Barack Obama leaves the presidency with the nation more divided than at any time in decades, race relations at a new low and a surge in atheism, according to a new survey by Pew Research.
The survey concludes the United States is “undeniably different” than when Obama was elected eight years ago, citing such trivia as the introduction of the Apple iPhone during his 2007 campaign and the fact that Twitter was only two years old then.
But things haven’t gone so well on other issues.
“The election of the nation’s first black president raised hopes that race relations in the U.S. would improve, especially among black voters,” Pew said. “But by 2016, following a spate of high-profile deaths of black Americans during encounters with police and protests by the Black Lives Matter movement and other groups, many Americans – especially blacks – described race relations as generally bad.”
Those were the conditions back in the 1990s when Los Angeles was burning with race riots. But about the time George W. Bush was elected, relations improved dramatically – from a 14 percent margin for those who described relations as bad, to a 27 percent margin for those who described them as good.
They remained in that range, or even above, when Obama first took office, until tensions rose between blacks and police.
Relations plunged to points unseen since the 1990s and have yet to recover, the survey said.
Pew reported Americans believe the economy has improved since the Great Recession, and unemployment is down.
“But by some measures, the country faces serious economic challenges: a steady hollowing of the middle class, for example, continued during Obama’s presidency, and income inequality reached its highest point since 1928,” the survey said.
Also, Obama has incurred about as much new debt for America as all the presidents who preceded him combined – some $10 trillion.
“Views on some high-profile social issues shifted rapidly. Eight states and the District of Columbia legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, a legal shift accompanied by a striking reversal in public opinion: for the first time on record, a majority of Americans now support legalization of the drug,” Pew reported.
Then there was the creation of same-sex “marriage” by the Supreme Court, a seismic shift that destroyed millennia of precedent and practice. It may not have created the firestorm some expected because, “when it comes to the nation’s religious identity, the biggest trend during Obama’s presidency is the rise of those who claim no religion at all.”
“Those who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is ‘nothing in particular,’ now make up nearly a quarter of the U.S. adult population, up from 16 percent in 2007,” Pew said.
The percentage of Christians has fallen, too.
“Due largely to the growth of those who don’t identify with any religion, the shares of Americans who say they believe in God, consider religion to be very important in their lives, say they pray daily and say they attend religious services at least month have all ticked downward in recent years.”
The changes affected the political parties differently, and nowhere was the chasm more evident than in the presidential race.
Those divisions appeared there but “had been building long before Trump announced his candidacy, and despite Obama’s stated aim of reducing partisanship,” Pew said.
“Partisan divisions in assessments of presidential performance, for example, are wider now than at any point going back more than six decades, and this growing gap is largely the result of increasing disapproval of the chief executive from the opposition party. An average of just 14 percent of Republicans have approved of Obama over the course of his presidency, compared with an average of 81 percent of Democrats.
Even under Nixon, the divide was only 75-34.
“Obama’s signature legislative achievement – the 2010 health care law that informally bears his name – has prompted some of the sharpest divisions between Democrats and Republicans. About three-quarters of Democrats approve of the Affordable Care Act, or ‘Obamacare,’ while 85 percent of Republicans disapprove of it,” Pew said.
“But the partisanship so evident during Obama’s years is perhaps most notable because it extended far beyond disagreements over specific leaders, parties or proposals. Today, more issues cleave along partisan lines than at any point since surveys began to track public opinion.”
“Between 1994 and 2005, for example, Republicans’ and Democrats’ attitudes toward immigrants in the U.S. tracked one another closely. Beginning around 2006, however, they began to diverge. And the gap has only grown wider since then: Democrats today are more than twice as likely as Republicans to say that immigrants strengthen the country,” the report continued.
Gun control divides, too.
“What was a 27-percentage-point gap between supporters of Obama and John McCain on this question in 2008 surged to a historic 70-point gap between Clinton and Trump supporters in 2016,” Pew reported.
And “climate change.”
“Only about a fifth of Republicans and independents who lean Republican say they trust climate scientists ‘a lot’ to give full and accurate information about the causes of climate change. This compares with more than half of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.”
Such division and distrust spilled over elsewhere.
“Elected officials were held in such low regard, in fact, that more than half of the public said in a fall 2015 survey that ‘ordinary Americans’ would do a better job of solving national problems,” Pew reported.
Most Americans said the government did nothing to help Americans after the Great Recession, and their trust in the ability of the government to respond to terror fell to a post-9/11 low.
It was other nations, many that received apologies from Obama for America, that perceived America in a more favorable light.
“In Germany, favorability of the U.S. more than doubled following Obama’s election,” Pew said.
- “In 2016, more U.S. adults learned about the presidential election through social media than through print newspapers. Younger Americans, in particular, were more likely to turn to social media rather than more traditional platforms.”
- “While television remains a major source of news for Americans, there are signs of change. Viewership of local TV newscasts has been flat or declining for years, depending on the time of day.”
- “In a 2016 survey, seven-in-ten adults said the media has a ‘negative effect’ on the way things are going in the U.S. today – the highest share of any nongovernmental institution polled.”
Nor does the survey expect a quick recovery from the declines under Obama.
“The nation’s stark partisan fissures are likely to persist and may deepen. Just as Obama’s job approval ratings are deeply divided along partisan lines, the public’s ratings for how Trump has handled his transition to the White House are more divided by party than they were for recent presidents-elect. A reality of American politics today is that one of the only things large numbers of Republicans and Democrats can agree on is that they can’t agree on basic facts.”