Bush enjoyed some bipartisan first-term successes, particularly on education reform. But by this point in his second term, he was fighting with Democrats over the Iraq War and restructuring Social Security, and with House Republicans over reforming immigration. Obama, from his first weeks, has faced unremitting Republican opposition. And, as his shift toward unilateral executive action underscores, he's increasingly thrown up his hands at the possibility of finding any common ground with the GOP.
Clinton pursued agreements across party lines more consistently than either Bush or Obama. But this persistent polarization likely owes less to the three men's specific choices than to structural forces that are increasingly preventing any leader, no matter how well-intentioned, from functioning as more than "the president of half of America."
That phrase, coined by Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, aptly describes an environment in which presidents now find it almost impossible to sustain public or legislative support beyond their core coalition.
That dynamic is partly explained by institutional changes that have transformed Congress into a quasi-parliamentary institution and hindered presidents from building productive partnerships with the opposite party.
The move by both parties to rely less on seniority and more on votes by their full membership when allocating coveted committee chairmanships has increased pressure on legislators to toe the party line, which almost always discourages cooperation with the other side. The rise of national fundraising networks to bankroll more primary challenges has reinforced that effect: Legislators today are denied renomination for compromising too much, not too little. And the roar of overtly liberal and conservative media has provided each party's ideological vanguard another powerful cudgel against legislators tempted to stray.
But these changes only manifest a deeper divide in the public itself. In elections up and down the ballot, each party now relies on voter coalitions that overlap remarkably little with each other in their demography, geography — or priorities. Democrats depend on a coalition that is younger, racially diverse, more secular, and heavily urbanized. Republicans mobilize a mirror-image coalition that is older, more religiously devout, largely nonurban, and preponderantly white. Satisfying one coalition without alienating the other has become daunting, and many activists, especially in the GOP, now see any attempt at compromise between them as capitulation.
In elections up and down the ballot, each party now relies on voter coalitions that overlap remarkably little with each other in their demography, geography — or priorities.
The latest political "typology" poll from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, which tracks bedrock attitudes about American life, captures the gaping distance between these coalitions — and the offsetting strengths that leave them so closely matched.