Who's The Divider?

By Ronald Brownstein
Some of the key strategists in former President Bush's administration have launched an offensive claiming that President Obama, who ran partly on healing the national divisions Bush left behind, is more polarizing than his predecessor. Bush "architect" Karl Rove, Bush speechwriter Mike Gerson, and former White House strategist Pete Wehner all made that case in writings last week. How should that claim be evaluated? Here are a few thoughts:

1.         As I documented in my 2007 book, The Second Civil War, the gap between the way the president is viewed by voters in his own party and voters in the opposition party has widened for every president since Dwight Eisenhower. The polarization that the Bush loyalists cite (as Gerson acknowledged) is a long-term trend, rooted largely in a generation-long ideological resorting that has made each party's electoral coalition more ideologically homogenous. As we'll see, that's especially true for Republicans.

2.         Since President Bush's first term, the Republican Party has contracted in a way that makes it extremely unlikely that Obama can ever sustain significant support from GOP partisans. In Gallup surveys last year, only 28% of the electorate identified as Republicans-the smallest share since Gallup began collecting those numbers with its current technique in 1988. Conservatives dominate that shrunken core: in cumulative Gallup polling for 2008, fully 70% of Republicans identified as conservatives. (By comparison, only 39% of Democrats in Gallup polling last year identified as liberals.) It's difficult to imagine that many of those conservatives will approve of Obama for long, or even that securing their approval is a reasonable (or necessary) goal for a Democratic president. In the Pew survey that precipitated the Rove and Gerson articles, just 24% of conservative Republicans approved of Obama. Obama still enjoyed a respectable 38% approval rating among moderate and liberal Republicans-but they were only a small sliver of the party. In other words, one reason Obama receives such low marks among Republicans is that the strategy Rove helped design reduced the party to its absolute conservative nub-a trend that Rove is now trying to wield as a weapon against Obama. Chutzpah would be one way to describe that maneuver.

3.         Since it's unrealistic that Obama can maintain strong approval ratings in a Republican Party so dominated by conservatives, a more telling measure of the President's reach is his position among independents. And there his support remains robust: in the Pew survey 56% of independents approved of his performance. In the Gallup average released today for the week ending April 12, his approval among independents stood at 60%. Given the shrunken nature of the GOP base, Obama can assemble an extremely broad coalition without ever reaching into its ranks-if he maintains significant support among independents. In fact, it's worth remembering that given the substantial advantage in partisan identification that Democrats now enjoy over Republicans-primarily as a result of disillusionment with Bush's governing record-Democrats could still lose independents and run well in 2010 and 2012 if they hold a large a share of their own partisans as Republicans do.

4.         It's possible to find individual surveys that suggest, as Pew, Rove and Gerson did, that Obama has divided the country more sharply than Bush did in his first months. But in truth, the breadth of Obama's support-including the gap between his ratings in his own party and the opposition party-looks extremely similar at this point in his presidency to Bush's. In the latest Pew survey, the gap between Obama's approval among Democrats (91%) and Republicans (27%) stood at 64 percentage points; in Gallup's average for the week ending April 12, Obama's gap also stood at 64 percentage points (89% among Democrats and 25% among Republicans). Obama's approval rating among independents, as just noted, stood at 56% in Pew and 60% in Gallup. In many surveys through early 2001, the parties divided about Bush about as sharply as they are now about Obama-and independents actually gave Bush lower marks than Obama is receiving from them today. In the Gallup survey from March 26-28, 2001, for instance, the gap between Bush's Republican (88) and Democratic (26) approval was 62 points, and his approval among independents just 48%. In the May 10-14, 2001 survey, the gap in Bush's approval was 64 percentage points and his rating among independents 53%. The April 6-8, 2001 poll that produced a narrower partisan (52 percentage point) divide over Bush included the highest rating among Democratic voters he received at any point before 9/11.

