A new survey shows that Barack Obama is the most polarizing president in the last 60 years. As divisive as he is, the current occupant of the White House has simply exacerbated a trend towards disunity that has been developing for years.
A report released by Gallup on Friday shows that the partisan divide over Mr. Obama continued a record-setting pace for the third year straight. In 2011, the gap between his approval ratings by party was 68 percent, the highest for any third-year president on record. Even the liberal Washington Post headlined its report on the Gallup survey as, “Obama: The most polarizing president. Ever.”
The Gallup data show that while Mr. Obama has had the most polarized first three years in office, they also reveal that George W. Bush holds the top three slots for most divisive presidential years ever, occurring 2004-2007. This shows that the partisan antipathy is mutual. This is a recent phenomenon; eight of the top 10 most divided years have occurred from 2004 to the present.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Obama promised to heal the partisan breach. He said he would be a unifier, that he would reach across party lines, that he would forge consensus. Once he took office, however, armed with a hard-left agenda and backed by a supermajority in Congress, the arrogance of power overwhelmed the better angels of his nature. Those who questioned his policies were labeled extremists, or worse. Dissent was smacked down, Congress rammed through his contentious programs, and Democrats were punished for their conceit with a “shellacking” in the 2010 midterm elections.
Since 2011, bereft of his congressional amen corner, Mr. Obama has grown particularly contemptuous of the system. He has sought ways to expand the powers claimed by the executive and obeys only the laws that suit him. A compliant Justice Department fabricates thin rationales that convince none but those who would affirm anything Mr. Obama did anyway. This has had a particularly destructive impact on the bonds of trust and tradition without which our system cannot function. Some ask: If the president does not abide by the Constitution, why should anyone else?
Yet the problem is much deeper than Mr. Obama, and the decline in political legitimacy goes beyond the executive. Regard for Congress has been on a nosedive for the past 10 years. Members of both political parties give Congress a positive rating in the low teens, and approval from independents is a mere 7 percent. Gallup data for December 2011 showed 86 percent disapproval of Congress, which is a record high. Disapproval ratings for the Supreme Court are near records as well. According to a Gallup report released in September, the general sense of satisfaction over how the country is being governed has dropped from 59 percent in 2003 to a historic low of 19 percent.
These data demonstrate a growing undercurrent of discontent. The division in the country is narrow; there are many on each side. But the gulf is deep, and growing deeper. The question now is: Can any politician or party heal this rift, or has the United States truly become a house divided?