Commentary Magazine


Yes, but . . . Obama Is Still the Most Polarizing

Ron Brownstein has responded to pieces by Karl Rove, Michael Gerson, and me regarding the Pew Research Center survey indicating that, in Pew’s words,

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 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% job approval among Democrats – and relatively low approval ratings among Republicans (27%).

Brownstein doesn’t dispute the Pew poll or its data; he simply goes to great length to try to mitigate its unambiguous conclusion. His response can best be characterized as, “Yes, but…”

Several of the points Brownstein makes are legitimate. For example, Obama still maintains significant support among independents — though according to Gallup, Bush’s support among independents was by the end of April 2001 slightly higher than Obama’s is right now.

Still, in several respects, Brownstein’s analysis is either incomplete or simply wrong. For example, what Brownstein doesn’t say, but what is highly relevant, is that according to the Gallup Poll, Obama has lost 16 points of support among Republicans since his Inauguration. President Bush actually gained 5 points in approval among Democrats (from 32 percent to 37 percent) between his Inauguration and early April. In fact, it wasn’t until Gallup’s September 19-21, 2003 poll — more than two-and-a-half years after he took office — that Bush’s support among Democrats fell the equivalent of a 16-point drop in support from his Inauguration.

The truth is that Obama started his presidency with fairly strong support among Republicans (above 40 percent according to Gallup). This complicates Brownstein’s claim that the GOP has “contracted” in a way that made support for Obama extremely unlikely because it is a party “dominated by conservatives.” In fact, a dozen weeks ago, in a party “dominated by conservatives,” Obama had substantial support from Republicans. That has been squandered.

Where Brownstein veers into error is when he claims, “Obama is displaying more of an open door to diverse viewpoints than Bush did at any point after his first few months in office” and that “continuing to seek common ground with a broad range of interests” is the best way for Obama to reopen political fissures in America.

In fact, Obama’s governing approach so far has been polarizing. He has made no effort to “seek common ground” with Republicans. He has shut them out of the legislative process, whether we’re talking about his stimulus package, his budget, culture of life issues, or almost anything else.

Another claim made by Brownstein is simplistic and perpetuates an urban myth; namely, that the strategy Rove helped design “reduced the party to its absolute conservative nub.” In fact, Bush pursued in office almost every one of the initiatives he laid out in the 2000 campaign, when he ran as a “different kind of Republican” — including two enormously consequential domestic programs, No Child Left Behind and Medicare Prescription Drugs. Bush also championed immigration reform but was defeated, in large measure because of conservative opposition. And Bush did more for the African continent — including his AIDS and malaria initiatives — than any other American president. It’s also worth noting that from the 2000 to the 2004 election, Bush increased his support among women, Hispanics, Asians, African Americans, and Jewish voters. This is hardly the result of a “base strategy.”

It’s true that Bush lost support among independent and moderate voters over the course of his presidency; much of the reason for that was the Iraq war — a war, it’s worth pointing out, which had substantial bi-partisan support when it began. But because for several years the war was going badly, it inflicted enormous damage on Bush’s popularity. It’s also worth pointing out that what is probably the most impressive moment of the Bush presidency was his support of the surge in Iraq — which was done in the face of enormous odds and contributed at least temporarily to further polarization in American politics. Which leads to my final point.

I have never been one who believes that polarization per se is bad. The question to ask is this one: Polarization for what purpose? Polarization in the pursuit of justice is worth it. Indeed, many of the most revered figures in American history — Lincoln, FDR, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ronald Reagan among them — were viewed in their time as tremendously polarizing and divisive figures. In Great Britain, the same can be said of Churchill and Thatcher.

It is Barack Obama who made post-partisanship and ending polarization central to his candidacy, perhaps more than any other figure in our lifetime. Because he had such a thin record on which to run, it was key to his appeal. Obama is the one who set the standard; it’s only fair to judge him by it.

In 2003, Brownstein wrote, “Bush’s determination to satisfy his base… has led him to shelve almost entirely the bipartisan deal-making skills he demonstrated as Texas governor; he’s allowed the congressional GOP majority to exclude Democrats from negotiation on major bills.”

Obama has done this on the Democratic side to a greater extent than Bush at comparable points in their presidency (as Rove points out, among Bush’s first appointments were Democratic judicial nominees who had been blocked by Republicans under President Clinton, the Bush White House joined with Democratic and Republican leaders to draft education reform legislation, and Bush worked with Republican Charles Grassley to cut a deal with Democrat Max Baucus to win bipartisan passage of a tax cut in the Senate). I only hope that Brownstein uses the same standard for Obama that he applied to Bush. So far, he hasn’t.

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