Obama Presidency Still Polarizing, Bipartisanship Still Dead

American politics is as polarized as ever, and it shows no signs of changing regardless of who wins in November.

Repeating a survey that they had conducted two years ago, Gallup reported on Friday that, based on their surveys,  the partisan gap between Barack Obama’s job approval ratings was once again among the highest it had ever measured:

The historically high gap between partisans’ job approval ratings of Barack Obama continued during Obama’s third year in office, with an average of 80% of Democrats and 12% of Republicans approving of the job he was doing.

In fact, Obama’s Year Three average 68-percentage-point partisan gap is tied for the fourth highest in Gallup records dating back to the Eisenhower administration. Only George W. Bush’s fourth, fifth, and sixth years in office showed higher degrees of political polarization. Together, Bush and Obama account for the 7 most polarized years, and 8 of the top 10.

Notably, 3 of the top 10 years coincided with presidents’ re-election years, including Bush in 2004, Bill Clinton in 1996, and Ronald Reagan in 1984. In fact, a president’s fourth year tends to be the most polarized, as has been the case for each of the last six elected presidents. Since 1953, Eisenhower is the only elected president whose fourth year was not his most polarized; his sixth year — a midterm election year — was the one with the largest gap in his approval ratings by party.

Looking just at 2011, Obama’s third year in office and one year before he stands for re-election, Gallup finds that polarization between Republicans and Democrats was higher than it has ever been in any other third year of Presidential term since they became taking measurements:

As Gallup notes, one can probably expect polarization to be higher in advance of an election year than at other times during a President’s term. Nonetheless, Obama’s polarization numbers have been high since the beginning of his term. The gap between Republicans and Democrats on job approval was 65% in 2009 and 68% in 2010, and 68% again in 2011. One can imagine that it would be that high, if not higher, again in 2012. Of course, as James Joyner noted when he wrote about the 2009 Gallup numbers two years ago, the one thing that’s most notable is that this increased (above 50%) polarization that started with the Reagan years. Consider this chart of the average partisan gap in job approval numbers for every President from Eisenhower to George W. Bush during their full term in office:

Until we get to Reagan, no President had a partisan gap above 50% during their term. Not Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam. Not even Richard Nixon. There was a slight reversal of the trend during the Presidency of George H.W. Bush, but one imagines that is at least partly due to the massive spike in popularity that he received during and after the Persian Gulf War. His predecessors, though, went right back to the “new” era that started under Reagan, where a President would find himself not just opposed, but despised, by supporters of the opposing party. It’s a new development in American politics. If even Richard Nixon couldn’t get a 50% partisan gap in the 1970s, what it is that changed in such a short period time that, starting in the 80s, it was not only possible, but now, it seems, commonplace?

Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake argue that numbers like this are a reflection of the hyper-partisan atmosphere of modern American politics:

We are simply living in an era in which Democrats dislike a Republican president (and Republicans dislike a Democratic one) even before the commander in chief has taken a single official action.

The realization of that hyper-partisan reality has been slow in coming for Obama. But in recent months, he seems to have turned a rhetorical corner — taking the fight to Republicans (and Republicans in Congress, particularly) and all but daring them to call his bluff.

Democrats will point out that Republicans in Congress have played a significant part in the polarization; the congressional GOP has stood resolutely against almost all of Obama’s top priorities. And Obama’s still-high popularity among the Democratic base also exacerbates the gap.

For believers in bipartisanship, the next nine months are going to be tough sledding, as the already-gaping partisan divide between the two parties will only grow as the 2012 election draws nearer. And, if the last decade of Gallup numbers are any indication, there’s little turnaround in sight.

John Harris and Jonathan Allen at Politico point out the extent to which this hyperpartisanship has made the idea of bipartisanship and the so-called legislative “Grand Bargain” pretty much a fantasy at this point:

Every time there is divided government in Washington, there is a revival — among elite journalists, think tank commentators and respectable politicians of all stripes — of a cherished idea about how business should get done in the nation’s capital:

Get the most responsible adults of both parties in one room, shoo away the cameras and microphones, and don’t let the two sides come out until they have cut a deal on the most pressing problem of the day.

