President Obama had a pretty good 2015 by most measures. The economy grew and unemployment fell. He achieved a long-sought nuclear deal with Iran, a long-sought trade deal with Asia and a long-sought climate agreement in Paris. He even signed some bipartisan legislation, including an old-fashioned compromise over spending and taxes.
He proved, against widespread expectations, that he's no lame duck.
“Our steady, persistent work over the years is paying off,” Obama crowed in a pre-Christmas news conference. “I've never been more optimistic about the year ahead.”
Obama's doing especially well by recent historical standards. At this point in their presidencies, Ronald Reagan was mired in a scandal over secret arms shipments to Iran, Bill Clinton was emerging from impeachment, and George W. Bush was presiding over the beginning of a financial crash.
Nevertheless, most Americans don't seem impressed. The president's job approval has flatlined at about 45% and shows no sign of improving. The Pew Research Center reported last week that most voters don't share Obama's optimism: the percentage who expect the economy to improve has fallen since a year ago.
What's gone wrong?
It's true that the president got important things done in 2015, but the things he didn't get done were bigger. Unemployment is down, but wage growth is still painfully slow. Terrorism is still a serious threat; Islamic State is still untamed. And many Americans have concluded sourly that neither Obama nor any other conventional politician can make the federal government effective. (That's one reason for the rise of antipoliticians like Donald Trump.)
The attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, in particular, sent a shock wave through American politics. The Pew poll found that, for the first time, most Americans don't think the government is doing a good job of reducing terrorist threats. But Obama seemed slow to notice, and his message of “steady as she goes” did little to reassure a jittery public. “He was a little tone-deaf,” his former political aide David Axelrod acknowledged.
Another factor: Not everyone approved of Obama's accomplishments. Conservatives don't think the nuclear agreement with Iran was a major achievement; they consider it simply a bad deal. Republicans who don't think climate change is a serious problem aren't impressed by a global pact to reduce it.
And, in a polarized nation, there's not much Obama can do to please his opponents. After seven years, Obama's standing in the polls increasingly appears to be independent of his job performance. Good news nudges his approval rating up a point or two, bad news nudges it down, but most voters decided what they think of Barack Obama a long time ago. Even the terrorist attack in San Bernardino caused only a barely perceptible ripple. In that sense, Obama may have a floor as well as a ceiling.
But does it even matter whether the public approves of a president in his final years in office? Yes; there's more at stake than vanity.
Republican presidential candidates are already promising to undo much of Obama's work if they win the White House and maintain control of Congress. They have promised to repeal Obama's health insurance law, cancel his climate change regulations, revoke the nuclear deal with Iran, stop the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba and reverse his liberalization of immigration rules.
If Obama wants his work to survive, he needs to have a Democrat succeed him. “I will campaign very hard to make that happen, for a whole variety of reasons,” he said at his news conference.
But his biggest impact on the next election won't come from campaigning; it will stem from his own popularity, high or low. As Alan Abramowitz of Emory University has pointed out, it's rare for one party to win the White House three times in a row — and it has never happened in modern times when the incumbent's popularity was below 50%.
In the year ahead, Obama has little chance of winning legislative battles in Congress. He has no new levers to help the economy grow. He wants to defeat Islamic State, but not at the cost of deploying large numbers of U.S. troops. And he needs, somehow, to persuade voters who once supported him to listen to his voice once more. His legacy depends on it.