningfulness. . . . Trump breeds toxicity in all directions. Obama’s legacy can only grow while we have a president who does not read books.”
Like Blight, other historians also said they see the legacies of Obama and Trump as inextricably tied. There’s the race aspect, because Obama was the first African-American president and Trump has at times borrowed language from white nationalists and has often been accused of stoking racial resentment during his first year in office. But it’s also about personality, considering that the public images of the two men couldn’t be more different.
Obama ran a White House that was sometimes criticized for being too methodical and centralized, while Trump’s administration is the opposite.
In the past week alone, he has engaged in a public feud with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, compared nuclear arsenals with North Korea over Twitter, and announced a “Fake News” awards show to be held Monday.
“While the Fake News loves to talk about my so-called low approval rating, @foxandfriends just showed that my rating on Dec. 28, 2017, was approximately the same as President Obama on Dec. 28, 2009, which was 47% . . . and this despite massive negative Trump coverage & Russia hoax!” Trump tweeted in late December 2017.
Except, of course, it wasn’t quite true. Or rather it was only true of one poll, and not of the flood of others. According to Gallup’s daily tracking poll, Obama’s approval rating was at 51 percent on Dec. 28, 2009. Eight years later, Trump was at a 38 percent approval rating, a full 13 points below his predecessor. Trump’s preferred polling service, Rasmussen, did have Trump and Obama about equal on that December date, but even it often has Trump lagging behind Obama’s approval numbers.
Favreau, the former Obama staffer, was not surprised by those numbers. He said Obama has always held more cultural significance than polls can capture.
“It’s partly due to the Trump backlash, and partly true because Obama’s personal popularity has always outpaced his job approval,” he said.
Beyond the nation’s shores, there are some places around the world, though not many, where Trump is more popular than Obama. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey polled 37 nations across the world about their opinions of the two presidents, and all but two countries rated Obama higher.
The ones that preferred Trump? Israel by 7 percentage points and Russia by 42.Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWesley.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, author Michael Days was misidentified in an earlier version of this article.