Obama Most Polarizing President Ever

The 65 percentage-point gap between Democrats’ (88%) and Republicans’ (23%) average job approval ratings for Barack Obama is easily the largest for any president in his first year in office, greatly exceeding the prior high of 52 points for Bill Clinton.

So begins Jeffrey Jones‘ introduction of a new Gallup poll.  Here’s the graphic illustration:

Obama Polarizing Gallup NumbersIt didn’t start out that way.

Overall, Obama averaged 57% job approval among all Americans from his inauguration to the end of his first full year on Jan. 19. He came into office seeking to unite the country, and his initial approval ratings ranked among the best for post-World War II presidents, including an average of 41% approval from Republicans in his first week in office. But he quickly lost most of his Republican support, with his approval rating among Republicans dropping below 30% in mid-February and below 20% in August. Throughout the year, his approval rating among Democrats exceeded 80%, and it showed little decline even as his overall approval rating fell from the mid-60s to roughly 50%.

Obama Approval Democrats Republicans Jones continues:

Thus, the extraordinary level of polarization in Obama’s first year in office is a combination of declining support from Republicans coupled with high and sustained approval from Democrats. In fact, his 88% average approval rating from his own party’s supporters is exceeded only by George W. Bush’s 92% during Bush’s first year in office. Obama’s 23% approval among supporters of the opposition party matches Bill Clinton’s for the lowest for a first-year president. But Clinton was less popular among Democrats than Obama has been to date, making Obama’s ratings more polarized.

Of course, Bush had the unifying impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to boost his first-year numbers.

So, is this gap is about Obama?  About Republican frustration?  About Democratic optimism?  Or simply a result of a steadily more polarized society?  Probably, some combination.    But the last would certainly seem to be the most powerful.

Prior to Ronald Reagan, no president averaged more than a 40-point gap in approval ratings by party during his term; since then, only the elder George Bush has averaged less than a 50-point gap, including Obama’s average 65-point gap to date.

gallup-polarization-historical
We’ll see if Obama ultimately tops Bush — who seemed untoppable a year ago.  But it sure seems likely.    It’s the nature of a permanent campaign and, as Jones observes, a radically different information climate:

The way Americans view presidents has clearly changed in recent decades, perhaps owing to the growth in variety, sources, and even politicization of news on cable television and the Internet, and the continuing popularity of politically oriented talk radio. The outcome is that Americans evaluate their presidents and other political leaders through increasingly thick partisan lenses.

Not only is there more information out there competing for eyeballs — with hype, fear, and anger as the chief selling points — but no one has to ever hear the opinions of people who disagree with them unless they really want to.  If you’re getting all your news from Fox or MSNBC, you’re simply going to have a different outlook on the world than was the case when everyone was watching one of three national anchormen presenting 22 minutes of news each night in a Midwestern accent.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Triumph says:

    Obama Most Polarizing President Ever

    Well, this is the first time we had a non-native socialist as El Jefe, so I’m not surprised.

    Luckily, Congress is now controlled by Republicans, so we better not let this guy get out of control.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    This looks to me like Obama came into office with a very polarized electorate. There was a 47% differential at the outset, which even if he were to have maintained those numbers throughout the first year, would have placed him only second to Clinton, whose differential was 52% for his first year. Of course, nobody would expect a President to retain his ratings after the initial honeymoon wears off.

  3. sam says:

    Overall, Obama averaged 57% job approval among all Americans from his inauguration to the end of his first full year on Jan. 19.

    That ain’t too shabby.

  4. yetanotherjohn says:

    I think it would be interesting to look at the same numbers with independants thrown in. Given that Obama now has sub-50% approval overall, its obvious he has also lost a lot of indy support, though not as bad as republican support. But seeing which direction the center went would help to see if he was an alienating president (who lost support among the opposition and the middle) or the opposition/support was out of sync the majority.
    It would also be interesting to see by lib/mod/cons split to see if this is the loss of conservatives from dems and libs from GOP or not.
    You also have to consider the situation. W. came in with a lot of controversy about Florida. Clinton had controversy about not getting 50% in any state but Arkansas because of Perot and then did the gays in the military shortly after taking office. Obama managed to increase the debt in one month more than W. in 6 years. So each had strong controversy about their election or action shortly after taking office.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    I think it would be interesting to look at the same numbers with independants thrown in

    Here’s Gallup’s approval numbers reported on January 26, 2009, followed by January 6, 2010:

    Democrats: 88% / 84% (minus 4%)
    Independents: 62% / 47% (minus 15%)
    Republicans: 43% / 14% (minus 29%)

    It doesn’t seem to me that Obama can get significantly less popular among Republicans. Oddly, it might be with Democrats that further erosion is more likely, if he’s seen as ineffective and that might carry-over to independents as well.

