Polarization and perspective


This week, the political community is buzzing about the new Pew Research Center poll which names Barack Obama as the most divisive president of modern times. After pondering poll numbers dating back 40 years, and measuring the various partisan gaps, Pew has concluded: "For all of his hopes about bipartisanship, (Obama) has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president."

Republicans, desperate these days for anything that might rescue them from the swirling waters (a log, a branch, a twig), have naturally latched onto this Pew report, somehow thinking that it serves to validate their brief against Obama. They're citing it as proof that Obama is already a failure, and that they were right about the guy all along. This morning, Karl Rove even cited the poll in his Wall Street Journal column, arguing that the polarized numbers are no surprise, given Obama's "petty attacks on his critics" - which is a bit rich, coming from Karl Rove.

Pew has assigned Obama a partisan gap of 61 percentage points. It's easy math. In the Pew poll, 88 percent of Democratic voters currently support Obama, while only 27 percent of Republican voters signal their support. That partisan gap is 10 points higher than George W. Bush's early gap; 15 points higher than Ronald Reagan's early gap; 16 points higher than Bill Clinton's; 23 points higher than the senior George Bush's; 32 points higher than Richard Nixon's; and 36 points higher than the contemporary president who was least polarizing in his early days, Jimmy Carter.

But before we join the GOP in suggesting that these findings are tantamount to a thumbs-down verdict on Obama's presidency, let's try for a bit of perspective:

1. A polarizing president is not necessarily a failed president. Some of the best chief executives were notorious polarizers. We'll never know how Franklin D. Roosevelt would have fared in a Pew poll, but we do know that he was thoroughly loathed by the Republicans and their business allies; in return, he virtually gave them the finger. In a speech on Oct. 31, 1936, Roosevelt declared, "They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred." Even as war clouds gathered and Roosevelt made moves to aid western allies, his political enemies denounced him as a warmonger. But today, FDR's face is on the dime.

It's also a fair bet that Pew would have tagged Democrat Andrew Jackson with a huge partisan gap, given the Whigs' hatred of him. His biographer, Jon Meacham, writes that, even before Jackson took the oath of office, the Whigs were already convinced that he "seemed dangerous - so dangerous, in fact, that he was worth killing." Jackson's political foes were incensed by the president's ongoing popularity; late in his first term, an enemy congressman wrote, "His administration is absolutely odious, and yet there is adherence to the man...His continuance (in office) must be destructive of everything that is worthy to be cherished." Jackson, upon leaving office, said that his greatest regret was that he hadn't shot and hung his two most prominent political enemies. Did Jackson's polarizing tendencies doom his presidency? Today, his face is on a greenback.

2. A non-polarizing president, especially one who is perceived that way at the outset, does not necessarily turn out to be a successful president. According to the aforementioned Pew stats, the winner in the bipartisan sweepstakes is Jimmy Carter. During his first months in office, he was supported by 81 percent of Democratic voters and 56 percent of Republican voters - a paltry partisan gap of 25 points. But ultimately, of course, this initial good will got him nowhere. Today, he'd be lucky to get his face on Monopoly money.

3. Obama, far more than any of his immediate six predecessors, was virtually pressed into service long before he even took the oath, forced to signal in advance a number of drastic steps designed to quell the worst economic crisis in seven decades. Those moves alone were bound to exacerbate the partisan schisms that are permanent features of our contemporary politics.

4. One fundamental reason for Obama's partisan gap is the unprecedented support he gets from Democratic voters (88 percent). That's seven points higher than what Carter received in his early tenure - and a whopping 17 points higher than what Clinton got at the outset. Hence, the irony: Obama's partisan gap wouldn't be so huge if he wasn't the beneficiary of unprecedented party unity...at a time, moreover, when voters are increasingly identifying themselves as Democrats. Which brings us to the last, and arguably the most crucial, caveat.

5. Republican support for Obama (27 percent in the Pew poll) is so low precisely because those who still consider themselves Republicans tend to be hard-core conservatives. In recent years, moderate and liberal Republicans have fled the party in droves; in the Pennsylvania registration figures, this exodus has been well documented. Nationally, most of those GOP emigrees have moved to the independent camp; and it's noteworthy, in the Pew poll, that 57 percent of independents support Obama (which suggests that he currently holds the center - a fact that undercuts the verdict of Obama as the great polarizer).

Indeed, one Pew statistic is crucial: Only 24 percent of all voters now call themselves Republicans...whereas, five years ago, Pew reported that 33 percent of all voters identified with the GOP. So it shouldn't be a surprise that Obama scores so poorly among diehard members of a shrinking party that is disproportionately southern and tilting further rightward - thereby swelling the size Obama's partisan gap.

It's not even worth a guess as to whether Obama's polarizing tendencies will matter in the end; at this point, we can't know. But he certainly seems willing to risk further divisiveness, given the news this morning that he actually intends to tackle path-to-citizen immigration reform this year, braving the inevitable conservative howls about aliens competing with Americans for jobs in the midst of recession.

All we can really say for now is that partisanship has always been with us, a staple of human nature. As John Quincy Adams wrote to his son, more than 170 years ago, "Men have railed at each other in good set terms from (the ancient Greeks') day to this. They will still do so as long as there are prizes to contend for, which move their avarice and their ambitions."