Presidents and Polarization

Our roundup of health care headlines this morning noted that one of the major themes of the coverage has been the political divide, and the polarization of both opinion and votes along party lines. The implication of this divide for Barack Obama was the subject of a separate front-page news analysis in today’s New York Times, which asserted that in scoring a legislative victory Obama lost for good “the promise of a ‘postpartisan’ Washington” on which he campaigned.

In order to be “lost,” though, there had to be some prospect that such a promise might ever have been fulfilled, and there’s scant reason to think that’s so. At his blog, Brendan Nyhan brings the research of UCSD’s Gary Jacobson to bear on this issue, and shows why no one should be surprised that Obama has become a polarizing figure. Since the beginning of Reagan’s first term, with the exception of national crises—the first Gulf War, the immediate aftermath of 9/11—presidential approval ratings have been sharply polarized by party. The split has become a persistent feature of American politics, one that reflects both a real divide in the public and ideological coherence within the parties, and that is reinforced by the strategic stance of key actors like opponents in Congress. (See for example Mitch McConnell’s savvy take on how a united partisan front can shape public opinion.)

That doesn’t mean the press shouldn’t point out that we haven’t found the new, less polarized politics that Obama spoke about on the campaign trail: he really did talk about that vision a lot, and it really hasn’t materialized. But the lesson is that he raised unrealistic expectations, not that he has charted an especially polarizing course. As Nyhan put it:

For the foreseeable future, every president will have highly polarized approval ratings outside of honeymoon periods, wars, and foreign policy crises. Obama’s inability to escape this fate isn’t a failure” so much as it is, well, reality.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.