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Obama Nears 100: Average Approval & Ultra-Polarizing

By David Paul Kuhn

As he approaches the 100th day of his presidency, Barack Obama's public approval stands in the middle of the ten presidents who preceded him, based on an extensive analysis of historic Gallup polling.

Obama's standing is as remarkable as it is distant from the grand expectations that greeted him on Inauguration Day. Obama has indeed earned historically lofty support from his base. But the historically paltry support from his political opposition keeps Obama well short of the more popular presidents of less partisan eras.

The president who campaigned on "turning the page" will hit his 100th day in the same black and white standing as George W. Bush. Obama may in fact cross the milestone as the most polarizing president of the modern era.

Wednesday will mark day 100. Media will both fixate on the milestone and belittle it. It's a Washington ritual. And although an artificial ritual at that, 100 days has become the traditional first landmark for reflecting on a new president.

Obama will come to that milestone a more popular president than his two recent predecessors. He will also be short, on mean and median, of the public standing of half the presidents' since Dwight Eisenhower. Ike was the first president that Gallup repeatedly polled over the first 100 days.

Americans view of Obama has stabilized in recent weeks, allowing for a firm sense of where the president stands on the cusp of a milestone no president has wished to highlight since Franklin Roosevelt.

It was Roosevelt who began the 100-day count. FDR signed a breathtaking 15 major bills into law before the milestone passed. Obama, like most presidents since Roosevelt, has wrestled with the long shadow of FDR's precocious scorecard.

Obama will need all the public support he can muster to compete with FDR's legislative tally. As Americans gauge their president on the eve of his 100th day, below are three significant trends to watch.

Obama's popular, but no JFK

The bar is 65. That's the average 100-day approval rating for the ten presidents between 1953 and 2009. Obama will likely be narrowly underachieving when the milestone comes to pass, perhaps earning 63 percent. That would place Obama between Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter in the public's view.

John F. Kennedy matches Lyndon Johnson for the highest average 100-day approval rating. But Johnson, like Harry Truman, owed his vaulted status to the death of a president.

Americans' early view of Kennedy is the most impressive in the modern era. JFK won the White House by the narrowest of margins. He struggled with policy in his first 100 days--including the Bay of Pigs debacle. Yet at the close of the first chapter of his presidency, Kennedy was able to unite the country like no other figure in the modern day.

Only 6 percent of Americans on average disapproved of Kennedy over this period. Obama will likely average four times JFK's disapproval by next week. That's twice the modern average. It's a disapproval level only topped by Clinton. And the reason? Polarization.

The Polarizing ‘Post-Partisan'

Obama may be the most partisan 100-day president of the modern era, but only by a hair's margin. Obama's partisan gap averages 60 percentage points. Bush was the most partisan modern president at 57 points. Clinton closed his first 100 days with a 51-point gap. The partisan gap is the margin between the high approval of a president's political base and the low approval of the opposition party.

The polarized view of Obama would hardly be notable if not for the tenor of Obama's candidacy, as partisanship has steadily risen since Clinton. Transcending the two tribes of Washington was the nucleus of Obama's campaign.

Polarization is rooted in trends from gerrymandering to partisan migration. Northeastern moderate Republicans became Democrats. Conservative southern Democrats became Republicans. Polarization became so pervasive over the past decade that more Republicans approved of Bush early on than Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan.

Obama's polarization was not fated. Republicans approval of Obama dropped from 41 to 30 percent between Obama's first and fourth week in office. Conservative Republicans drove that decline, their support fell from 36 to 22 percent.

By late February, Obama was a polarizing figure in the mold of Bush, as RealClearPolitics first reported. Obama's partisan gap has shifted between 63 and 65 percent in the past seven consecutive weeks.

Obama will likely close his 100 days with the same level of support from Democrats that Bush enjoyed from Republicans, nine in ten. Meanwhile, Obama trends a couple points worse than Bush with the opposing party. It's a slight difference. And notably, GOP ranks have slimmed down since 2001. It's likely more moderate Republicans who remain. That would leave a more conservative party to gauge the new president.

Eight years ago, even Bush attempted to convey a bipartisan tone. "We are beginning to get a spirit here in Washington where we are more agreeable," he said on the anniversary of his first 100 days.

It's the contradiction that spotlights Obama's polarization problem. At Obama's inaugural address, the new president said, "the stale political arguments, that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply."

Holding the Center

It was Yeats who once wrote that when "things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." In broad terms, a president's mandate ebbs and flows with the support of that center.

Obama has held the center thus far. Obama is likely to close the 100-day milestone with about six in ten independents behind him. That would place Obama where Nixon stood, ranking perhaps seventh of eleven presidents.

Seven is no ranking to sniff at. Obama will likely close about 5 points higher than Bush with independents, and surpass Clinton by about twice that margin. George H.W. Bush closed his first 100 days with the approval of only 51 percent of independents.

But the center is not assured. Last week Obama's independent support ebbed below 60. Absent significant GOP backing, the center is the keystone to Obama's mandate. And Obama can ill afford the average approval that now defines that mandate. He is a president with historic legislative ambitions who wins only standard public support. That's not the equation for major legislative prizes. For Obama to turn historic bills to law, in the months ahead, the center will have to do more than hold. Obama will have to wield a center overwhelmingly behind him.

David Paul Kuhn is the Chief Political Correspondent for RealClearPolitics and the author of The Neglected Voter. He covered the 2008 campaign for Politico and the 2004 campaign for CBSnews.com. Kuhn got his start in national politics during the 2000 campaign, as the domestic news intern for Time magazine. His columns generally appear on Monday and Thursday. To subscribe to Kuhn's RSS feed click here. Kuhn can be reached at david@realclearpolitics.com

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