Partisans Argue Over Partisanship

By Dan Balz
Sunday, April 12, 2009

President Obama has already made a down payment on many of his campaign promises. But a noisy and partisan debate has erupted over whether he has even begun to make good on his pledge to turn the page on the divisive politics of the past.

Changing the tone was a central theme behind Obama's candidacy. He said he would move the country away from the red-blue divisions of the past. But his budget blueprint was approved over unanimous Republican opposition, and his stimulus package passed with scant GOP support. Deep philosophical differences between the two parties and political calculations by both sides overrode efforts to find consensus.

Two recent studies from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press have provided statistical fuel for the debate over Obama and polarization. One showed that, at this stage in his tenure, Obama has the widest partisan gap in approval rating of any president in the modern era (with 88 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of Republicans approving). A second found that half as many Americans as in January think Republicans and Democrats are working together more than in the past.

Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego and author of a book about George W. Bush's presidency titled "A Divider, Not a Uniter," said no one should be surprised by the polarized response to Obama. "Everything in politics has been polarized for at least 15 years. You wouldn't expect anything to be different quickly. Especially when you have an administration that is taking bold action."

As Jacobson suggested, there are structural issues that contribute to the problem. One is the steady intensification of political polarization over the past three decades, the result in part of more ideologically homogeneous political parties. Political campaigns stoke partisan differences and strain consensus. The media, from talk radio to the blogosphere to cable television, help inflame the debate 24/7.

Another factor is that, in a shrinking Republican Party, conservatives hold more sway -- and they are most likely to disapprove of a Democratic president's performance. Exit polls show that 64 percent of Republicans who voted in November called themselves conservatives. That compares with 54 percent in 2000 and 49 percent in 1992. In contrast, the percentage of liberals in the Democratic Party has risen modestly over that period.

Veterans of the Bush administration blame Obama for governing in a style that they argue is designed to alienate rather than attract Republican support in Congress. "No president in the past 40 years has done more to polarize America so much, so quickly," Karl Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

Obama officials counter that congressional Republicans have adopted a just-say-no posture. The officials argue that "changing the tone" should not be measured by the number of Republican votes for Obama's initiatives. "If the Republican Party chooses a political strategy of saying no to everything, the president can't stop doing the nation's business," one official said.

There's an old saying that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Perhaps a better way of putting it in this polarized era is that, while candidates campaign with idealism, presidents govern with realism. Obama, like his predecessors, is learning there is a tradeoff between passing a big, ambitious agenda and producing broad consensus across party lines.

In the end, presidents conclude that results matter most. "George Bush was sincere about wanting to change the tone, but he didn't want to sacrifice anything to do it," Jacobson said. "I think that's going to be true of Obama, as well. It's nice to talk about bipartisanship and so forth. People like it. But it doesn't get you anything. What you want to do is achieve your political goals."

Dan Bartlett, counselor in the Bush White House, said Bush made genuine efforts to court Democrats early in his term but concluded that getting his agenda implemented and producing results outweighed the partisan consequences. "It dawned on us fairly quickly that the bigger the issue, the bigger the agenda, the more difficult this was going to be," Bartlett said.

Obama will face more trade-offs between enacting the kind of legislation he wants and producing bipartisanship consensus as he tries to implement other pieces of his agenda. His approval rating among Republicans has dropped from 41 percent in late January to 27 percent today, according to Gallup, and probably will dip more as the debates over his agenda intensify.

Health care could be particularly contentious and partisan. There is talk that Obama may seek a parliamentary tactic that would allow a health-care package to pass with 51 votes, thereby avoiding a Republican filibuster. That could help achieve his goal of producing major reform of the health-care system but at the probable cost of further polarization. Who will pay the price for that?

Given the makeup of the two parties, a more reliable arbiter of the ongoing political debates may be the attitudes of political independents. To date, they are sticking with Obama. In Gallup's most recent weekly average, 60 percent of independents said they approved of how he was handling the job, statistically unchanged from the week of his inauguration.

As the next round of legislative battles begins later this month, the president must balance his desire to push through his agenda against a possible public backlash accusing him of embracing the politics of partisanship that he criticized on the campaign trail. Republicans risk being tagged as a party rooting for Obama to fail when the public clearly favors the president's priorities. Obama and Republicans face uncomfortable choices as they maneuver in the months ahead.

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