Obama the uniter? Not really.

May 21, 2013

Americans are deeply divided over President Obama's ability to bring the country together in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, the latest sign that his pledge to end decades of partisan warfare in the nation's capital is flagging.

Forty-seven percent of Americans say that Obama has done more to unite the country during his time in office while 45 percent say he has done more to divide it -- a statistically insignificant difference. Among registered voters, it's 47 percent uniter and 47 percent divider.

Look deeper into the numbers and partisanship quickly rears its head. Almost eight in 10 Democrats say Obama is more a uniter, about the same percentage of Republicans who call him a divider.

Obama's numbers on the "uniter vs. divider" question still put him in a better spot than where George W. Bush stood at roughly the same time in his presidency.  A June 2005 Post-ABC poll showed that 43 percent of Americans said Bush was a uniter while 55 percent called him a divider. (Bush's job approval numbers had begun to slide by the summer of 2005 but the true collapse didn't come until the fall -- in the aftermath of his administration's botched handling of Hurricane Katrina.)

Still, that the country is split literally down the middle on Obama's ability to unite/divide it is a telling indication that the man who pledged he could change Washington has struggled mightily to make good on that promise.

Remember in the speech that launched Obama's career at the 2004 Democratic National Convention the most quotable (and quoted) lines were: "The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states."

And, in his acceptance speech four years later at the 2008 DNC, Obama repeatedly hit on the idea that he was coming to Washington to break the partisan divides that had long seized Democratic and Republican administrations. "Tonight, I say to the American people, to Democrats and Republicans and Independents across this great land -- enough," he said at one point.  "The challenges we face require tough choices, and Democrats as well as Republicans will need to cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past," he said at another.

In fact, the pledge to change the game in Washington was a major part of Obama's electoral appeal in 2008. Six in 10 voters said Obama would bring "needed change" to Washington while just 34 percent said Arizona Sen. John McCain was the candidate of change.

And, even since the 2012 election, there's been an erosion in the levels of optimism that the executive and legislative branches can work together. In the new Post-ABC poll just one in three respondents call themselves optimistic about the chances that the White House and Congress can work together on "important issues". That's down from 46 percent who expressed optimism in December 2012 and a drastic drop from the 55 percent who were optimistic about the prospects of working together back in early 2011.

Hope has evaporated fastest in the past six months among Democrats, who like Obama have watched an ambitious second term agenda stall out in only a few months. Fifty-nine percent of Democrats were optimistic about the chances partisans would work together on big issues, but just 41 percent say so today.

Obama and the large majority of Democrats both on and off Capitol Hill have made clear that the failure of the two parties to come together on big issues lies exclusively with Republicans.

“I cannot force Republicans to embrace those common-sense solutions," Obama said in a press conference in late April. "I can urge them to. I can put pressure on them. I can, you know, rally the American people around those common-sense solutions. But ultimately they, themselves, are going to have to say ‘we want to do the right thing.’"

And, there's little question that Republicans in Congress have been driven to the ideological right over the past few years due in large part to a series of primary victories by conservative insurgents over incumbents viewed as insufficiently loyal to party principles.

But, Obama is still the president who pledged -- loudly and repeatedly -- to change how Washington works.  That has not happened. The economic stimulus bill and the healthcare law passed on party line votes in his first term. The gun bill failed on party lines in his second term. And, with a series of scandals and investigations now mounting, it seems more likely that partisanship will grow rather than shrink in the coming months.

We've written before that the presidential bully pulpit is not what it once was.  The fracturing of the media has created a sort of partisan silo-ing effect that allows people to see and hear only points of view that agree with theirs.

None of that is Obama's fault and there is nothing -- or virtually nothing -- he can do to change it. But, add it all up and you are left with one inescapable conclusion: The president who pledged to change Washington is almost certain to come up short on that promise.

White House officials knew about IRS probe last month: The White House's account Monday of when top aides there learned about an inspector general's report that the IRS was targeting conservative groups went well beyond what it previously said. White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler informed top aides including chief of staff Denis McDonough of the report and its likely findings last month, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday. The aides did not inform the president, whom the White House says did not learn of the report's findings until it was released last week.

In addition, Treasury was informed three times the IRS planned to disclose that it was singling out conservative groups for extra scrutiny. On one occasion, Treasury expressed concern about the nature of the disclosure, according to a Treasury official. The entire episode will remain front and center today, when the Senate Finance Committee hears from former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, his successor, Steven T. Miller, and top Treasury tax watchdog J. Russell George.

Peters taps Julie Petrick to manage campaign: Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) has signed Julie Petrick to manage his bid for retiring Democratic Sen. Carl Levin's seat. Petrick is a veteran of Florida politics and EMILY'S LIST who managed's Peters's successful 2008 campaign for the House. Peters is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

Fixbits:

The Republican National Committee outraised the Democratic National Committee $7.2 million to $6.3 million in April. While the RNC finished with $9.8 million and no debt, the DNC continued to carry more than $20 million in debt, wrapping up the month with $5.4 million in the bank.

Voters in Los Angeles will elect their next mayor today.

Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will travel to Africa from June 26 to July 3.

The president plans to hold his first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping early next month.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) says he hasn't decided whether he will run for reelection in 2014.

The Clintons plan to stay out of the New York City mayoral primary.

The Senate Judiciary Committee signed off on a measure that would require immigrants leaving the 30 biggest airports to be fingerprinted.

Saratoga Spring, Utah, Mayor Mia Love (R) will challenge Rep. Jim Matheson (D) again.

Must-reads:

"Antiabortion group plans to use Virginia races as ‘template’ for 2014 midterm efforts" -- Ben Pershing, Washington Post

"Harry Reid, Tom Daschle feud over S.D. Senate" -- John Bresnahan and Manu Raju, Politico

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Sean Sullivan · May 20, 2013