Commentary Magazine


Topic: political polarization

The Baleful Effects of the Obama Presidency

In his fine post on last night’s speech, Jonathan wrote, “But President Obama has made that impossible by firing the first shot in a political war intended to further polarize the nation. Nothing could be more cynical or less high-minded.”

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In his fine post on last night’s speech, Jonathan wrote, “But President Obama has made that impossible by firing the first shot in a political war intended to further polarize the nation. Nothing could be more cynical or less high-minded.”

This is not incidental damage to our republic.

There is such a thing as a nation’s political and civic culture. Ours is in some disrepair right now. This isn’t the only time that’s been the case, for sure. Politics in a free society–any free society–guarantees some amount of division and polarization. But beyond a certain point it’s not normative or healthy; and if there are large, difficult problems that need to be addressed, as is now the case, the political system has to work. Right now it’s not.

Why it’s not is a complicated matter. But there’s no question that President Obama bears a great deal of the responsibility for our political distemper. His announcement last night that he’s going to employ means that he himself deemed to be lawless and unconstitutional, in order to get his way on immigration, is guaranteed to further roil our politics. Indeed, it may well have been done in part to do just that. Whatever his motivations, Mr. Obama has taken an unprecedented step that will further split apart not just our two parties but our nation.

It’s worth reminding ourselves, then, that when he first ran for president, Mr. Obama not only promised to place greater limits on executive power; he also promised to “turn the page” on the “old politics” of division and anger. He would end a politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” He would help us to “rediscover our bonds to each other and … get out of this constant petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.” His election, he informed us, was a sign we had “chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”

“I will listen to you,” Obama said on a stage in Grant Park on the night of his election, “especially when we disagree.” And on the day of his inauguration he came to proclaim “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

Yet here we are, six years later, with a president who has caused greater division and conflict, who has deepened public cynicism, and who has chosen–eagerly and gleefully chosen–conflict and discord over unity of purpose. This may not be the worst sin of the Obama era, but it ranks quite high on the list.

Other presidents have made mistakes, and some have committed impeachable offenses. But I would be hard-pressed to name a president who has so selfishly and narcissistically injured our constitutional order and political culture. The baleful effects of the Obama presidency are now nearly incalculable.

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Obama An Unrivaled Polarizing President

In 2008 Barack Obama predicated his campaign not on a set of policies but on what might be called a political aesthetic. He would do away with what he called the “50 plus one” style of governing. He would “turn the page” on the “old politics” of division and anger and end a politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” Mr. Obama would help us to “rediscover our bonds to each other and … get out of this constant petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.” In the Age of Obama the Red State wolf would dwell with the Blue State lamb, and all would be right with the world.

What a shame it turned out to be utter fiction.

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In 2008 Barack Obama predicated his campaign not on a set of policies but on what might be called a political aesthetic. He would do away with what he called the “50 plus one” style of governing. He would “turn the page” on the “old politics” of division and anger and end a politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” Mr. Obama would help us to “rediscover our bonds to each other and … get out of this constant petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.” In the Age of Obama the Red State wolf would dwell with the Blue State lamb, and all would be right with the world.

What a shame it turned out to be utter fiction.

The Apostle of Hope and Change turns out to be the most polarizing president of modern times, at least according to the Gallup organization. The president’s fourth year in office was the most polarizing since Gallup began asking that question during the Eisenhower presidency. He now holds five of the top 10 most polarizing slots. Barack Obama is to polarization what Peyton Manning is to NFL passing records. 

Some of this is surely a product of the times in which we live. But a lot of it is the result of Mr. Obama’s divisive and unusually ruthless tactics. He took a polarized country and deepened its divisions. It will take a long time, and a special successor, to begin to unwind all the damage this man has done.

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Obama vs. the Facts on Polarization

When President Obama was interviewed by the New Republic, he was prepared with a fresh list of ways to paint his Republican opponents as unreasonable. The one that garnered the most attention at the time was Obama’s insistence that Fox News was punishing Republicans for reaching across the isle. Fox contributors, liberal and conservative, chimed in to point out that this was both false and unseemly behavior from the president of the United States.

But another excuse for the GOP’s seeming intransigence that is currently favored by the president and his uninformed supporters in liberal punditry, like Paul Krugman, is that Republicans have used the process known as gerrymandering to squeeze out moderates and to boost ideological stubbornness. Aside from the coincidence that leftists are suddenly concerned about gerrymandering now that the last round seemed to help Republicans, there is also the fact that what the president said is untrue. First, what Obama said:

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When President Obama was interviewed by the New Republic, he was prepared with a fresh list of ways to paint his Republican opponents as unreasonable. The one that garnered the most attention at the time was Obama’s insistence that Fox News was punishing Republicans for reaching across the isle. Fox contributors, liberal and conservative, chimed in to point out that this was both false and unseemly behavior from the president of the United States.

But another excuse for the GOP’s seeming intransigence that is currently favored by the president and his uninformed supporters in liberal punditry, like Paul Krugman, is that Republicans have used the process known as gerrymandering to squeeze out moderates and to boost ideological stubbornness. Aside from the coincidence that leftists are suddenly concerned about gerrymandering now that the last round seemed to help Republicans, there is also the fact that what the president said is untrue. First, what Obama said:

The House Republican majority is made up mostly of members who are in sharply gerrymandered districts that are very safely Republican and may not feel compelled to pay attention to broad-based public opinion, because what they’re really concerned about is the opinions of their specific Republican constituencies.

