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More Divisive Than George W. Bush, with Nothing to Show for It

At the risk of earning another tongue lashing from Robert Gibbs, Gallup reports:

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. . . Obama still has three years left in his first term and possibly seven more as president, so there is much time for the polarization of his approval ratings to subside. However, if the current level of polarization persists through the end of his term, Obama would exceed [George W.] Bush as the president with the most polarized approval ratings.

This might not be a problem in and of itself, if not for two additional factors. First, Obama’s main selling point was his image as a bipartisan, new sort of politician — really a non-politician who was above petty partisan bickering and ideology. He’s turned out to be none of those things and instead has re-energized the conservative movement, which a year ago was bruised and disoriented. Second, Obama has also lost independent voters in alarming numbers. In the Pollster.com average, his approval is upside down with independents — 48.9 percent disapprove while only 41 percent approve. In Massachusetts Rasmussen reports that 73 percent of unaffiliated voters went for Scott Brown, running on an explicitly anti-Obamaism agenda.

You can’t win in American politics if three quarters of independents are for the other side, the other side is wildly enthusiastic about opposing you, and your own base, while still supportive, is down in the dumps. It is a recipe for political disaster. And that is what has Obama’s fellow Democrats in a tizzy. It did not have to be this way, certainly. Obama could have governed as he ran, dumped the mean-spirited partisanship and pursued broadly popular measures. Instead he has emerged as a hugely divisive figure with nothing to show for it. And that’s the other difference, frankly, between Obama and other presidents who became lightning rods. Obama doesn’t have anything to show for it. What great legislative achievement does he have? What legacy is he creating? So far, zip.

There are three years left in Obama’s term. Maybe he can return to a centrist course and reclaim independents, if not some Republicans. Perhaps he can lay ownership to some domestic initiative. And he certainly can (if he eschews advice from political advisers) prosecute the war against Islamic terrorism successfully in the Afghanistan battleground and elsewhere. But he will have to do something very different from what he’s tried to for a year. It’s not clear he wants to — or knows how.



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