Call it the Split the Difference Scenario — a dream of Washington at its civic-minded best that has flourished for decades, even as the reality of Washington became ever more snarling and contentious.

Sometimes, the dream even came true, in iconic closed-door moments: a bipartisan bargain over Social Security in 1983, a high-drama budget summit at Andrews Air Force Base in 1990, a landmark spending accord between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in 1997.

The striking fact about Washington at the start of 2012 is how many people, in public and private, say they have concluded that the capital is no longer a city of splittable differences.

This sullen judgment is by all evidence driving the political strategy of President Barack Obama, formerly an apostle of a grand bargain to solve the country’s fiscal problems.

He’s being joined by a critical mass of Washington influentials — witnessing the inability of the two parties to find common ground on the budget in 2011 — who are ready to discard the old ideal: Politicians huddling behind closed doors to cut deals is no longer viewed as necessarily even a desirable scenario, much less a plausible one.

“This election is built to have a fight,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican and the House majority whip, told POLITICO. “If you watch from the rise of the tea party [on the right] to the rise of the Occupiers [on the left]—in ’08, our country said they wanted a little more government. In 2010, they said, ‘Whoa, that was too much.’ I think 2012 is going to be the argument for the size and scope of what they want America to be, and that is healthy. We should have the debate of what we want this country to look like.”

We hear this about every Presidential election, of course. This year, we’ve been told that the 2012 election is about “the soul of the country,” and some on the right have gone so far as to say the very fate of America as anything other than a “European Socialist Welfare State” hangs in the balance. As I’ve noted in the past, the idea that any single Presidential election is so important as to be transformative is, just based on history, usually wrong. The 2012 elections will be important, of course, as all elections are but they aren’t anywhere near being the “most important election ever” as some  have suggested. More importantly, though, Republican paranoia over what Barack Obama what Barack Obama might do in a second term, motivated mostly by foolish notions of the President as some sort of force of evil, are largely overblown.

In all likelihood, the 2012 elections will result in marginal changes at best regardless of which side wins. On the Presidential side specifically, it’s similarly unlikely that we’d see the kind of definitive election that McCarthy, and others no doubt, seems to be hoping for. Presidential elections are seldom decided on such bright line issues. In fact, one can only point to a few examples in American history where that was actually the case. If the Republican nominee (most likely Mitt Romney) wins, it will be because voters decided they didn’t want to give the incumbent the reigns of office for another four years. If Obama wins, it will be because they did. None of the big issues dividing the parties will have been resolved by the outcome of a single election, although that will certainly be the way that the winner will try to spin things as they claim their “mandate.” As we’ve learned repeatedly over the past decade or so, though, mandates are fleeting and often fall apart quickly upon the rocks of Washington politics.

The real question, though, is whether the outcome of the 2012 election would make bipartisanship and the so-called “grand bargains” more or less likely. The answer seems to me to be a rather clear no regardless of what the results happen to be. If the President is re-elected, and regardless of what happens with Congress, the odds that Republicans will find it in their interest to be more conciliatory toward the White House seem pretty low, especially given that the President would likely take re-election as an endorsement of his agenda. A compromise on tax reform between a Democratic President and Republicans in Congress? Not likely. Similarly, a  Republican victory in November is likely to lead Democrats to follow the example that Republicans set in 2009 and 2010. If Republicans manage to gain control of the Senate in 2012, Harry Reid can play the filibuster game just as well as Mitch McConnell has. So, regardless of who wins, the odds that Washington will actually veer from the course that it has been on for the past 20 years or so seems to be somewhere between slim and none.

