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The polarizing president

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By Dan Balz
Saturday, September 4, 2010; 6:31 PM

One of the puzzling questions about Barack Obama's presidency is how the post-partisan candidate of 2008 became the polarizing chief executive of 2010. The answer may be surprising. He was far more polarizing from the start than many recognized. His choices in office and his opponents' responses have only hardened that divide.

During the campaign, Candidate Obama talked about the need to put the partisan divisions of the past behind. His victory fostered discussion about whether the country had turned a corner after years of bitter partisanship. In the glow of his inauguration, some people heralded a new era in American politics.

Such notions appear badly off the mark at this point in his presidency. A closer look at the time would have rendered such conclusions questionable at best. Equally questionable was the expectation that he could break the grip of partisan polarization in the country.

That, at least, is the conclusion of a number of scholars who have undertaken an early examination of the Obama presidency and whose work was presented at this weekend's meeting of the American Political Science Association.

As Gary Jacobson of the University of California at San Diego, put it: "Americans were polarized from the start in their opinions of Obama and his agenda. The outline of the current configuration of political attitudes was plainly visible during the 2008 campaign."

Obama won almost 53 percent of the vote, the most by any Democratic nominee since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. He won red states Democrats had not won in decades. But there was less unifying shape to the results than some broad-brush measures suggested.

George C. Edwards III of Texas A&M University notes that the number of states that deviated significantly from the national vote was more than in any election in 60 years, including 14 that went for John McCain (R). "Never before had many of these states voted so heavily against a victorious Democrat," Edwards writes, citing the work of others.

Jacobson notes that Obama's coalition included one of the smallest shares of voters who identified with the opposing party on record. He won because of "unusually high turnout among Democrats" and the fact that the Republican Party had shrunk during President George W. Bush's second term.

Views of Obama as a leftist, as an extremist, as a would-be socialist, as dishonest - all of which became commonplace among some "tea party" activists and other conservative opponents once he was in office - were implanted during the campaign against McCain.

"A large proportion of voters on the losing side in 2008 . . . had by election day come to regard Obama as the McCain-Palin campaign had portrayed him: as an untrustworthy leftist radical with a socialist agenda," Jacobson writes. "There was also an undertone of racial animosity."

The scholars who presented papers do not single out Obama as the sole cause of this problem, questioning the visceral reactions of some Obama detractors and noting the Republicans' united opposition to the president's agenda.

Nor are they uncharitable in some of their assessments. Sidney Milkis of the University of Virginia and Jesse Rhodes of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst write favorably of the political organization Obama built and maintains, for example.


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