- Associated Press - Saturday, January 21, 2017

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - For Arkansas Republicans, he was the face of a national Democratic Party that they argued had become out of step - and helped the GOP sweep into power in what had once been solidly blue territory. For Democrats, he was a trailblazer and the reason why hundreds of thousands of Arkansans now have health insurance, many for the first time ever.

Barack Obama left the White House on Friday with a low approval rating in Arkansas. His legacy, after eight years in office, is hazy as Donald Trump begins serving as the nation’s 45th president.

There’s no question that Obama left his mark on Arkansas, a state he only visited once during his two terms as president, and it’ll be up to historians to decide whether the good outweighs the bad. Only 37 percent of respondents in the University of Arkansas’ annual Arkansas Poll approved of the president’s performance, and Republicans have been gleeful about using his unpopularity at the ballot box over the past eight years.

“Folks, there is one thing he has done right,” Former Gov. Mike Huckabee told Republicans days before the party won control of the state Legislature in 2012. “We should say, ‘Barack Obama, you may have messed up being president, but thank you for what you have done to help Arkansas finally become a Republican state.’”

Obama’s introduction to Arkansas, however, included a promise that he would help the Democratic Party better connect with voters in southern states.

Speaking as a U.S. senator from Illinois at a rally during Mike Beebe’s successful run for governor in 2006 - and while contemplating his own White House bid - Obama said he believed voters were in a “sober mood” that would lead to Democratic gains that fall.

“I think the country’s recognized that the course we’ve been on has not worked and I think the Democratic Party’s identity crisis is over,” Obama told reporters after speaking to more than 3,000 people gathered on the Capitol steps. “I think we’re going to be able to talk about issues in terms of values in a way that will resonate in the South.”

As the nation’s first black president, Obama offered hope in a state that hasn’t elected an African-American to statewide or congressional office since Reconstruction. His support of gay marriage buoyed the state’s LGBT community, but also drew the ire of social conservatives in a state that had overwhelmingly banned same-sex unions in 2004. He also faced complaints from some fellow Democrats in the state who believed he wrote off the state and didn’t try to connect with rural voters.

Obama’s struggles in Arkansas began with his fight against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Most of the state’s top Democrats campaigned for Clinton, who had connections throughout Arkansas from her years as the state’s first lady. The struggles continued after he took office in 2009, with the state’s top Democrats facing criticism over the push for his signature domestic policy achievement, the national health care overhaul.

After the Affordable Care Act’s passage, Republicans repeatedly railed against Democrats by linking them to the president and the law they derided as “Obamacare.” Every election in Arkansas since has been marked by mailers and television ads invoking the president and the overhaul, even in state-level races.

But at the same time, hospitals and health advocates have said the law has brought dramatic benefits to one of the nation’s poorest states. More than 300,000 people are receiving coverage through the hybrid Medicaid expansion crafted under the law, while hospitals say their uncompensated care costs have seen a major drop.

Part of the verdict on Obama’s legacy in Arkansas may depend on what happens in the coming months as Trump and Republicans in Washington grapple with how to carry out their promise to repeal the former president’s health care law, and what will happen to those currently covered. It may also depend on how much further divided the country becomes, something he had warned about while using wrestling motifs during his 2006 visit to the state.

“Our politics have become something sort of like an intellectual WWF battle,” Obama said during his rally with Beebe. “There’s a lot of nasty growling and snarling and a lot of calling each other names but not much gets done and it’s not really for real and nobody really believes in what’s happening.”

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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