The explanation for how we ended up here will vary depending on which side of the political aisle one sits on, but at the very least it seems rather clear that the 365/24/7 nature of our political culture has tended to increase polarization rather than bringing people together to work on common problems. That may change someday, but one wonders if it might not take some kind of existential crisis to bring it about.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Campaign 2012, Congress, Politicians, Politics 101, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Correlation is not causation, though the conservative blogosphere would certainly like to work this as causation.

    If Obama weren’t such a Kenyan anti-colonial socialist, we’d all get along, I’m sure.

  2. steve says:

    We will get the Grand Bargain when the bond market says we need to do it.

    Steve

  3. BTW, it is kind of astounding that you can do this piece only mentioning Newt Gingrich in the old historical sense.

    Have you really internalized his popularity in the modern GOP?

  4. Moosebreath says:

    Doug,

    “The explanation for how we ended up here will vary depending on which side of the political aisle one sits on”

    Looking through the figures, Obama’s 80% approval from Democrats is fairly normal (consistent with same party numbers of 79% for Reagan and Nixon and 77% for Clinton). It’s the 12% from Republicans which is out of sync, with Clinton’s 20% next lowest. Similarly, Democrats 33% approval of Bush the Younger is a fairly typical number, it’s his 92% approval among Republicans which is the greatest.

    In fact, the 3 highest approvals are all Republicans of Republicans (Bush the Younger, Bush the Elder and Eisenhower), and the 2 lowest and 3 of the bottom 4 are Republicans of Democrats (Obama, Clinton and a tie between Carter and Reagan).

    But keep on with your pox on both houses. I’m sure it makes you feel nice and warm.

  5. Rob in CT says:

    Obama committed an unforgivable sin: he won the 2008 election. Polarizing, indeed.

  6. Ron Beasley says:

    The politics represent the country. The US is looking more and more like the old Yugoslavia, Iraq or even Afghanistan. A collection of tribes based on religion and ethnicity. There has always been an element of that – much of the deep south never stopped fighting the civil war – but it has been exacerbated by talk radio and cable news.

  7. anjin-san says:

    Obama The black guy committed an unforgivable sin: he won the 2008 election.

    FTFY

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    I think it also bears mentioning that the Congress is ideologically polarized as well. The farthest right Democrat in Congress is to the left of the farthest left Republican.

  9. john personna says:

    BTW, it occurs to me that Gingrich was the guy who invented the anti-colonial meme.

  10. anjin-san says:

    anticolonial behavior

    You know, I’ve gone through life holding the notion that “anticolonial behavior” was more or less the basis for our country’s existence. Do I need to go to a wingnut re-education camp or something?

    Or am I just missing the obvious implication that being anti colonial was nobel when our white founding fathers engaged in it, but it is somehow evil when it is black folks in Kenya wanting to be masters in their own house.

  11. TheColourfield says:

    I think the “Southern Strategy” is still the driving force in the increased polarization.

    It resulted in northeast republicans being shunted out of the party and replaced by blue dogs while southern democrats began to go extinct and were replaced by RINOs (who have been further replaced).

    The middle ground has all but disappeared as the politics of cultural division took over.

  12. sam says:

    “His predecessors, though, went right back to the “new” era that started under Reagan, where a President would find himself not just opposed, but despised, by supporters of the opposing party. It’s a new development in American politics. ”

    Really? A new development? Have you forgotten election of 1860? And we know how that turned out. And since the Republican party is now essentially a Southern party –and a lot of that old stuff still lives on in it — I can’t say I’m filled with optimism.

    The really great irony is that if the Southern Party got what it claims it wants, the South would become even more blighted than it is now.

  13. Brummagem Joe says:

    “It’s a new development in American politics. If even Richard Nixon couldn’t get a 50% partisan gap in the 1970s, what it is that changed in such a short period time that, starting in the 80s, it was not only possible, but now, it seems, commonplace?”