  6. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    The comparison with Bush, including his full term cannot be fairly compared. Obama has had the benefit of a media which either does not report or reports favorably anything and everything Obama does. If Bush would have called the Cambridge police stupid he would have never heard the end of it. The list of things Obama has gotten a pass on is so large as to make the caparison with anyone on that list unfair. Bush was criticized for his time as owner of the Astros. What has Obama ever owned or run beside his mouth? Teleprompters at a grade school. If that were Bush it would be pictured on the front page of every snooze paper in the country and on all of network news. A large portion of the American people see this. Wait till November. Impeach in 2011.

  7. Andy says:

    James,

    Society is polarized, but the parties are even more polarized. Look at independents (who are growing in relative number) who reject the ideology of the base, no matter which party.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s hard for serene, steady and rational to compete in a world of hysterical, dishonest and stupid. Obama’s going to have to dumb-down the act if he wants to regain some ground.

    This is a population after all that believes in devils, angels, Glenn Beck, creationism and ghosts. It’s a population that thinks our foreign aid budget is a hundred times bigger than it is, that cannot locate Canada on a map of North America, could not tell you whose side the USSR was on in WW2, literally does not know there was a Spanish-American or Mexican-American war, and thinks Israel’s primary purpose is to bring on the End Times when good Christians will be snatched out of their pick-up trucks and taken to heaven.

    Obama’s a guy who thinks if he does the job well and explains himself clearly that’s going to matter. He needs to learn that he’s not dealing with his old classmates at Harvard, he’s dealing with ignorant, superstitious, rage-o-holic, cretins.

    I suggest Obama immediately change speech writers and learn from his Republican opponents that stupid sells. Cut the big words, bluster whenever the occasion presents itself, lie, threaten, pander, scapegoat and don’t forget to talk a lot about God.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    We’ll see if Obama ultimately tops Bush — who seemed untoppable a year ago. But it sure seems likely. It’s the nature of a permanent campaign and, as Jones observes, a radically different information climate

    The “polarization” was even greater back in August. What has brought it down from its whopping 73 points hasn’t been an increase in support on the part of Republicans but a decrease in support on the part of Democrats.

    I think there are a number of factors behind this. Part is the ongoing move from catch-all parties to programmatic ones, a process that began more than 40 years ago and really put on steam during the Reagan Administration. Part are the times: voters don’t grade on the curve.

    However, consider this. Maintaining as solid a hold on Democrats as he has actually means that this isn’t particularly bad news for President Obama. All he needs to do is hold on to his base and attract a few independents.

    His base isn’t comprised of journalists and the Left Blogosphere. It’s blacks and union members (which largely translates into government employees these days).

  10. Mr. Reynolds, I do not believe in devils, angels, creationism, or ghosts. I don’t know what believing in Glenn Beck means, I mean, he does exist, but I don’t pay any attention to what he says or does. I know how big our foreign aid budget is, and how big the federal dificit is as well. I can locate Canada on a map and can even name all the Canadian provinces. I know which side the USSR was on in WWII, though it may be a trick question as you need to specify whether this is before or after the collapse of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. I know there was a Spanish-American and a Mexican-American war, and even know when they occurred, who led the forces on each side, and what happened when the wars were over. I think Israel’s purpose has nothing to do with the Rapture, or as you prefer to denigrate those who believe in it, the End Times when good Christians will be snatched out of their pick-up trucks and taken to heaven.

    Nonetheless, I think President Obama is doing a lousy job and is in over his head. His problems don’t come from not explaining what he is doing well enough or simply enough but from not listening. I do admit to finding the thought of President Obama telling people that they are too stupid to understand or appreciate him humorous though. Most of America doesn’t agree with him or you. As to your suggestions to bluster whenever the occasion presents itself, lie, threaten, pander, scapegoat and don’t forget to talk a lot about God (read Gaia), I have to wonder if you’ve been paying attention and actually listened to any of his speeches. And please, spare me your belief that everyone who disagrees with you is hysterical, dishonest and stupid. I think you are more likely to find those attributes in greater quantity within the echo chamber than without.

  11. spencer says:

    Obama managed to increase the debt in one month more than W. in 6 years.

    Source????

    If you really believe this stupidity I have some share in a bridge I want to talk to you about.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    He needs to learn that he’s not dealing with his old classmates at Harvard, he’s dealing with ignorant, superstitious, rage-o-holic, cretins.

