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By Jay Cost

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Obama the Polarizer

In January, 2007 Barack Obama declared his candidacy for the presidency with these words:

It's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most. It's the smallness of our politics. America's faced big problems before. But today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that's what we have to change first. We have to change our politics, and come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans.

Today, Gallup reports:

(Obama's) first-year ratings were the most polarized for a president in Gallup history, with an average 65-point gap between Republicans and Democrats. Obama's approval ratings have become slightly more polarized thus far in his second year in office, with an average 69-point gap between Democrats (83%) and Republicans (14%) since late January.

This is a big deal. The first quote is the principal reason Barack Obama ran for President. At a minimum, it was his first public argument for why he thought the country should elect him, as opposed to the dozen or so other candidates who would enter the race. It remained a critically important idea throughout his candidacy. Remember, the Obama campaign was an "audacious" act of line-jumping within the Democratic Party. His justification was that the country couldn't afford to keep playing the same old political games. The hook of his candidacy was: America, do you really want to do Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton?

Yet here we are, breaking records for polarization. How did that happen? Why has Obama failed to do what he promised?

I think there are two big reasons.

First, Obama's implicit claim throughout his candidacy was that public divisiveness was somehow a failure of leadership. This was mostly nonsense. This country has been divided over cultural issues since at least 1973 and Roe v. Wade. It has been divided on fiscal issues since Reagan cut taxes in 1981; this ended the hidden tax of bracket creep, but meant that legislators had to make hard choices between more spending and lower taxes. It has been divided on foreign policy issues since the Bush Administration's response to 9/11.

These are all real things. They are not rhetorical wrinkles that a Jon Favreau speech can iron out. Obama's choices have mostly been liberal (with the notable exceptions of dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan). His speechwriters have endeavored to present his choices as win-wins, but their words have failed to persuade because the President's choices are rarely in fact win-wins. They usually favor one worldview or set of interests over others. Favor one side enough times and the losers will start to see what's going on, "eloquent" speeches aside.

Second, insofar as leadership could bridge the many divides in this country, this President has never been in a good position to exercise it. He owes too much to others. You don't win a nomination battle like the Clinton-Obama smackdown without making a bunch of promises. Remember that neither Clinton nor Obama secured enough delegates through the primaries and caucuses; Obama needed the superdelegates, chief among them being Speaker Nancy Pelosi (easily the most powerful Democrat in the country prior to the President's inauguration). There is a long line of constituent groups in the Democratic Party who certainly needed assurances about what an Obama presidency would look like. So long as reelection remains to be secured, these groups at least have to be monitored if not placated. And so, in a time of great divisiveness, the people with the closest connection to the 44th President are consistently on one side of the aisle. The left side.

This feature of the Obama presidency came through most clearly on health care. Obama talked a good game about bipartisan compromise, but at no point did I get the impression that he was willing to ditch a guy like George Miller (a far left liberal in the House) to pick up a moderate Republican like Delaware's Mike Castle. Indeed, George Miller was one of the key authors of the health care bill in the House! There's no practical way you can get George Miller and Mike Castle to work together on a comprehensive overhaul of the American health care system. They are just too far apart ideologically. So, the question is: whose vote do you value more? Obama's answer has been crystal clear in his deeds, if not his words.

Of course, presidents have to tend to their party coalitions. That's the way its been since the 1790s; John Adams did a lousy job of dealing with the arch-Federalists, and Alexander Hamilton eventually stabbed him in the back. Ever since then, the role of the President as manager of his party has been pretty straightforward. It's hard to begrudge Obama for trying to manage his party. What's more, politicians hate to assign losers, so they try to convince us that everybody's a winner. It's predictable that Obama would try his hand at this as well. Sure, he promised during the campaign that he'd talk clearly about the hard choices - but anybody who believed that, at least after he ditched public financing of his campaign for nakedly political purposes, was simply looking for a reason to vote for him.

But why won't he simply own his polarizing presidency? He made the choices he has made, and the consequences have been predictable, so he should own them. But no. As far as he's concerned, he is the bipartisan bridge builder he promised to be. It's those damned lying liars on the other side who have distorted his record!

As Matt Welch noted over at Reason, he's "working the refs."

[Obama's] message...is clear, clever, and wrong. The boom in opinionated, interconnected media is a challenge to our very democracy (it isn't). News needs to be hermetically sealed from opinion (it doesn't). The primary purpose of media consumption should be empowerment (if there was a primary purpose for media consumption, I sure as hell wouldn't trust a president to identify it). And the most dangerous purveyor of untruths is the 24/7 echo chamber...

While hypocritical (given the president's own slippery relationship with the truth) this critique is strategically clever. For those still inclined to believe it, the message reinforces Obama's fading image as a truth-telling, above-it-all academic (see the Michigan speech in particular for a bunch of we need to get beyond the tired debate about big-vs.-small-government claptrap). And for the straight-journalism types this is a soothing tongue-bath from the Sensible Centrist in Chief that reinforces their own self-pity/importance and gives them even more motivation to go after the real lying liars: The ones who noisily and hyperbolically oppose the policies of the most powerful man on earth.

I think this is dead on, and it fits into the point I'm making here. The President could acknowledge that his policies are truly divisive. He could claim that while he respects the objections of the opposition, he believes that in the long run his way of thinking will be vindicated. That would be the grown-up thing to do. That would be real leadership. Instead, he implies that if only we got rid of the right wing talk machine, the public would see that every last one of his policies has been a win-win.

Enough is enough, Mr. President. You're a polarizing leader in a polarized age. Own it.

-Jay Cost