Obama polarizing historical legacy as the nation’s divider-in-chief

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

The Obama era was the most partisan; Barack Obama reigned over the country as the polarizing president history according to a new Gallup poll released on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017 that looked at the partisan support of Obama during his eight- year presidency. The survey proved what already seemed obvious from the news media and recent events that Americans are more partisan than ever in American history. It is leading the country down the wrong path and divides not seen since the Civil War, ironically by a president who was elected on a pledge to unite rather than divide.

According to Gallup, Obama had the largest “party gap in presidential job approval ratings” in support of all presidents in the post-World War II era, with 70 percent, up nine points from the presidency of Republican George W. Bush. A trend started in Republican Ronald Reagan’s era, but steadily grew during George W. Bush’s presidency, and became a fact during Obama’s time in office. According to the Gallup, the partisanship has to do with the times even more than his policies, explaining, “The extreme polarization in Obama’s ratings could reflect his policies and approach to governing, it also reflects the era in which he governed.”

Gallup has been crowning the last six years of Obama’s presidency as polarized with an increasingly larger partisan divide. According to Gallup, Presidents Reagan, Bill Clinton, Bush and now Obama a party gap of over 50 percent, with 52, 55, 61 and 70 respectively. Nixon was the only president to a gap in the 40s range with 41 percent. Three presidents had gaps in the 30s, Dwight D. Eisenhower, with 39 percent, George H. W. Bush with 38, and John F. Kennedy with 35 percent. The least divisive presidents partisan wise were Jimmy Carter and Lyndon B. Johnson with a 27 percent gap, and Gerald Ford with a 29 percent.

Party support divide among recent presidents:

Average approval, Republicans Average approval, Democrats Average party gap
% % pct. pts.
Obama 13 83 70
G.W. Bush 84 23 61
Clinton 27 82 55
Reagan 83 31 52
Nixon 75 34 41
Eisenhower 88 49 39
G.H.W. Bush 82 44 38
Kennedy 49 84 35
Ford 68 37 29
Johnson 44 71 27
Carter 30 57 27

George H. W. Bush presidency might not seem divisive because it was not during its first three years with a party gap of only 32 to 24 percent, but his last year in office when the economy was in trouble became far more polarized with a gap of 54 percent, which continued through the Clinton era. Gallup indicated that the average party support gap from 1953 to 1981 was only 34 percent, from 1981 to 2017 it grew to a 54 percent average.

Pew Research Center conducted a similar survey, which they released earlier this month, just before the inauguration. Pew published their review on Oct. 28, 2016, just days before the 2016 election. Obama had a 54 percent approval rating and 42 percent disapproval, but the margin of approval differed greatly between the parties. Pew claims Obama’s poll ratings were “more politically polarized than any president’s dating back to Dwight Eisenhower.”

According to Pew “An average of just 14% of Republicans have approved of Obama over the course of his presidency, compared with an average of 81% of Democrats.” Pew explains, “The gap in partisan presidential ratings has widened in recent decades as Americans have grown more divided in their basic values and beliefs along partisan lines and as partisan animosity has increased.” Pew indicates, that “Partisan divisions in assessments of presidential performance, for example, are wider now than at any point going back more than six decades.”

Gallup, however, tracks that this polarization has increasingly become a problem in the last 15 years, under Bush and Obama, where the party gap averaged 60 percent. Pew Research Center determined recently in a survey entitled “Political Polarization in the American Public” found one of the reasons for the rise in partisanship is attributed to the disappearing middle, centrist American, the so-called mushy middle. Instead, “92 percent of Republicans are now to the right of the median Democrat, and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” While the “partisan animosity” is so that each side believes the other “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”

It is ironic that Obama was at the center of the growing partisan divide since he burst onto the national scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention with a keynote address calling for an end to red and blue states division, which at that point he called a figment of the media. Obama with soaring rhetoric said, “Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America… The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into the Red States and the Blue States; the Red States for Republicans, the Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too… We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”

Obama echoed that call throughout his 2008 campaign of change and hope, speaking at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa back in November 2007, he firmly stated, “I don’t want to spend the next year or the next four years refighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s. I don’t want to pit red America against blue America. I want to be the President of the United States of America.” In his March 2008 speech on race calling for a “more perfect union,” Obama made clear he was the choice candidate for unity and end of divisive politics, saying, “For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism…. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.”

Obama’s failures as president had more to do with intense partisanship than any other determining factor; it was his inability to compromise with Republicans and they with him that led to a legislative gridlock that was the hallmark of Obama’s presidency since the Republican took control of Congress in the 2010-midterm elections. When the GOP won the House of Representatives in 2010, Obama divisively declared, “The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government.”

Republicans could not forgive Obama for passing with the Democratic-controlled Congress the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and most importantly the Affordable Care Act, healthcare law, which passed into law without a single Republican vote, that the GOP spent the remainder of his presidency trying to repeal it. Obama’s inability to compromise led to the sequestration, across the board spending cuts to reduce the deficit in March 2013, and later that year one of the longest government shutdowns in October that last over two weeks over failing to agree on a federal budget. Obama had little legislative success for his last six years in office, because of his confrontational and cold war attitude to the Republican Congress.

