What Can We Expect From Obama’s Last Year, Based On Past Presidents?

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When a president is headed for the exit, as they all must do, the last year is often either a challenge or simply an inoperative bore. The lame duck presidency is a very real thing, and President Barack Obama, to an extent, has already slipped on a pair of flippers and tried on his Donald Duck voice, even if he’s a bit ahead of schedule.

The past week has increasingly drawn attention to the upcoming campaigns and presidential election. Candidates like Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio are preparing for battle on the national stage, but Obama still has some time in office to look forward to. Let’s take a look at how past presidents’ last years in the White House progressed, and what we can expect from Obama.

When Bill Clinton left office, he did so with high approval ratings, at least compared to where Obama currently sits. At his exit, according to Gallup, he was around the mid- to high 60s, and over the course of his presidency, the trend was largely upward or steady, despite the scandals that rocked his personal life. Obama’s most recent weekly average (April 6 to 12), according to Gallup, was at 48%, one percentage point over his term approval rating average of 47%. In that sense, the two will be leaving office on different terms.

When Clinton exited, he was pushing for a particular area of reform, much as Obama has continued to advocate for certain messages with what powers are left to him without the cooperation of Congress. For Clinton, it was the correctional system and the death penalty. Ultimately, he pardoned more than 100 individuals, waiting until about two hours before George W. Bush took over the White House to do it. Bush, in turn, issued a few pardons, but it was nothing compared to Clinton’s list.

When the junior Bush was nearing the end of his second term in office, he was still dealing with U.S. involvement in Iraq. He was also working to reform immigration — sound familiar? — with little success. For the first part of his presidency, Bush enjoyed a Republican majority in both the House and the Senate.

By the time he was getting ready to leave office, that had changed, with Congress having turned blue, and even some in his party giving him trouble over immigration reform ideas. As a result of his inability to see reform from the legislature, Bush instead continued to attack the issue in his last year with more funding toward his “Enforcement Initiative” in the 2009 budget.

This is reminiscent of Obama’s executive actions on a few different fronts, including immigration, the minimum wage, and LGBT rights. As his last year approaches — his presidency ends on January 20, 2017 — he’ll likely spend a great deal of time doing just this sort of activity. That is, working on things that do not require intra-party cooperation or working with the legislature. This is in part because of the nature of the last year and in part because of his relationship with Congress, which has historically been poor, as well as because of the lawsuits and legal battles already tying down activity on some fronts.

“I don’t care who you are, after eight years or six years of the presidency, your influence has eroded,” said historian Robert Dallek to PBS. “Even someone like Eisenhower or Reagan, you just can’t sustain it.” Like his predecessors in both parties, Obama may put out a few pardons on his last day; this is not uncommon.

Like other presidents, he’s had to contend with midterm elections in his last term, making efforts not to hurt his own party, but with those over, he’ll have less to worry about. That being said, he will probably still want to give Democrats a hand by keeping approval ratings at least somewhat level, though presidential candidates in his party have the ability to critique his actions, should the need arise.

Perhaps White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer said it best when he said, “This year the president’s policy successes vastly outstripped his political successes,” according to The New York Times. A great deal of Obama’s recent activity has been at the executive level — not working toward a common goal with other politicians, but instead doing smaller-scale, less far-reaching work that he himself can champion with his administration. It’s likely we can expect more of the same.

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