Can Obama bridge the divide between the two Americas?

Chris Cillizza
Reporter May 19, 2013

John Edwards was right. There are two Americas.

In one America, the events of the past 10 days have exposed the true colors of President Obama and his administration. From edited talking points about the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, to the secret seizure of phone records of Associated Press reporters to the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups, a single message has emerged: This is the inevitable result of government run amok.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

In the other America, this is all much ado over nothing. The death of four Americans at the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi was a tragedy, nothing more. The Justice Department acted legally. And the IRS officials who acted wrongly did so of their own accord and had absolutely no contact with President Obama or senior officials in his administration.

Both sides cite polling — there’s enough polling these days for everyone to find something that suits them — that prove their point. According to a new CNN poll released Sunday, 53 percent of Americans approve of the job that Obama is doing, up from 47 percent two months ago. Fifty-four percent of Americans believe congressional Republicans have acted “appropriately” in the wake of the IRS scandal. And those numbers are from the same CNN poll.

You get the idea. While there has been some cross-party agreement over the past week — particularly on the IRS where many Democratic members of Congress have voiced their concern with how the agency acted — the general rule of Washington still held: How you think about things depends almost entirely on the party with which you align yourself.

The investigation into what happened in Benghazi is either a “political sideshow,” as Obama said, or a look into the “most egregious coverup in American history,” according to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla). The series of congressional hearings dedicated to the IRS’s targeting of groups with “tea party” and “patriot” in their names are potentially “partisan fishing expeditions designed to distract from the real issues at hand,” in the words of White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, or a chance to explore the “culture of intimidation” in the Obama administration, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.

The gap between how the two parties view the world can’t simply be explained away by the exaggerations inherent in political rhetoric. Yes, the principals in both parties are doing their best to highlight the pieces of each story that cast them in the best light and their political opponents in the worst. Nothing new there. But the disagreement goes deeper than that. It’s a belief that the other won’t, and can’t, be right and that facts are things that can be manipulated — or at least interpreted — to achieve a desired end.

The gulf is well illustrated by exit polls over the last few elections. Obama won 92 percent of Democratic voters and just six percent of Republicans in 2012. Four years earlier, he won 89 percent of Democrats and nine percent of Republicans. In 2004, George W. Bush claimed 93 percent of the Republican vote and 11 percent of the Democratic vote.

What’s the practical result of these two political worlds? Combine the extreme partisanship with a series of politically motivated redrawings of Congressional district lines over the past few decades and you get two political parties who are largely preaching to their own base — with almost zero political motivation to do anything else. The ends of the political spectrum grow more populated, the middle less so. And nothing gets done — and people lose faith that government can do anything. (Just eight percent of people in the new CNN poll expressed a “great deal” of confidence in the people who run our government.)

That is the situation that Obama faces as he seeks to not only deal with the challenges of the last week — which will be easy or impossible depending on your political world view — but also to cement his legacy by finding ways to deals on immigration reform and the budget.

To get those deals, Obama needs to find a way to speak to both Americas in a way he hasn’t done so far in his presidency. Economic stimulus and health care — the two big accomplishments of his first term — passed on partisan lines. The attempt to change gun laws in his second term failed largely on those same lines.

Obama’s rapid ascent up the political ladder was defined by bridging what were thought to be unbridgeable gaps. The question now is whether there is a ladder big enough to bridge the divide between our two opposing political Americas.

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