How America Changed During Obama's Presidency

  • by Michael Dimock
  • March 20, 2017
  • Features

Barack Obama campaigned for the U.S. presidency on a platform of change. After his eight years in office, the country he led is undeniably different. Profound social, demographic, and technological changes swept across the United States during Obama’s tenure, as did important shifts in government policy and public opinion.

Apple released its first iPhone during Obama’s 2007 campaign, and he announced his vice presidential pick—Joe Biden—on a 2-year-old platform called Twitter. Today, use of smartphones and social media has become the norm in American society, not the exception.

The election of the nation’s first black president raised hopes that race relations in the U.S. would improve, especially in the view of black voters. But by 2016, following a spate of high-profile deaths of blacks during encounters with police that prompted national protests, many Americans—especially blacks—described race relations as generally bad.

The U.S. economy is in much better shape now than it was in the aftermath of the Great Recession, which cost millions of Americans their homes and jobs, and led Obama to push through a roughly $800 billion stimulus package as one of his first orders of business. Unemployment has plummeted from 10 percent in late 2009 to below 5 percent today; the Dow Jones industrial average has more than doubled.

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.

America's changes during Obama's presidency

Obama’s election quickly elevated America’s image abroad, especially in Europe, where George W. Bush had been deeply unpopular following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Obama remained largely popular internationally throughout his tenure, though there were exceptions, including in Russia and key Muslim nations. And Americans themselves became more wary of international engagement.

Views on some high-profile social issues shifted rapidly. Eight states and the District of Columbia legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, and for the first time on record a majority of Americans now support legalization of the drug.

The Supreme Court settled momentous legal battles during Obama’s tenure, including overturning long-standing bans on same-sex marriage. Even before the court issued its 2015 ruling, a majority of Americans said for the first time that they supported same-sex marriage.

As the Obama era drew to a close, the Pew Research Center looked back on these and other important social, demographic, and political shifts that occurred at home and abroad during the tenure of the 44th president. And we looked ahead to some of the trends that could define the tenure of the 45th, Donald Trump.

America's changes during Obama's presidency

A shifting national identity

Demographic changes don’t happen quickly. Obama’s presidency is only a chapter in a story that began long before his arrival and will continue long after his departure. Even so, the U.S. of today differs in some significant ways from that of 2008.

Millennials have surpassed baby boomers as the nation’s largest living generation. They now match boomers in eligible voters.

The nation’s growing diversity has become more evident, too. In 2013, for the first time, the majority of U.S. newborns were racial or ethnic minorities. The same year, a record-high 12 percent of newlyweds married someone of a different race.

The November electorate was the country’s most racially and ethnically diverse ever. Nearly 1 in 3 eligible voters on Election Day was Hispanic, black, Asian, or another racial or ethnic minority, reflecting a steady rise since 2008. Strong growth in the number of Hispanic eligible voters, in particular U.S.-born youth, drove much of this change. Indeed, for the first time, the Hispanic share of the electorate is now on par with the black share.

Although illegal immigration served as a flashpoint in the tumultuous campaign to succeed Obama, there has been little change in the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. since 2009. And for the first time since the 1940s, more Mexican immigrants—both legal and unauthorized—have returned to Mexico from the U.S. than have entered.

In terms of religious identity, the biggest trend during Obama’s presidency was the rise of those who claim no religion at all. Those who identify themselves 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.

Christians, meanwhile, have fallen from 78 to 71 percent of the U.S. adult population, owing mainly to modest declines in the share of adults who identify with mainline Protestantism and Catholicism. 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 monthly have all ticked downward in recent years. At the same time, the large majority of Americans who do identify with a faith are, on average, as religiously observant as they were a few years ago, and by some measures even more so.

The tide of demographic changes in the U.S. has affected both major parties, but in different ways. Democratic voters are becoming less white, less religious, and better-educated at a faster rate than that of the country, while Republicans are aging more quickly than the country as a whole. Education, in particular, has emerged as an important dividing line in recent years, with college graduates becoming more likely to identify as Democrats and those without a college degree becoming more likely to identify as Republicans.

America's changes during Obama's presidency

More politically divided

Partisan divisions in assessments of presidential performance 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.

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 about 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.

Gun control has long been a partisan issue, with Democrats considerably more likely than Republicans to say it is more important to control gun ownership than protect gun rights. But what was a 27-percentage-point gap between supporters of Obama and Republican presidential nominee John McCain on this question in 2008 surged to a historic 70-point gap between Hillary Clinton and Trump supporters in 2016.

Skeptical of government, wary of national engagement

If views of some issues changed markedly during Obama’s time in office, views of the government did not. Americans’ trust in the federal government remained mired at historic lows. 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.

