Far From “Post-Partisan,” Obama Is the Most Divisive President in Decades

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In a post earlier this month, I referred to Obama as “the most divisive, hyper-partisan president since Nixon.”  I was prepared for push-back from Democrats contending that the second George Bush was more divisive.  The Iraq War certainly became divisive over time, but it started with broad bipartisan support.  Of Obama’s biggest initiatives, Obamacare passed without a single Republican vote, and “Porkulus” had only a handful.

Now the nice folks at Gallup have provided polling data documenting just how divisive Obama has been (hat tip: Peter Wehner).  Gallup headlines its article “Obama’s Fourth Year in Office Ties as Most Polarized Ever,” but to me, the most interesting data is in the chart reproduced above, showing the gap between Republican and Democratic approval rates averaged across the presidents’ entire incumbency.  Obama’s average gap thus far is 70 points, on pace to shatter G.W.Bush’s prior record of 61 points.  (Hm… 70 breaks a prior record of 61… where have I heard those numbers before?)  Interestingly, Nixon, who stands out in my mind as a divisive leader, came in only fifth in Gallup’s rankings.

Gallup emphasizes the negative trajectory:

The trend toward increasingly partisan evaluations of presidents over time is also evident in the fact that no president before Ronald Reagan had more than a 41-point party gap in approval ratings, but four of the last five presidents (the exception is George H.W. Bush) have had better-than 50-point divisions in approval ratings by party.

So should we let Obama off the hook because of the historical accident of our highly partisan times?  Naw.  In 2008, Obama held himself up as a post-partisan beacon. But from the very beginning of his presidency, he has seemed intent on creating friction rather than reducing it.  On his third day in office, he froze Republicans out of the Porkulus negotiations by telling them pointedly, “I won.”  He went on to champion a healthcare package that was rammed through Congress in strict party-line votes — including votes scheduled for the middle of the night in the rush to pass the bill before people realized what was in it.

Recently, of course, we’ve had the Fiscal Cliff end-zone dance.  That was followed by the inaugural address — a venue where presidents typically try to unite the country and soothe the passions stirred up by the recent campaign.  But in his second inaugural, Obama turned up the heat. Michael Gerson summarizes the stridency:

Those who oppose this agenda, in Obama’s view, are not a very admirable lot. They evidently don’t want our wives, mothers and daughters to “earn a living equal to their efforts.” They would cause some citizens “to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” They mistake “absolutism for principle” and “substitute spectacle for politics” and “treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” They would have people’s “twilight years . . . spent in poverty” and ensure that the parents of disabled children have “nowhere to turn.” They would reserve freedom “for the lucky” and believe that Medicare and Social Security “sap our initiative,” and they see this as “a nation of takers.” They “deny the overwhelming judgment of science” on climate change, don’t want love to be “equal” and apparently contemplate “perpetual war.”

The fruits of Obama’s antagonism will be harvested soon.  With the debt ceiling kicked down the road again, the stage is set, as Newt Gingrich described, for battles over the sequester and the continuing resolution.  The sequester’s draconian automatic spending cuts take effect March 1 unless Congress votes otherwise, and I expect House Republicans will be virtually unanimous in letting the cuts occur, unless they can win cuts of comparable size elsewhere from the Democrats.

6 thoughts on “Far From “Post-Partisan,” Obama Is the Most Divisive President in Decades

  1. Read up on Paul Ryan and the Republican leadership meeting on the evening of Obama’s first inauguration, and what they decided to do then (and spent the next 4 years fully implementing). Then tell me again with a straight face that it was Obama who was being antagonistic and divisive.

    There is a big difference, Kirk, between being philosophically committed to the stated goals of a party and blindly following whatever the leadership of the party says, just because they say it. Sad to say, but you seem to have gone the way of the blind, uncritical, follower.

    • Well put, Jeff. Four years of obstructionism, outright fabrication, gerrymandering and vote suppression, huge financial investment, and lofty pre-vote confidence yielded to a a decisive loss and hopefully a time for humility and reflection. The time for divisive blogs like this is past. Let your conservative values stand on their own merits, and find the right (right) leaders to do that.

    • “Read up on Paul Ryan and the Republican leadership meeting…”

      I love it when people try to rebut something I’ve written, and they want me to do the research to support their point.

      That’s followed by an ad hominem attack. I’m hardly a “blind, uncritical follower” of “whatever the leadership of the party says.” Until he finally “evolved” I was to the left of Obama on same-sex marriage, and on that topic I’ve been critical of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whom I otherwise generally admire.

      I’ve praised Obama for the bin Laden takedown and the rescue of an American held by pirates.

      I stood up for Obama when he was criticized, unfairly in my view, for his handling of the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

      In 2008 I came out against Sarah Palin’s candidacy the morning after it was announced.

      I could go on, but that’s enough. Thanks for commenting. Next time maybe offer a link?

  2. I would observe, with regard to the the Gallup data, “correlation is not the same as causation”. And I know we would have different arguments around the causes. The Gallup data does not prove or document “divisiveness” per se. It proves polarization along party lines, but those concepts are different, as I know you are aware. As a professional statistician, have to make this minor esoteric point and now I feel better. 🙂

    • Hi Cilla! Your point is well taken. I was using the terms polarization and divisiveness interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference related to causation, as you note. And although I took umbrage at commenter Jeff’s characterization of me, he points out correctly that it’s always possible to disagree over which side in a dispute is responsible for divisiveness.

      I wrote this post thinking that the objective data from the poll helps support my subjective assessment of Obama as highly partisan and antagonistic. It may not be quite the magic bullet I thought it was. But I still stand by my assessment of Obama’s various provocations, as outlined in the post.

  3. Seems it was the Senate who announced that their 2008 #1 agenda item was to oppose the president’s reelection not vice versa.

    One can’t make a scientific study out of an analysis of the distance between 2 points and blame just 1 for all of the delta.

    It seems Obama offered a grand deal in 2008, to have Congress define the healthcare bill, thinking that it could end up along the lines of prescribed Repub thinking, like Romneycare, and the House ended up opposing even preparing a bill.

    But you blame Obama in his first term after the legendary uprising of the Unitary executive himself, Bush. Though John Dean, famed nonpartisan legal scholar opined that the Bush presidency was secretive, illegal, and destructive, Bush’s clownish signing statements were harmless and meaningless.

    The Executive is not obligated by the Constitution to tailor his proposals to the Congress. But politically, ultimately, both the President and Congress have to do what is best for and/or most popular with the people. The first term and Obama’s plans for the second caused reelection in 9 of the 10 contested states.

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