    One of the parties decided that polarising the electorate on a variety of social, economic and political issues was going to pay a political dividend for them? Really Doug there’s no secret about this since it’s been the subject of considerable research and numerous books have been published on the topic. It started with desegregation in the late 60/early 70’s which both Democrats and Republicans recognised would destroy the democrat’s traditional hold on the south and then moved onto divisive social issues in the 80’s. It’s interesting that Gingrich is in the news at present because if I had to pick a point where this process gained critical mass and became irreversible it was when Gingrich became speaker and essentially declared open warfare on the Clinton presidency which culminated in the impeachment fiasco. While it’s undoubtedly been successful in the medium term (after all during the last 32 years Republicans have occupied the WH for 22 of them) there are distinct signs that it could have sowed the seeds of it’s own destruction. Ethnic and generational demographic changes are steadily producing a more heterogenous and secular society that is more resistant to the fundamentalist (in the widest sense) message of the right. The problem for them is they are trapped because any departure from the orthodoxies they have preached for thirty years (and that are now articles of faith with most of their elected representatives and those that control the party machine) is regarded as heresy and threatens their hold on a shrinking, ageing, predominantly white base. The strains this is producing in the Republican electoral coalition are on full display during the current nominating process. These schisms and the extreme rhetorical bile that’s accompanying them are not signs of health. This polarisation is simply not going to change until one of the parties decides there is no longer an electoral benefit in it and that is going to be process that could easily last for another 20 years.

  14. Neil Hudelson says:

    and some on the right have gone so far as to say the very fate of America as anything other than a “European Socialist Welfare State” hangs in the balance.

    This has always been the most baffling charge–especially since it seems to work.

    They are essentially yelling “Elect Obama and this country could be JUST LIKE SWEDEN!!!!!!11one” *queue Dramatic Groundhog*

    I would think “South American Socialist Welfare State” would be a much more compelling image. Neither would be true, but one strikes me as much scarier.

  15. Scott F. says:

    @Moosebreath:

    Republicans don’t disapprove of Barack Obama as much as they disapprove of “Barack Obama”, the fictional character that only exists in their fevered imaginations and which is reinforced inside the GOP media bubble.

  16. Moosebreath says:

    Scott F,

    “Republicans don’t disapprove of Barack Obama as much as they disapprove of “Barack Obama”, the fictional character that only exists in their fevered imaginations and which is reinforced inside the GOP media bubble.”

    By the same token, they also didn’t disapprove of Bill Clinton as much as they disapproved of the fictional Bill Clinton who only existed in their fevered imaginations. They also didn’t support George Bush, either father or son, they supported the fictional ones.

    Indeed, the level of support to both Bushes is what’s really funny about this. When you talk to the True Conservatives here, they will quickly claim how Bush the Elder was not popular after he signed the modern Munich Treaty, the 1990 tax increase. They also claim that Bush the Younger was not popular due to his spending habits. Once again, facts prove to have a liberal bias.

  17. ptfe says:

    @Scott F: That’s in keeping with the general Republican theme of constructing fictional characters to fill out their Gingrichesque history. It starts with “The Founding Fathers” (a collection of flawless people always in agreement and whose views can be summarized in 20 words or less), moves immediately to “Abraham Lincoln” (who, because he was a Republican, stood for everything the modern party stands for), then skips straight to “Jimmy Carter” (no-nothing crazy peanut farmer alert!) and “Ronald Reagan” (Lesser God — though he may have actually been God).

    The memories of Bush II are too fresh, so “George W Bush” is still a good 10 years off. At that point they’ll probably be digging up his bones and talking about how he spread freedom and democracy to the world, which just misunderstood what freedom and democracy were really all about. Wars and their debts, institutionalized torture, and a government removed from court scrutiny? “Bill Clinton” and/or “Barack Obama” will be responsible.

  18. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Scott F.: the fictional character that only exists in their fevered imaginations and which is reinforced inside the GOP media bubble

    Barack X you mean?