Americans felt disillusioned with the way Washington responded to the financial meltdown of 2008. In 2015, 7 in 10 Americans said the government’s policies following the recession generally did little or nothing to help middle-class people. A roughly equal share said the government’s post-recession policies did a great deal or a fair amount to help large banks and financial institutions.

Against a backdrop of global terrorism—including several attacks on U.S. soil—Americans also became less confident in the ability of their government to handle threats. In 2015, following major attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, the public’s concerns about terrorism surged and positive ratings of the government’s handling of terrorism plummeted to a post-9/11 low.

Although Obama’s election provided a boost to America’s global image, Americans themselves grew more wary of international engagement during his presidency.

The share of Americans who say it would be better if the U.S. just dealt with its own problems and let other countries deal with their own as best they can has risen 11 points since spring 2010.

The public’s wariness toward foreign engagement extends to U.S. participation in the global economy and international trade agreements. Roughly half of Americans say U.S. involvement in the global economy is a bad thing because it lowers wages and costs jobs; fewer see it as a good thing because it provides the U.S. with new markets and opportunities for growth. Americans’ views of trade agreements have also soured, a shift driven almost entirely by increasingly negative views among Republicans.

America's changes during Obama's presidency

Smartphones and social media

If demographic changes are slow, technological changes can be swift. More than two-thirds of Americans owned a smartphone by 2015, six times the ownership levels at the dawn of Obama’s tenure. When Apple released the iPad halfway through Obama’s first term, only 3 percent of Americans owned tablets; nearly half had tablets by the end of 2015.

Only a third of Americans used social media in 2008. With the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and other apps, social media use climbed to about three-quarters of online adults by 2015.

Obama also helped usher in the rise of digital video in politics, sharing his weekly address through the White House YouTube channel. By the end of his second term, YouTube had become a media behemoth with over a billion users.

The rise of digital tools and social platforms has also helped bring about profound changes in the U.S. media landscape. In 2008, relatively few Americans said they got their news through social media or via a smartphone or other mobile device. By 2016, 6 in 10 Americans said they got their news through social media and 7 in 10 said they accessed it through a mobile device. In fact, more U.S. adults learned about the presidential election last year through social media than through print newspapers.

Print newspapers continued a long-term decline, with sharp cuts in newspaper staffing and a severe dip in average circulation. Newspaper editorial staff in the U.S. went from nearly 47,000 in 2008 to about 33,000 in 2014—a 30 percent drop, according to data from the American Society of News Editors.

Although television remains a major source of news for Americans, viewership of local TV newscasts has been flat or declining for years. Between 2007 and 2015, average viewership for late-night newscasts declined 22 percent, according to analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

Overall, Americans remained extremely wary of the news media. In a 2016 survey, 7 in 10 adults said the media have a “negative effect” on the way things are going in the U.S. today—the highest share of any nongovernmental institution polled. But for all the skepticism facing the media, Americans continued to value the watchdog functions of the press. About 8 in 10 registered voters, for example, said it is the news media’s responsibility to fact-check political candidates and campaigns. Three-quarters said that news organizations keep political leaders from doing things they shouldn’t.

The future of the media is likely to be an even more salient question following the 2016 presidential campaign, which saw the emergence of a trend of “fake news” that has caused some to observe that America has entered a period of “post-truth politics.”

Looking ahead

Although the 2016 election is over, looking ahead requires equal measures of caution and humility, particularly when it comes to politics and public policy. Still, there are certain bigger trends we know are going to continue and others that show no signs of reversing.

The technological changes that were such a hallmark of Obama’s eight years will go on, reshaping the way we communicate, travel, shop, and work.

Americans seem to expect major changes: More than 6 in 10, for example, believe that within 50 years, robots or computers will do much of the work now done by humans.

The nation’s demographic changes will continue. The country as a whole will turn grayer, and its racial and ethnic diversification is expected to continue: In less than 40 years, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority group, according to Pew Research Center projections. The U.S. has also long been home to more immigrants than any other country in the world, and by 2065, 1 in 3 Americans will be an immigrant or have immigrant parents, compared with about 1 in 4 today.

The nation’s stark partisan fissures are likely to persist and may deepen. 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.

The foreign policy challenges facing this politically fractured nation seem endless, from Russia and China to terrorism and the environment. At home, financial prosperity—even stability— feels increasingly out of reach to many Americans: Today, far more people are pessimistic than optimistic about life for the next generation of Americans.

Yet the United States enters this uncertain new era with undeniable, if often overlooked, strengths. Majorities in both parties say the U.S. is still the world’s leading military—and yes, economic—power, and most Americans say that one of the hallmarks of U.S. society, its racial and ethnic diversity, makes the country a better place to live.

It is tempting to believe that the pace of change in the U.S. has never been greater or that 2016’s election is of greater consequence than others. As significant as the current moment of transition is, however, only the passage of time can reveal the trends that will truly have lasting importance.