Friday, January 27, 2012

Viewing Our Presidents Through Polarized Lenses

Modern presidents frequently run on the concept that they can bring Americans together for the common good. And throughout their terms, they call on us, and our representatives, to come together, put partisan differences aside to address America's problems. The SOTU this week was no different.

Obama wanted to be the transformative president, Bush wanted to be the uniter, not the divider, Clinton never met a group of  voters he didn't think he could persuade that they had common goals and values and was willing to turn red in the face trying to convince them.

But despite these efforts, the data consistently shows that our modern presidents are being viewed through a partisan lens.  Gallup reports today a 68% gap between the average percentage of Democrats and Republicans that view President Obama favorably this year.  This is the fourth largest gap since Gallup began tracking this statistic in the fifties - with only the 4th, 5th, and 6th years of G.W. Bush's presidency having larger spans.  This was the biggest gap ever for the third year of any president.

The question this raises is whether the polarization is because of how Obama has conducted himself in office or the times we live in.  I tend to believe the later, (though I am also convinced that there are many who disapprove of Obama because who he is and what he represents in terms of the direction the country is headed demographically rather than the mainly centrist policies he has pursued in his presidency).  Our fragmented, partisan media, our proclivity to get news from non-traditional sources, the permanent campaign, and interest group slash and burn tactics in the policy arena all combine to polarize the public's views of the person in the White House.  Black and white, good and evil, pro-this and anti-that -- our capacity to discern and appreciate shades of gray seems to be degrading -- much to our detriment.


  1. I tend to agree with you when you point toward "the times we live in" to explain the polarization of Obama's approval ratings, as opposed to his actions in office. I wanted to take this idea further and analyze how Barack Obama's roll as a transformative presidential candidate has been misleading.

    Many of Obama's flagship policies represent those of a centrist, arguably centrist and Republican, rather than the beam of transformative, Democratic hope he projected pre-2008. For example, Obama has adopted many of GW's terrorism policies, helped overturn a global ban on cluster bombs, led efforts to locate and kill accused terrorists abroad, and welcomed in GW's/Cheney's indefinite detention without trial of accused terrorists. Further, Obamacare's defining policy is the individual mandate to purchase private health insurance, an originally Republican idea born out of the Heritage Foundation.

    Clearly, Obama's policies have been far less "socialist" or "radically liberal" as some have accused him of being. In fact, Obama's political positioning as a centrist will undoubtedly make the 2012 presidential election an election of unforeseen polarization. In order to differentiate themselves from the incumbent, Republican candidates must first differentiate themselves from each other, only to then claim they are everything Obama is not in the general election.

    At the end of the day, you are exactly right in the way that "our capacity to discern and appreciate shades of gray seems to be degrading- much to our detriment."

  2. I think a fair analysis of Obama's policies would show he has a mix of centrist, liberal, and conservative ideas -- some generated from his persona, some dictated by the economic circumstance we find ourselves in. One problem is that the policies that were once considered right of center are now consider by some to be left or left of center.