    If Joe Klein is any gauge, that may be the next phase in the ongoing campaign. Somehow I don’t think that telling the voters that they’re not smart enough to appreciate the sublimity of your ideas is a winning formula or a good counter to the claims that Obama is an elitist and disconnected from the electorate.

    Consequently, however prevalent the idea may be in some circles, I don’t think that’s the direction the President will end up in. As I mentioned above, I think he’s going to shore up his base and try to add some indepedents and telling them how dumb they are probably won’t accomplish that.

  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    Dave:

    I’m not suggesting Obama suddenly start calling people idiots. Even idiots take offense at that. But he needs to start treating them like idiots. Talking to them like they’re children. You know, the way Mr. Bush used to talk to us: like we were retarded. Small words, lots of repetition, slogans. If it won’t fit on a bumper sticker people won’t get it.

    Or maybe — picking up on your notion of visualcy — he could draw a picture.

  14. PD Shaw says:

    Joe Klein suggests that the polarization came not simply from health care reform, which I believe is Gallup’s read, but from the public option. He argues that polling of conservatives and liberals find they become very intensely aroused by the idea of socialized medicine: one in favor and the other opposed.

    Klein doesn’t believe that a public option is (a) very important or (b) socialized medicine, but he blames partisans on both sides for elevating it’s significance.

    It does appear that Obama starts losing Democrats around the time he gave up on the public option.

  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    I think this is a very interesting comment on the subject of the GOP’s intellectual and moral leadership, and explains part of the polarization.

    Warning: words your mom wouldn’t like.

  16. An Interested Party says:

    Impeach in 2011.

    At the risk of feeding a crazy troll…on exactly what grounds should the president be impeached?

  17. Michael says:

    Mr. Reynolds,
    To be fair, I don’t think FDR or Churchill knew who’s side the USSR was on in WW2, either before of after Molotov-Ribbentrop.

  18. Michael Reynolds says:

    Michael:

    This is a rare opportunity to mention that my sister in law (my wife’s brother’s wife) is a Von Ribbentrop. Yes, that Von Ribbentrop.

    She has not yet attempted to divide Poland. But I keep an eye on her just the same.

  19. Well, in the simplest possible terms (taking a cue from Mr. Reynold’s here), the USSR was on the side of the USSR. While the US and Britain shared on occasion with the USSR a common enemy, they certainly weren’t on our side in the usual sense of the phrase, whether we are talking about the pre-Barbarossa timeframe or not. The aftermath of WWII made that rather clear.

  20. DL says:

    It really started a long time ago;they were called patriots and loyalists then.

  21. So, is this gap is about Obama? About Republican frustration? About Democratic optimism? Or simply a result of a steadily more polarized society? Probably, some combination. But the last would certainly seem to be the most powerful.

    Gosh, then why does the title of this piece say the opposite?

    (I actually expected, scanned for, this line. I used to think it was a buried lede thing … but now I just think it is a trolling pattern.)

  22. James Joyner says:

    Gosh, then why does the title of this piece say the opposite?

    (I actually expected, scanned for, this line. I used to think it was a buried lede thing … but now I just think it is a trolling pattern.)

    First, I write post titles with search engines and RSS feed clickthroughs in mind. There’s not much point in writing if nobody reads it.

    Second, my headline is essentially the same one Gallup used. And accurate.

    Third, the article then goes beyond that statistical fact that Obama is more polarizing than any other first-year president — as measured by the party approval gap — and examines why that may be. A general theme of the blog over the years has been “Let’s put this single event into context to see why it’s not as big a deal as the partisans are making it out to be.”

  23. john personna says:

    I actually made my comment with some sympathy and amusement. Yes, “search engines and RSS feed clickthroughs” encourage behavior that in another age would be considered trollish.

    Now, on this should we talk correlation versus causation? You repeat a claim of causation:

    “statistical fact that Obama is more polarizing”

    Directly at odds with your other text:

    So, is this gap is about Obama? About Republican frustration? About Democratic optimism? Or simply a result of a steadily more polarized society? Probably, some combination. But the last would certainly seem to be the most powerful.

  24. James Joyner says:

    Directly at odds with your other text:

    It’s not. “Polarizing” is measured by Gallup as the delta between own party support and opposition party support. And it’s not an unreasonable definition.

    It’s just quite likely that McCain or whomever was president now would also be at record highs, too, since that’s where the trendlines are.

  25. john personna says:

    Dude. The article you referenced used the word “polarized.” You changed it to “polarizing.”

    Can you be a writer and not know the difference?