Posted on January 18, 2017

How America Changed During Barack Obama’s Presidency

Michael Dimock, Pew Research, January 10, 2017

Barack Obama campaigned for the U.S. presidency on a platform of change. As he prepares to leave office, the country he led for eight years is undeniably different. Profound social, demographic and technological changes have swept across the United States during Obama’s tenure, as have 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 two-year-old platform called Twitter. Today, use of smartphones and social media has become the norm in U.S. 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 among black voters. 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.


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

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 the U.S. of 2008.

Millennials have now 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 newborn babies in the U.S. were racial or ethnic minorities. The same year, a record-high 12% of newlyweds married someone of a different race.

The November electorate was the country’s most racially and ethnically diverse ever. Nearly one-in-three eligible voters on Election Day were 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.

While 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.

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% in 2007.

Christians, meanwhile, have fallen from 78% to 71% of the U.S. adult population, owing mainly to modest declines in the share of adults who identify with mainline Protestantism and Catholicism. The share of Americans identifying with evangelical Protestantism, historically black Protestant denominations and other smaller Christian groups, by contrast, have remained fairly stable.

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.

More politically divided

Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in November’s bitterly contested election, becoming the first person ever to win the White House with no prior political or military experience. But the divisions that emerged during the campaign and in its aftermath had been building long before Trump announced his candidacy, and despite Obama’s stated aim of reducing partisanship.


An average of just 14% of Republicans have approved of Obama over the course of his presidency, compared with an average of 81% of Democrats.


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.


Skeptical of government, other institutions

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.


Against a backdrop of global terrorism – including several attacks on American 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.


In Germany, favorability of the U.S. more than doubled following Obama’s election. In the United Kingdom, confidence in the U.S. president surged from 16% for Bush in 2008 to 86% for Obama in 2009. The Obama bump was most dramatic in Western Europe, but was also evident in virtually every country surveyed between 2007 and 2009.
The U.S. retained its popularity in Africa and parts of Latin America during Obama’s second term. But the U.S. wasn’t seen favorably everywhere. Russian views of the U.S. veered sharply negative in 2014 while the image of the U.S. remained dour in key Muslim countries.


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 the spring of 2010.

The public’s wariness toward global 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, especially during the campaign of Trump, who has been highly critical of free trade agreements.

About half of Americans say the U.S. is a less powerful and important world leader than it was a decade ago, though most still believe the U.S. is the world’s leading economic and military power.


While the 2016 election may be one for the history books, looking ahead requires equal measures of caution and humility, particularly when it comes to politics and public policy.

It remains to be seen, for example, whether Donald Trump will push forward on some of his highest-profile campaign priorities, such as constructing a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, lowering federal taxes and reducing government regulation. On some of his priorities, Trump appears to have the support of the public; on others, he appears to be out of step with public sentiment. Either way, history suggests that opinion can change significantly as general proposals move to concrete legislation.


The demographic changes that have taken hold across the U.S. will continue their transformation of America, too. The nation 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, one-in-three Americans will be an immigrant or have immigrant parents, compared with about one-in-four today.


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.