This isn’t a big surprise, but as the election moves closer, views of President Obama have become even more polarized. So far in October, according to Gallup, 90 percent of Democrats approve of Obama versus 8 percent of Republicans. This 82-point gap in partisan approval is the largest ever recorded by Gallup: at this point in 2004, 12 percent of Democrats approved of George W. Bush (an 80-point gap). In 1996, 23 percent of Republicans approved of Clinton, and in 1992, 11 percent of Democrats approved of George H.W. Bush.
The intense polarization of the Obama era is one reason that Mitt Romney has been able to build traction with the claim that Obama has spurned bipartisanship and hasn’t worked with Republicans. He hit that mark when criticizing the Affordable Care Act in last week’s presidential debate:
“So entirely on a partisan basis, instead of bringing America together and having a discussion on this important topic, you pushed through something that you and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid thought was the best answer and drove it through...
“I think something this big, this important has to be done on a bipartisan basis. And we have to have a president who can reach across the aisle and fashion important legislation with the input from both parties.”
And Paul Ryan made a similar claim in last night’s vice presidential debate, accusing the administration of excluding Republicans from the decision making process:
“Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts, where 87 percent of the legislators he served, which were Democrats. He didn’t demonize them. He didn’t demagogue them. He met with those party leaders every week. He reached across the aisle. He didn’t compromise principles.”
With few exceptions, this narrative has gone unchallenged for most of the year, despite the fact that it bears little relationship to reality. Close political observers know that congressional Republicans began the Obama presidency with a deliberate strategy of categorial opposition. As Robert Draper details in his recent book, GOP leaders had no intention of cooperating with the president on any of his major initatives. From inauguration onwards, their plan was to “Show united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies.”
As political strategy goes, this was incredibly smart. Voters don’t know much about legislation, and their views are shaped by the responses of political elites. Because the entire Republican Party denounced stimulus or health care reform as “radical” and “too partisan,” voters understood those laws as outside the mainstream, even as they agreed with the actual provisions. The Republican strategy of complete opposition is part of what made the Obama agenda — or large parts of it — unpopular.
It’s clear from this campaign that the strategy served another purpose: To allow the Republican presidential nominee to portray himself as bipartisan and able to “work across the aisle.” Put another way, over the last four years, the GOP has generated intense partisanship, blamed it on the president, and now is trying to capitalize on voter discontent over gridlock. It’s a neat trick.