Check out this chart from Gallup comparing how partisans believe history will judge our last 11 presidents.
It doesn't take a math expert to see that the two most recent presidents are judged the most divergently by partisans. And, the obvious conclusion is that we are living in a time of historically unprecedented partisanship where Republicans and Democrats simply see the world through totally different eyes. That is, of course, true at some level. (Remember that of the 10 years in which the country's views of the president have been the most polarized, nine of them are when either Obama or George W. Bush were in office.)
But, to assume that President Obama is the most divisive -- or at least the most divisively viewed -- president in modern history may also be a misreading of the numbers and of how we think of politicians past.
Yes, the 118-point gap between how Democrats and Republicans believe Obama will be viewed is far higher than the 76-point gap for Bush. (It's 42 points more. Math!) Remember though that the poll was conducted from Nov. 7-10 of this year -- meaning that feelings about Obama are very, very fresh while people are now several years removed from the Bush presidency.
To compare apples to apples we asked WaPo polling guru Scott Clement to grab Bush numbers in the heat of his presidency. In the first half of 2008, WaPo-ABC polling showed net Democratic approval for Bush at -81 and net Republican approval at +39 -- a 120-point gap that is nearly identical to the 118-point gap in partisans' views of Obama. By April 2013 -- roughly four years after Bush had left office -- his approval rating had leveled off to 47 percent approve/50 percent disapprove with 25 (!) percent of Democrats approving, a massive increase from the single-digit territory where Bush stood at the end of his term.
Simply put: Yes, we live in divisive times. But, in the middle of President Obama's lowest patch as president isn't any time to judge him against his predecessors when it comes to his place in history.