Sen. Barack Obama and Michelle Obama on stage for a victory rally in Des Moines, Iowa, May 20, 2008. At the conclusion of the president's term, students say they are already nostalgic for his presidency.

Doug Mills / The New York Times

Sen. Barack Obama and Michelle Obama on stage for a victory rally in Des Moines, Iowa, May 20, 2008. At the conclusion of the president's term, students say they are already nostalgic for his presidency.

November 5, 2016

Thanks Obama: Cornellians Praise the President’s Policy and Poise

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As his second term comes to a close, amidst a divisive presidential race that grows more vitriolic by the day, President Barack Obama’s popularity has surged to surpass 50 percent.

Some Americans, like Prof. Jodi Cohen, communications, attribute increased enthusiasm for the 44th president to the contrast he poses to the two major presidential party candidates now vying for his seat in the oval office.

“Although he has had an incredible force against him during his presidency, he does not, and has never, evoked the disgust that this year’s candidates do,” Cohen said. “Even his political foes will say he is not a bad man, rather [that] his decision making is naive and incompetent.”

Obama and Young Voters

While some citzens may have only warmed to the president recently, Obama’s approval rating among young voters has always been higher than his average favorability ratings, reaching as high as 72 percent last month.

As “the first presidential candidate to utilize both mobile and social media,” Obama has tactically communicated with this young demographic in new ways from the days of his 2008 campaign onward, according to Prof. Lee Humphreys, communication.

Humphreys cites the “tons of videos that are being circulated on social media platforms,” including his appearances on late night shows, as an effective way Obama has reached out to younger voters. These innovative communication tactics have likely acted to bolder his popularity, Humphreys said.

“When he makes these adorable, funny, self-deprecating videos about his inability to use Snapchat, it’s hard not to like that about him,” Humphreys said. “I’m sure they’re interrelated.”

She added that his use of social media has been instrumental to his attempt to get young voters to the polls this fall.

“I think [his social media outreach is] a really important way that he is both explicitly and implicitly engaging with the public to remind them about the Democratic ticket,” she said.

Decades after President Frankin Delanor Roosevelt institued his “fireside chats,” Obama’s invigorated use of social media allows him to connect directly with Americans, making him at once a figure of authority and a personal communicator.

Humphreys noted that the president’s use of new media has “allowed him to seem quite intimate with many people while maintaining his authority figure.”

Policy Progress

Obama’s popularity with younger voters can be attributed not only to targeted media outreach, but also the resonance of his policy positions, according to Cohen.

“He opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, and he would like all community colleges to be free,” Cohen cited, as examples of policies popular among college students.

Gunjan Hooja ’17, vice president of the Cornell Democrats, voiced gratitude for the economic stability Obama worked to restore at the outset of his presidency, after inheriting the economic crisis of 2008.

“He’s brought the economy almost to a point where I feel confident going into the job market,” Hooja said. “People don’t give him enough credit where credit is due.”

Jordan Berger ’17, the president of the Student Assembly, said she believes Obama has left a positive legacy in the policy areas that matter most to her.

Recalling her work experience in the White House Office of Public Engagement, Berger said. “I realized how committed President Obama was to helping the disability community which is very important to me.”

However, not all emphasized Obama’s positive policy legacy. Prof. M. Elizabeth Sanders, government, expressed concern about the outcome of Obama’s expansion of American foreign conflict.

“[Obama’s] legacy is really problematic, because he has extended the bad things that George [W.] Bush did — the executive orders, a war [in Libya], greatly extending drone strikes,” she said.

Sanders also noted that, while in this election cycle the prospect of Russian engagement in cyberwarfare has entered into national dialogue, the American people have largely turned a blind eye to Obama’s role in enablingg cyber warfare.

“What we ignore when we make those criticisms of the Russians is that …. Obama started cyberwarfare,” she said.

2016 Election

Ultimately, the 2016 campaign has also been responsible for the rise in Obama’s approval ratings among members of the general populace, according to Kevin Kowalewski ’17, president of the Cornell Democrats.

“Due to the negative nature of this election, both Trump and Clinton both have high unfavorable ratings,” he said. “I think Americans are becoming almost nostalgic for the Obama presidency, even before it’s over.”

Cohen agreed with this assessment, saying the 2016 campaign has led citizens to criticize moral deficiencies in the two candidates that did not plague Obama during either his campaigns or presidency.

“In contrast to the polarizing and uncivil rhetoric of campaign candidates, pundits, and surrogates, Obama is presented as measured and thoughtful,” she said.

Obama’s Legacy

Respondents praised both personal qualities and political achievements as contributors to Obama’s status as such a popular president. Several students agreed that his legacy will only grow brighter in hindsight, implying history will remember his term favorably.

Kowalewski noted that the historical role Obama assumed as the United States’ first African American president enabled a more inclusive system of government, one growing increasingly accessible to all Americans.

“I think what Barack Obama has done with the Democratic Party is shift it in a more inclusive direction,” Kowalewski noted. “He has knocked down some of the biggest impediments to higher office for people of all backgrounds.”

Particularly for those who grew up and were first introduced to the political realm during his presidency, Obama has proved an influential figure, defining the presidial position for many young citizens.

“I became interested in politics during the 2008 presidential election,” Hooja said. “Especially with coming of age and getting interested in politics, his administration was definitely influential.”

Cohen predicted that Obama will be remembered well for his ability to bring unite people with dignified and compassionate rhetoric.

She said it will be impossible to forget moving manner in which Obama has spoken on issues of national significance, citing as an example the speech he made in response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting of Treyvon Martin.

“Obama’s words effectively evoke civil, rather than polarizing, public discussion on important issues,” Cohen said. “Democracy depends on it.”

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