Not so, says political scientist John Sides, who took to Ezra Klein’s Washington Post Wonkblog–generally favorable terrain for the president–to try and nudge the president back into truthful waters. Sides shows that the data confirm almost the exact opposite: that congressional delegations of both parties vote in a much more partisan way than their districts. That is, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress vote with their fellow members of Congress (of the same party, that is) in ways only tangentially related to the voting patterns of their constituents.

As Sides notes, it’s easier to see this effect with regard to members of the Senate, since senatorial delegations are sometime split, yet each senator votes either conservatively or liberally despite the fact that they represent the same constituency–their state. Sides writes:

No matter whether Obama won 20 percent or 50 percent of their district, Republican representatives have voted similarly — that is, they have taken conservative positions on average.  No matter whether Obama won 50 percent or 80 percent of their district, Democratic representatives have taken liberal positions, on average.  Constituency hasn’t affected anyone’s overall voting behavior that much.

And the 113th Congress is no exception….

What about the Senate?  Same thing.  Just think of states with split delegations.  How ideologically similar are, say, Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin?  Or David Vitter and Mary Landrieu?  Not very, even though they ostensibly represent the same voters.

So is cooperation hopeless? Is Obama doomed to act without any Republican congressional support? Fortunately for the president, the answer to that is also no. Though the Obama administration likes to play up partisan conflict to push the Obama-against-the-world storyline, the president has more support from the right than he’s willing to admit. This is particularly the case on foreign policy, where there has been almost no pushback against the emerging Obama doctrine of secret drone wars and preemption on cyber warfare. Unlike the Democratic Party’s cynical turn against the war they voted for when they thought such unprincipled behavior was good partisan politics, the Republican Party’s congressional delegations have remained generally supportive of the war effort, even when the commander-in-chief was no longer from their ranks.

And it’s not simply the hawks, either. As a group of foreign policy professionals writes in Foreign Affairs, the two parties continue to agree on some broad policy outlines:

More than 80 percent of aides in both parties think that it is important to protect U.S. sovereignty and that U.S. law takes precedence over the United Nations. Yet over 60 percent of staff in both parties think that most international problems cannot be solved by the United States alone, and that it is less efficient to act alone than to cooperate with others. These data suggest that both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill share skepticism toward international law but recognize the importance of multilateral cooperation.

Congressional attitudes also converge on some specific security and economic issues. More than 70 percent of Republican and Democratic staff in both chambers have very favorable attitudes toward NATO and think that multilateral cooperation on the threats of nuclear proliferation and terrorism is very important. Responses to questions about global security treaties, including the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, revealed that although Democratic aides are far more supportive of them, roughly half of Republican aides also view them positively. The United States’ long-standing allies are another area of agreement: more than 90 percent of staff in both parties reported having a positive outlook on U.S. alliances with the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Australia.

As the authors write, this is consistent with past surveys as well. Obama likes to pretend that he is dealing with unfair and unprecedented opposition and that his antagonists are rewriting the rules unilaterally as the game progresses. Such self-pity is unworthy of the office, but it’s also flat wrong.

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Our Most Polarizing President

Barack Obama is a record-setting president.

He is the most polarizing president in the history of polling.

According to the Gallup organization, during his fourth year in office, an average of 86 percent of Democrats and 10 percent of Republicans approved of the job Barack Obama did as president. That 76-percentage-point gap ties George W. Bush’s fourth year as the most polarized years in Gallup records. Now let’s dial the clock back a year, when Jeffrey Jones of the Gallup organization wrote, “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 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of Republicans approving of the job he was doing… The 68-point gap between partisans’ approval ratings of Obama last year is nine points higher than that for any other president’s third year.” 

This came after Obama set a record for polarization in each of his first two years in office. So Barack Obama has set a record for polarization for three years in a row and tied the record for polarization in a fourth year.

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Barack Obama is a record-setting president.

He is the most polarizing president in the history of polling.

According to the Gallup organization, during his fourth year in office, an average of 86 percent of Democrats and 10 percent of Republicans approved of the job Barack Obama did as president. That 76-percentage-point gap ties George W. Bush’s fourth year as the most polarized years in Gallup records. Now let’s dial the clock back a year, when Jeffrey Jones of the Gallup organization wrote, “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 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of Republicans approving of the job he was doing… The 68-point gap between partisans’ approval ratings of Obama last year is nine points higher than that for any other president’s third year.” 

This came after Obama set a record for polarization in each of his first two years in office. So Barack Obama has set a record for polarization for three years in a row and tied the record for polarization in a fourth year.

I realize that after his re-election victory, we’re all supposed to forget what Obama said when he ran four years ago. But just for the fun of it, let’s take a stroll down memory lane.

What Obama promised us back in the day was that he would do away with what he called the “50 plus one” style of governing. He would “turn the page” on the “old politics” of division and anger. Mr. Obama would end a politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” He would help us to “rediscover our bonds to each other and … get out of this constant petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.” He would “cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past.”

“I will listen to you,” Obama said on election night 2008, “especially when we disagree.” His election, he helpfully informed us, was a sign that we had “chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”

And then there was Obama’s first Inaugural Address, when he proclaimed “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

It needs to be said that we do live in an unusually polarized age. But Mr. Obama knew that when he took office four years ago. And the promises he made were unqualified. If we elected him, Obama promised, he would heal the breach. Yet here we are, four years later, with Obama having presided over an era of petty grievances, false promises, recriminations, and worn-out dogmas that have strangled our politics. And by every sign, the next four years will be even more divisive and acrimonious. There is blame to go around; but the president is primus inter pares. 

Mr. Obama is doing great harm to important areas of our national life, including our political culture and civic bonds. He will leave America a far more bitter and riven nation. That is a real shame, and it was all so unnecessary.

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