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Morning Jay: Obama the Polarizer

6:00 AM, May 2, 2012 • By JAY COST
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Writing on Monday, Michael Goodwin blasted Team Obama for its Osama bin Laden reelection campaign ad:

It is fashionable to be jaded about a presidential campaign, to complain there’s nothing new and tune it out. Not this one. Watch it, or you’ll miss the antics of an incumbent who has no scruples and no regard for the majesty of his office.

President Obama’s team put out an ad praising him for sending in Navy SEALs to kill Usama bin Laden and doubting whether Mitt Romney would have done it. To further exploit the one-year anniversary of Bin Laden's death, he gave an interview to NBC in the Situation Room, from where he observed the raid. And The Wall Street Journal revealed that the Obama campaign has an enemies list, a group of Romney donors it singles out by name on a Web site while declaring some got rich “at the expense of so many Americans.”

As outrageous as those breaches of decency are, they are merely the latest extension of Obama’s polarizing presidency. His tenure threatened, he is growing desperate, almost pathologically so. And it’s only April.

Is it fair to claim that Obama’s presidency has been polarizing? And if so, can we blame him for this result?

To begin, Obama’s election in 2008 was decided by a very polarized electorate. To appreciate this, consider the following graph, which tracks the standard deviation around the statewide average of presidential vote. (The standard deviation is simply a measure of the variation around the average, so it points to what we are interested in: the greater the variation, the greater the differences between the states, and thus greater polarization. When we do this for every election in the postwar era, we can get a good sense of where 2008 stacks up.)

Clearly, polarization has been up substantially from 2000 through 2008, which is really an indication that the red states are getting redder and the blue states bluer.

It is unfair to blame Obama very much for this, but immediately after becoming president, he began exacerbating these divisions for his own political gain. Remember this, just days after he was sworn in?

President Obama warned Republicans on Capitol Hill today that they need to quit listening to radio king Rush Limbaugh if they want to get along with Democrats and the new administration.

"You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done," he told top GOP leaders, whom he had invited to the White House to discuss his nearly $1 trillion stimulus package.

At the time, many conservatives who genuinely wished Obama well, like Ed Morrissey (and myself), cried foul on this kind of strategy, arguing that it was inconsistent with the pledge of the Obama campaign. But it was really just the beginning of a systematic effort by the president to misrepresent the views of his opponents, to question their motivations, and thus to win over the unaffiliated vote in the middle of the country. He first employed this strategy with the battle over the stimulus and continues using it all the way through today.

What’s more, Obama’s legislative strategy was bound to exacerbate the polarization in Congress. Despite his claims to be interested in congressional bipartisanship, practically speaking, he was never going to build a substantial bipartisan coalition so long as he wanted to retain the support of the far left of the Democratic caucus in the Senate and especially the House. And I think that is exactly what he wanted; he certainly guaranteed such a result when he allowed Congress to draft the big bills in 2009-2010. That basically handed the liberals the most power, as they controlled the key committees. Building a coalition on health care or cap and trade that included liberals like Dennis Kucinich and Barbara Lee all but ensured that the final product would be too leftist for Republican moderates like Olympia Snowe or Lisa Murkowski, let alone center-right senators like Lamar Alexander or George Voinovich.

These rhetorical and legislative strategies stand in stark contrast to the posture Obama adopted to win the White House. Remember this passage from The Audacity of Hope:

[G]enuine bipartisanship...assumes an honest process of give-and-take, and that the quality of the compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficits. This in turn assumes that the majority party will be constrained - by an exacting press corps and ultimately an informed electorate - to negotiate in good faith.

Obama contrasted this with phony bipartisanship, in which the minority party gets:

…chronically steamrolled, although individual senators may enjoy certain political rewards by consistently going along with the majority and hence gaining a reputation for being “moderate” or “centrist.”

I can't recall seeing the president engage in an “honest process of give-and-take” with his opponents, at least not in public; instead, he has mischaracterized their positions at every opportunity. And he never once tried to constrain the Democrats when they were in the majority; instead, his notion of “bipartisanship” was the phony version that he decried in 2006.

Does this mean that Obama is the cause of the polarization of the current age? I would say no. As the above graph makes clear, polarization obviously predates January 2009. Nevertheless, he still deserves more than a little blame for it. Not only did he make no good faith efforts to restore comity, as he promised he would, he has systematically endeavored to exploit this yawning ideological divide for his own political gain.

And so, partly due to factors beyond his control, partly due to his political approach, Obama is on track to have the most polarizing first term in the postwar era.

To appreciate this final point, let’s look at the Gallup poll in the postwar era for all presidents who entered office upon election, through their 13th quarter in office (which is the current quarter Obama is in). Let’s take the quarterly average of their net job approval, and categorize it in three ways: presidents whose net approval is greater than or equal to +10 are “popular,” those whose net approval is less than or equal to -10 are “unpopular,” and those whose approval falls somewhere between -10 and +10 are “polarizing.” Then, it’s just a simple matter of counting how many quarters each president’s approval has fallen into these categories.

Obama is certainly not the most unpopular of the bunch. That title goes to Jimmy Carter. However, he is the second most polarizing, behind only Bill Clinton. And there are important ways that Obama is actually more polarizing than Clinton. To start, those 10 quarters when public opinion was polarized under Obama were consecutive, which was not the case for Clinton. Additionally, by the 14th quarter of his presidency (i.e. April through June, 1996) Clinton was once again popular, which he would be for the rest of his tenure. Obama, on the other hand appears on track to have an 11th straight quarter of polarization.

All in all, this chart underscores our two big points. First, polarization has been a growing phenomenon over the years – note that Ike, JFK, and Nixon had never been polarizing by this point in their tenures, while every successor to them has been for at least a little while. Second, Obama is pushing the upper boundaries of the record for most polarization, and will probably break it by the summer. This suggests that his political approach has exacerbated what was already a very pronounced trend.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten, a critical history of the Democratic party, forthcoming from Broadside Books.

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