Page 2 of 2   <      

Early on, Obama was more polarizing than we knew

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 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.

<       2

© 2010 The Washington Post Company