Gallup reports today that Barack Obama has polarized the nation more than any other first-year President, with partisan gaps on approval ratings wider than anyone since Gallup started polling. Bill Clinton held the record before now, but Obama bested him by 12 points:
The 65 percentage-point gap between Democrats’ (88%) and Republicans’ (23%) average job approval ratings for Barack Obama is easily the largest for any president in his first year in office, greatly exceeding the prior high of 52 points for Bill Clinton.
Overall, Obama averaged 57% job approval among all Americans from his inauguration to the end of his first full year on Jan. 19. He came into office seeking to unite the country, and his initial approval ratings ranked among the best for post-World War II presidents, including an average of 41% approval from Republicans in his first week in office. But he quickly lost most of his Republican support, with his approval rating among Republicans dropping below 30% in mid-February and below 20% in August. Throughout the year, his approval rating among Democrats exceeded 80%, and it showed little decline even as his overall approval rating fell from the mid-60s to roughly 50%.
Thus, the extraordinary level of polarization in Obama’s first year in office is a combination of declining support from Republicans coupled with high and sustained approval from Democrats. In fact, his 88% average approval rating from his own party’s supporters is exceeded only by George W. Bush’s 92% during Bush’s first year in office. Obama’s 23% approval among supporters of the opposition party matches Bill Clinton’s for the lowest for a first-year president. But Clinton was less popular among Democrats than Obama has been to date, making Obama’s ratings more polarized.
Gallup makes a good point about why Obama ended up lower than George W. Bush. In the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, the dispute over Florida’s votes created a huge partisan rift — but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, that was set aside for a while. The polarization that would have normally continued otherwise may have equalled or bested Obama’s ratings, although that is difficult to determine in hindsight.
However, the polarization refutes the notion that Obama has done anything to change the way politics get conducted, both in Washington DC and the nation as a whole. His radical legislative agenda has infuriated conservatives and independents, as has the manner in which that agenda has been conducted. Obama claims that he has reached out to Republicans, a notion his surrogates attempted to reinforce on yesterday’s political shows, but Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid locked Republicans out of drafting the three main pieces of legislation pursued in 2009: Porkulus, cap-and-trade, and ObamaCare. That may thrill Democrats, but shrugging and claiming “I won” is not the Hope and Change Obama promised on the campaign trail.
Now for the bad news. Before 1980, no President had ever scored above 40 points in polarization in their first year on the job. Since 1980, only one President has scored below 40 points on polarization in his first year. Which President was that? The only President to lose his re-election bid, George H. W. Bush.