5.         Another way to assess the breadth of a president's support is to look at the electorate by ideology. From that angle, Obama enjoys slightly broader support at this point of his presidency than Bush did. Obama is attracting slightly more support from self-identified conservatives than Bush did at this point in 2001 from self-identified liberals, though the differences are minor. Among moderates Obama enjoys a clear advantage. In the March 26-28, 2001 survey, Bush's approval rating among moderates stood at just 50%; it rose as high as 58% over the next several weeks, but dipped into the low fifties by summer. Obama's approval rating among moderates in the latest Gallup average stands at 72%; he hasn't fallen below 69% with that group since he took office. One caveat is that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to call themselves moderates, which may help explain why Obama is performing better among moderates than Bush did; even so, Obama's roughly 70% approval rating among moderates exceeds the (already formidable) 60% of the vote among them that he captured against John McCain, according to exit polls. Obama's standing among these centrist voters is strong by any measure.

6.         So it seems fair to say that at this point, Obama is facing a comparable level of partisan polarization, and performing slightly better among independents and moderates, than Bush did his presidency's first months. Which raises the real question: in the pattern of Obama's support, what happens next?

Bush wasn't a uniquely polarizing figure at the dawn of his presidency. But after receiving that relatively broad opening from the public in his first months, Bush over the next seven plus years proceeded to govern in a manner that solidified his support within the Republican coalition, but fiercely antagonized Democrats and increasingly alienated independents. As early as the Gallup survey completed on September 10, 2001, Bush's approval rating among independents had fallen to 44%, his number among Democrats stood at 27% and his overall approval had slipped to just 51%. Bush received a bump with all Americans after the 9/11 attacks. But by 2004, his approval rating among Democrats had fallen to the low double-digits (at one point reaching even single digits) and his ratings among independents had consistently dipped below 50%. In 2004, Bush became the first Republican ever to win the presidency while losing among independent voters, according to the exit polls. After April 2004, he reached a 50% approval rating among independents only once more before he left office (in a post-inaugural February 2005 survey). Overall, his average second-term approval rating among independents in Gallup surveys stood at just 30.3%; among Democrats, his average second-term Gallup approval rating plummeted to 9.6%. Similarly, Bush's second-term average approval among moderate voters reached just 29.3%. Essentially he alienated almost all voters outside of the Republican coalition, which, along the way, he also reduced.

Obama is a long way from opening fissures in American society comparable to that. Even so, Obama and his advisers would be wise to note some of the trends that Gerson and Rove cite. Obama's agenda has stirred intense opposition in the Republican base. More important, there are signs that some independents are developing concerns about unified Democratic control of government (if not necessarily about Obama himself). Recent National Public Radio and Hotline/Diageo polls have found Republicans leading Democrats among independents in generic Congressional balloting for 2010, and the new Pew survey found a decline in the share of independents expressing favorable views of the Democrats. (The Democrats' favorability among independents, at 52%, still exceeds the Republican number, at 41%.) And as one senior White House official recently acknowledged, the razor-tight results in the New York-20 special election to fill the House seat vacated by New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also represent a warning sign about unease among some right-of-center voters on the frontier of the Democratic coalition.

Obama is displaying more of an open door to diverse viewpoints than Bush did at any point after his first few months in office. (It was notable that conservative Alabama Republican Rep. Spencer Bacchus, even while insisting last week that 17 Democratic Representatives were "socialists," declared to much less notice that Obama is "a better listener than George W. Bush.") But Obama's commitment to that approach will be tested as resistance to his agenda from the preponderantly conservative remnant of remaining Congressional Republicans stiffens the Left's belief that outreach is futile and that Obama should try to govern solely by negotiating compromises within his own coalition. Resisting those demands, and continuing to seek common ground with a broad range of interests (outside of Congress if not inside), is the best way for Obama to ensure that he doesn't justify the criticism from Rove, Gerson and Wehner-or reopen the political fissures that ultimately swallowed the president they served.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/04/whos-the-divider/13034/