President Obama’s go it alone rhetoric on executive actions while chastising Republicans in Congress for not passing legislation he desired including immigration reform also added to the partisan “rancor.” His threats of “governing” by “pen and phone” to create a “year of action” in 2014 just before his State of the Union address only caused more of a partisan divide, without attempts to negotiate really with Republicans he just angered them. Speaking at his first cabinet meeting that year, Obama made clear, “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone. One of the things that I will be emphasizing in this meeting is the fact that we are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we are providing Americans the kind of help that they need.”

Jeffery Rosen, Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School, commented to NY Magazine on Obama’s legacy in the January 2015 article, “53 Historians on Obama’s Legacy.” Rosen analyzes, “Nevertheless, Obama’s rhetoric on executive orders has been so polarizing — “Where I can act without Congress, I’m going to do so.” — that he has inflamed his opponents and strengthened their resolve to reverse his achievements.”

Obama, however, inflamed more with his talk than actions, he only issued 277 executive orders only a 35 per year average, less than his immediate predecessors did and less than any president in 120 years based on a yearly average. Just as he used his rhetoric to unite Americans in his 2008 campaign, he used it to divide them in during his presidency.

Instead of negotiating with the opposing party in Congress, as most presidents did in an attempt to pass legislation, Obama thought ridicule was the way to go. It had the opposite effect; it made the Republican Party stronger, their supporters more resolute resulting in the 2016 election where the GOP swept the elections at almost every level. The Boston Globe put it best, “Like all presidents, Obama has been frustrated by partisan opponents. But no chief executive in modern times has been so quick to impugn his critics’ motives, or to resort to mockery and demonization when amicable persuasion would serve so much better.” They concluded how much Obama contributed to the partisan divide, stating, “When presidential rhetoric is mean and contemptuous, the whole public square is befouled.”

Rosen indicated that Obama’s blazon executive actions had not fared well especially with the courts, where the Supreme Court struck down his recess appointments and then did the same in 2016 with his orders on immigration. Rosen contextualized, “Throughout history, unilateral presidential actions designed to circumvent Congress have led to pushback in the Courts and Congress that have ultimately undermined, rather than strengthened, the president’s legitimacy.”

Obama realized how much he contributed to the partisan divide in the nation by his last year in office. The former president called it his greatest regret since he campaigned in 2008 as a uniter but became a divider. First Obama lamented his failures as he was running reelection in September 2012 during an interview, saying, “I’m the first one to confess that the spirit that I brought to Washington, that I wanted to see instituted, where we weren’t constantly in a political slugfest . . . I haven’t fully accomplished that. My biggest disappointment is that we haven’t changed the tone in Washington as much as I would have liked.” Still, Obama turned his positive hopeful campaign from 2008 into a more insulting model in 2012.

Again, in his last State of the Union Address in January 2016, Obama admitted his presidency’s failure to close the partisan gap, expressing, “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”

In the same State of the Union, Obama made a final “plea” to end the partisanship, saying, “A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions, different attitudes, different interests. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice. It doesn’t work if we think our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us.” The president, however, never seem to take his advice or practice what he preached.

Obama failed to do anything to soothe the partisan divide in his last year in office and possibly inflamed according to Gallup with his intensely partisan rhetoric as he campaigned for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. The campaign between Clinton and Republican, now President Donald Trump was one of the nastiest in American history with a deep partisan divide between two vastly different candidates and the demographics of their supporters.

During his campaign speech for Clinton, Obama made the differences between the parties stark, with rhetoric as divisive as the GOP who was accusing the same of, saying the day before the election, “So we got one more day. And we can choose a politics of blame and divisiveness and resentment. Or you can choose a politics that says; we’re stronger together. Tomorrow you can choose whether we continue the journey of progress or whether it all goes out the window.” Obama’s stump speech was full of insults he opposed during his first campaign not just for the Republican nominee but the party, “If you think ‘Voting for Endless Gridlock’ is a good slogan, you should vote for the Republicans.”

Obama’s failure to bridge the partisan divide only led to a more divisive presidency, and it is only getting worse. According to the first numbers Gallup collected from Trump’s fledgling presidency show the nation is even more divisive and partisan under Trump. According to Gallup, Trump is seeing a 76 percent gap between party approval ratings with 90 percent of Republicans approving of him while only a meager 14 percent of Democrats. Trump’s first week in office included a flurry of executive actions, adding a wall to the Mexican border, approving oil pipelines, and barring refugees and immigrants from some Muslim countries resulting in reactionary protests across the country and around the world, ensuring a new age of even more polarizing politics.

Obama’s polarizing numbers show a greater failure, while Trump had always campaigned as a divisive, controversial, revolutionary and populist choice, Obama overriding theme throughout his career in national politics was the aim to unite the partisan divide. Instead, his period in the spotlight created the most intense divisions within the country not seen since the Civil War when the North and South waged war over their brothers over states rights and slavery.

Now the country seems on the verge of a new ideological civil war between the Red and Blue States, Republicans and Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals. While not yet violent, this new war uses the weapons of words and protests against those they ideologically oppose, with Obama’s Democrats being the most vocal and extreme. Obama always wanted to emulate Abraham Lincoln, but now his only semblance to the great president who presided and ended the Civil War was the Lincoln, the divider which when elected in 1860 saw half the states of the union secede. Unlike Lincoln, Obama further tore the country apart and never tried to put it back together.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

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