Polarization We Can Believe In

The notion that Barack Obama is polarizing is ridiculous.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Even in politics, things are often exactly what they seem. So it should have been reasonable to dismiss as fiction recent reports that Barack Obama is the most polarizing president in recent history. There is nothing in our experience to support that; based on the president’s personal favorability rating and his high job approval numbers, if this is polarization, it is the kind of polarization we want.

Still, it was big news when the very reputable Pew Research Center for the People & the Press concluded, based on the reported results of a recent survey, that: “For all of his hopes about bipartisanship, Barack Obama has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades.”

The Pew results predictably fired up the conservative/Republican ideological message machine, especially Bush White House alumni, unrepentant about the eight years of divisiveness over which they presided. Michael Gerson, Bush’s chief speech writer, lamented in his Washington Post column: “… Obama’s polarizing approach challenges and changes the core of his political identity. His moderate manner and message appealed to a country weary of division and ambition—a nation now asked to endure another round of both.”

Karl Rove, the former president’s senior political adviser, recently noted that while the country has been getting progressively more polarized over the years, Obama has only made a bad thing worse: “Rather than end or ameliorate that trend, Mr. Obama’s actions and rhetoric have accelerated it,” Rove wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal, “His campaign promised post-partisanship, but since taking office Mr. Obama has frozen Republicans out of the deliberative process, and his response to their suggestions has been a brusque dismissal that ‘I won.”‘

Forget the name-calling between the pot and the kettle tangled up in these reprisals. What Rove and his ilk are missing completely is that the “polarization” the Pew study reveals is markedly different from the kind we saw under Bush or Clinton, in fact stretching all the way back to Reagan. Today’s polarization is a result of drastic changes in the political marketplace, the same political marketplace in which Republicans have been getting killed since at least 2006.

Polarization, in the way the Pew survey lays it out, is actually a sign of political stabilization and consensus. And in this case, it’s very bad news for the GOP.

According to Pew, “The 61-point partisan gap in opinions about Obama’s job performance is the result of a combination of high Democratic ratings for the president—88 percent job approval among Democrats—and relatively low approval ratings among Republicans (27 percent).”

The explanation for the growing split in opinion seems pretty simple when you consider what happened in the country over the last two years: The Democratic Party grew; the Republican Party shrunk; a lot of people who were independents and some who used to be Republicans became Democrats. That reduced the Republican Party to a core of only the most ideologically committed and fanatical.

It’s only natural that the increased ideological purity of the GOP would severely reduce the chance that a Democratic president would attract GOP support. The other side of that equation is that in 2006 and 2008, Democrats so successfully marketed themselves as an attractive alternative to the Bush-era GOP that a lot of people not only decided to vote Democratic, they decided to become Democrats. And there was an intensity to those decisions to switch that continues to show up in Obama’s approval ratings.