Sorry, Marco Rubio: Obama Isn't As Divisive As Bush, Lincoln, or Clinton

And Republicans' protestations ring false when their no-compromises attitude has helped to create a polarized atmosphere.

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Library of Congress (left); Reuters

Republicans often accuse President Obama of being divisive, whether he's talking about tax rates for the wealthy or the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. One adviser to Mitt Romney, GOP strategist Ed Gillespie, calls Obama "one of the most divisive presidents in American history." Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida upped the ante last weekend when he said that "we have not seen such a divisive figure in modern American history" since Obama took office.

Please. Tell that to Abraham Lincoln or, if we're limiting ourselves to modern history, to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, or George W. Bush.

Especially tell it to Bush, who holds six of the top 10 spots on Gallup's "most polarizing presidents" list. It's calculated by the annual difference between a president's approval in his own party and the opposition party. Ranked by the size of the gap, Bush is Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and 10. Obama holds slots 4 and 6, while Clinton and Ronald Reagan are ranked 7th and 9th, respectively.

Rubio's statement in particular, with its reference to "modern" American history, carries echoes of the proverbial defendant who killed his parents and begs the court for mercy because he's an orphan. Why is Obama so divisive? Could it have anything to do with the no-compromise, no-surrender approach of today's Republican Party?

Obama's tenure has been framed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's bald remark to National Journal that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." That doesn't leave much room for negotiation. In fact it's a prescription for confrontation.

Consider an alternative reality like the one Bush encountered in 2001, when Democrats helped him pass his tax cut and education-reform bills. In this world, Republicans would have collaborated with Obama on a stimulus package, a health-care overhaul, and deficit reduction that included both tax increases and entitlement cuts. And GOP senators would not have blocked a nominee whom even they said was qualified, simply because they don't like the agency the nominee was supposed to lead -- a first, according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. (That would be Richard Cordray, who became head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after Obama bypassed Congress).

It is hard to imagine how a president could NOT be divisive when he's being caricatured by many in the loyal opposition as a radical socialist who hates the rich and the free market, and who may have been born in Kenya to boot.

We are not talking about the fringe here. Among those still asking if Obama was born in Hawaii is Ken Bennett, Arizona's secretary of state. Mike Huckabee has made confusing statements about Obama being raised in Kenya (under the influence of relatives he barely knew or had never met). Newt Gingrich has said Obama holds a "Kenyan, anti-colonialist worldview" but has pretended to be "moderate" and "reasonable," and has "played a wonderful con."

Is race at the root of this? Maybe a bit, for some, but presidents don't have to be black to be divisive. Some on the right speak fondly these days of Clinton, who once declared that "the era of big government is over." But back in the day, conservatives despised him. He was investigated over Whitewater and Vince Foster's suicide along with his extracurricular sexual activities. Long before his impeachment trial, some political foes even accused him of murder.

Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq, combined with liberal caricatures of him as a swaggering, out-of-his-depth cowboy, made polarization inevitable. And then there are of course FDR, whose New Deal policies in the teeth of the Great Depression sparked ferocious backlash, and Lincoln, whose ideas led to a period so divisive it nearly tore one nation into two.

As it happens, two of those three are now considered among our greatest presidents. Maybe Republicans shouldn't try so hard to hang that word on Obama.

Presented by

Jill Lawrence is a national correspondent at National Journal. She was previously a columnist at Politics Daily, national political correspondent at USA Today and national political writer at the Associated Press.

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