The polarizing president

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.

But in their paper, the two also highlight how tensions between Obama's post-partisan instincts clashed with his commitment to "traditional Democratic priorities." Obama has frustrated liberals in his own party by trying to reach out to Republicans while angering Republicans by pressing an agenda that was anathema to conservatives.

"Consequently, even as the president scored major policy victories, he neither transcended partisanship nor fully satisfied members of his own party," they write. "More damaging to the president, his attempt to both transcend parties and rally the Democratic base led the public to question his leadership and a steady decline in approval ratings."

Several scholars took issue with Obama's rhetorical effectiveness. By winning the Iowa caucuses, "he became evidence of his own message" of hope and change, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The result of the campaign was that he created expectations for his ability to move people through words that were virtually impossible to meet.

Edwards asserts that Obama and his advisers may have believed he had greater gifts of persuasion than are truly possible in any president, especially one who serves in a time of polarized politics. Obama would have been better off trying to assess what the public was prepared to accept, rather than to have acted in ways that assumed he could change it.

In office, the battles between Obama and Republicans have deepened partisan divisions. The origins of the economic collapse and the depth of the recession made conditions ripe for a populist rebellion. In this case it has come from the right rather than the left.

Edwards writes that while identification with the Republican Party diminished toward the end of Bush's presidency, "ideological alignment did not change nearly as much." He adds that the Obama's response to the economic crisis "discouraged rather than encouraged demand for government services."

The bank bailout was initiated under Bush, but opposition to it marked another case of partisan polarization, with Republicans far more likely to condemn it than Democrats - especially after Bush left office. Obama's stimulus package and health-care plan produced equally polarized opposition.

Most damaging politically was the impact of the domestic debates on independents. Many of them ended up seeing the effect of Obama's policies through the prism of spending and deficits.

During the campaign, independents generally considered Obama to be a slightly left-of-center moderate, regardless of their own personal ideology. By last year, says Jacobson, the most conservative independents saw him as extremely liberal - and gave him an approval rating of just 5 percent.

Richard Skinner of Rollins College fits Obama into the partisan presidents, which he said has been the norm since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. All presidents since then have been partisan actors who used their parties to help enact their agendas.

"We need to move beyond outdated notions of presidents above party politics and instead understand presidents who are passionately engaged in them and seek to use their parties as tools of governance," he writes.

These scholars offer some provocative thoughts about Obama's presidency and current state of politics. The president and Republicans will find themselves in a new alignment after the November elections. But based on what was presented this weekend, cooperation ahead is not likely.

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