The Most Divisive President Ever

Who’s more partisan: Obama’s supporters, Obama’s opponents, or Obama himself?

US President Barack Obama.
Barack Obama

To help you keep up with the debates in and about Washington, Slate offers this guide to the news of the week. Here are a few arguments on some key issues.


Obama is the most divisive president ever. A recent Pew Research Center study found that President Obama has the most polarized early job-approval ratings for a new president in the modern era. Fully 88 percent of Democrats approve of Obama’s performance, while only 27 percent of Republicans do—a gap of 61 percentage points. That’s worse than George W. Bush, who had a 51-point gap between Republican and Democratic approval ratings. What happened to the candidate who was going to bring us a “postpartisan” era of outreach and cooperation? Obama promised to reverse the partisan trend, but he’s made it worse.

Context, please. It should give you pause that it’s Karl Rove and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson who are making a lot of this study. It should really give you pause that the author of the poll told Greg Sargent of the the Plum Line he disagrees with their claims. The first thing to point out is that the divergent perspectives of Democrats and Republicans could tell us as much about the parties as it does the president. Political parties have become more partisan over the last 30 years. The second point is that Obama evokes uncommon enthusiasm among Democrats, which increases the spread between the two parties. It’s not necessarily that he’s more partisan, it’s that he’s more popular among his supporters. Finally, according to the pollster, Republicans tend to be less generous when it comes to new presidents.

Executive Power

Barack Obama is no different from George Bush. Obama has embraced one of his predecessor’s worst abuses. Three different times he has tried to shut down judicial proceedings based on the grounds that proceeding will compromise national security (most recently in Jewel v. NSA). This is the most muscular interpretation of the “state secrets” privilege. The question is not whether certain information is too sensitive to be aired in court. Obama is asserting that the information is too sensitive even to let judges look at it in any form. Yikes. Obama promised that his administration would be transparent, and he specifically mentioned the state-secrets privilege as a Bush-era abuse he would correct. Now he’s going back on that pledge.

He’s trying to find a middle ground. The president did not break his promise on state secrets. On the campaign trail Obama said that Bush abused the privilege, which is different than promising to do away with the privilege altogether. In these cases, he and Attorney General Eric Holder believe that it was proper to invoke it. Holder has launched a review of the privilege and told Katie Couric he’s likely to revoke one instance in which Bush asserted the privilege. Obama is doing what he promised: looking for a reasoned middle ground.

The Debate-o-Matic

Kill it. It’s like a watered-down version of newspaper objectivity. Each opinion cancels the other out without telling us anything. I want to read a well-reasoned argument on the issues.

Keep it alive. There’s no shortage of opinions in this world. Sometimes it’s worth understanding the various opinions in a debate. Understanding each side doesn’t necessarily mean each side has an equivalently good argument. As Obama said in Turkey: “[T]here’s two sides to every question. That doesn’t mean that sometimes one side has done something wrong and should not be condemned. But it does mean there’s always two sides to an issue. … Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins.”