  19. Brummagem Joe says:

    @ptfe:

    I particularly liked Bill Maher’s crack about the Republican version of John Kerry………

    French War Criminal

  20. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    @Moosebreath:

    By the same token, they also didn’t disapprove of Bill Clinton as much as they disapproved of the fictional Bill Clinton who only existed in their fevered imaginations.

    Which reminds me of a typical conversation with my dittohead father during the 90s…
    Dad: Clinton is a menace to America because he is totally out of control and a slave to his appetites.
    Me: Out of control? Then it should be pretty easy to beat him in an election.
    Dad: (long pause) But he’s very clever.

    For the Devil to hold sway over your dominion, he must have the ability to change forms.

  21. JohnMcC says:

    I blame gay marriage.

  22. Tano says:

    @john personna:

    BTW, it occurs to me that Gingrich was the guy who invented the anti-colonial meme.

    Well, actually, no. As was mentioned in the link you provided, the meme was invented by Dinesh D’Souza who wrote a whole book about it.

    His bottom line:”.[O]ur President is trapped in his father’s time machine. Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son. The son makes it happen, but he candidly admits he is only living out his father’s dream. The invisible father provides the inspiration, and the son dutifully gets the job done. America today is governed by a ghost.”

    This is the same guy who blamed 9/11 on liberals – that American culture reeks of liberal ideas and provokes an understandable outrage amongst pious Muslims. The Christian right, he argues, should form an alliance with fundamentalist Muslims against the common enemy, the left.

    I wonder if Newt will take it that far…

  23. john personna says:

    @Tano:

    Maybe I did skim a little fast … perhaps I still have .. but isn’t D’Souza a little more subtle? He’s saying the anti-colonialism of the father became opposition to neocolonialism in the son.

    Damn straight, IMO. We should have started opposing American neocolonialism much sooner.

    We should also have noted that Gingrich’s shift, to the son being the anti-colonialist, “hides the ball.” It’s about the neocolonialism.

  24. Scott F. says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    Exactly! Credit to Bill Maher where it is due.

  25. Tano says:

    @john personna:

    isn’t D’Souza a little more subtle? He’s saying the anti-colonialism of the father became opposition to neocolonialism in the son.

    i don’t quite see where you get that. To repeat a part of the D’Souza quote:

    [The father] “raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son. “

  26. de stijl says:

    What I find most fascinating about these numbers is Bush 43.

    How is it that 92% of Republicans approve of W in 2003-2004 (and remember this is after Iraq, the unpaid-for Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, and the budget- and deficit-busting Bush Tax Cuts), and yet today all of the Republican and Republican-leaning pundits and bloggers were somehow magically shoe-horned into the 8% who opposed Bush’s fiscal profligacy back in the day. But when we check the record, there is a paucity of contemporaneous Republican or RW blogger opposition to these policies.

    Somehow, 92% approval morphs into He Who Shall Not Be Named except to decry how truly anti-Conservative he was, basically a RINO if you think about it.

    The only thing that “conservatives” really like about W anymore are protecting the top bracket of the Bush Tax Cuts, which for so-called deficit hawks, is fairly strange.

  27. Shelley says:

    Interesting post. The grammar of the title, though, seems to blame Obama. Maybe: “Some Voters Are Polarized by The Thought of Obama”?

  28. Tlaloc says:

    I think it also bears mentioning that the Congress is ideologically polarized as well. The farthest right Democrat in Congress is to the left of the farthest left Republican.

    As with the polarization it really seems like this is being driven by the right. The Dems had the 50 state project and brought in lots of Blue Dogs. There’s been plenty of friction between the moderate dems and liberal dems (as can be expected) but there’s been no concerted effort to get rid of them. On the right on the other hand there has been real efforts to replace “RINOs” with “real” republicans (meaning far right conservatives, generally). Look at how the Dems treated Jim Webb as compared to how the Reps treated Mike Castle. It’s just really night and day…