Obama reshapes party divideDespite Barack Obama’s charismatic come-together-and-feel-good reputation, a new poll shows the first days of his presidency to be more polarizing than those of any other president in the past 40 years. No one should be surprised by that. Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt has a new president tried to do so much so soon — or had to!
By: Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune, The Jamestown Sun
Despite Barack Obama’s charismatic come-together-and-feel-good reputation, a new poll shows the first days of his presidency to be more polarizing than those of any other president in the past 40 years.
No one should be surprised by that. Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt has a new president tried to do so much so soon — or had to!
The good news for Obama: A closer look reveals that his polarized ratings result from his unusually high popularity with Democrats and independents as much as from his unpopularity with Republicans. Not since — guess who? — Bill Clinton have Republicans given such low marks to a president in his opening days.
The gap wouldn’t mean as much if Obama and his surrogates had not promised a new kind of bipartisan and “post-partisan” politics when they campaigned.
So far, the Pew Research Center poll found, Obama has a 61-percentage-point gap between the very high 88 percent job approval he receives from Democrats and the exceptionally low 27 percent he receives from Republicans.
That’s a wider gap than Richard Nixon’s 29 percentage points, Jimmy Carter’s 25, Ronald Reagan’s 46, George H. W. Bush’s 38, Bill Clinton’s 45 and George W. Bush’s 51.
You may notice a significant long-term trend in those figures. Obama’s numbers are more polarized in part because we Americans have become more sharply divided along party lines, even as increasing numbers also break off to become swing voters.
Target marketing and computer-assisted redistricting have made the political parties more ideologically uniform in our neighborhoods and the people we send to Congress more boldly partisan. Congressional leaders have changed rules to make party discipline easier to enforce.
Ideological interest groups have mushroomed on the Internet and in real life, some at society’s grassroots, some in the political marketers’ Astroturf.
Plus, I blame some of us in the heat-seeking media for encouraging you to think increasingly along right-left lines.
Talk radio and cable TV in particular have become more openly partisan to boost ratings, fanning an “I’m OK, you’re full of prunes” antipathy.
The ravings of partisan talk show hosts are helped along by a fog of Web messages from angry Net nuts who eschew any hint of compromise as a game for gutless wimps.
Yet while we have become more polarized as voters, we also have become more changeable. Some might even say fickle.
Party loyalties have declined sharply as new media have become the new precinct captains. More of us call ourselves “independents,” a persuadable group that offers good news for Obama in the Pew Poll and a storm cloud on the horizon for Republicans.
Obama received a healthy 57 percent approval from self-described independents. That’s one point higher than Bush’s independent support after his controversial election eight years ago and 10 points higher than Clinton’s 47 percent independent approval in his early days.
That’s a vindication of sorts for Obama’s strong pitch to independent voters last year, despite criticism from his farther-left supporters. It is also a warning to Republicans who now try to make an issue of Obama’s lack of “bipartisanship.” As Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore, wrote on The Democratic Strategist, a Web site he edits, “A big chunk of the public does want bipartisanship, but it wants our leaders to get things done even more.”
With that in mind, Obama should never stop reaching out across party lines. Even if he gets slapped back, he needs to be seen as giving bipartisanship or post-partisanship a good try. It separates him from the far left in his own party and helps him with ever-watchful independents.
It also puts Republicans on the spot. They can help him reach sensible compromises, even if it improves his popularity, or they can hunker down with an increasingly isolated right-wing base while the siren song of Rush Limbaugh bellows “I want him (Obama) to fail!” It’s hard to sing with that chorus if you really want the country to succeed.
(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com, or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.)
(C) 2009 CLARENCE PAGE
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