Are George W. Bush and Barack Obama The Most Partisan Presidents in Decades?

My answer is:  of course not.  But if you look at polling data, you might answer yes.  For they certainly appear to be the most polarizing presidents in decades.  That is, they do polarize citizens by the latter’s partisan affiliations more than any other presidents in decades.

The largest measured gap in, at least 50 years, between Republicans and Democrats in their approval rating of the President occurred last year for President Obama and in the final year of President Bush’s second term.  In both, there was a massive 76 percentage point gap between how much Republicans and Democrats approved of the President (10% of Republicans approve Obama, eg, and 86% of Democrats do).  Democrats certainly thought President Bush was an extreme partisan; Republicans certainly think the same of President Obama.

One possibility is that both these administrations were intrinsically, through their actions and policies, in fact more extreme and more partisan:  that is, that the administrations themselves were the cause of these historically remarkable partisan divides in evaluations of presidential performance.  But the deeper truth, I think, runs the other way around:  dramatic partisan differences in evaluating presidents is an effect of much larger structural forces that characterize the political era of the last 15-20 years.  In particular, the hyperpolarized nature of the political parties and our political culture that began in the 1980s and has been steadily increasing ever since means that perceptions presidential performance simply are going to be far more extreme and divided along partisan lines than in the past.  Presidents themselves are trapped within these larger structural forces.  Given the deeper structural environment of hyerpolarized politics, Presidents simply are going to generate more dramatic partisan differences in people’s perceptions of presidential performance  — I’m tempted to say regardless of what they actually do, but to be more cautious, I’ll just say these perceptions will only be partly influenced by what Presidents actually do.

When Democrats were outraged by President George W. Bush’s actions, it was difficult to make this point (to Democrats).  Now that Republicans are equally outraged by President Obama’s actions, perhaps it will be easier to see that the pre-existing extreme partisanship of our era (in the political parties, the fragmented media, and in our political culture more generally) plays a major role in driving these hyperpartisan assessments of presidential performance.  New Presidents come to Washington pledging and perhaps hoping to change that culture, but because the causes are not the individual personalities of particular Presidents, but the larger structural forces that fuel polarization, Presidents cannot transform these deeper forces that continue to create hyperpolarized modern politics.

I developed this argument in detail in Why The Center Does Not Hold:  The Causes of Hyperpolarized Democracy in America. The specific data above come from a recent Ezra Klein story that I linked to in a prior post.  Here is the key graphic from Ezra’s story: