On the eve of Obama's State of the Union address last week, Gallup released a job-approval poll remarkable not for the president's decline in popularity in his first year (a headline of many recent polls) but for the gap between people who approve of him and those who don't. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats gave him a thumbs-up, while only 23 percent of Republicans agreed.
That difference — 65 percentage points — gives Obama the most polarized approval in the first year of any American president since the polling began.
Those statistics presaged an odd reaction to Obama's nationally televised speech. By many lights, the president made actual concessions to his opponents (and half the country) on offshore drilling, clean coal and capital gains tax cuts. Sure, he vowed to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but he also suggested building more nuclear power plants. And his resolve on the war in Afghanistan sounded sufficiently hawkish.
Still, Americans appeared to be watching two different speeches. The New York Timeseditorialized that it was "a reminder that he is a gifted orator, able to inspire with grand vision and the simple truth frankly spoken." A Fox News commentator called it "an incoherent, disorganized, and most regrettably defiant, mess of a speech."
THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.
This week, a group called Conservatives for Patients' Rights took out a near full-page ad in The Washington Post castigating Obama for not once mentioning the public option for health care reform in his speech. The group opposes the public option, which the White House has all but abandoned, but CPR wanted to hear Obama explicitly admit that he had done so.
It seems he committed even sins of omission in not talking about the policies he's abandoned, surely a new low for presidential offenses.
All of the reaction reinforces the puzzle: What is it about Obama that is so polarizing when the things that come out of his mouth are not particularly so?
"A lot of it has to do with when he is serving as opposed to anything about him," said Christopher Federico, who directs the Center for the Study of Political Psychology at the University of Minnesota.
"People are not quite hearing or seeing exactly what he does," he said. "Most people who study historical perspective would say whatever his reputation is at some popular level, he hasn't governed as a radical; he really hasn't. And his rhetoric hasn't been that of radicalism either."
What has changed is the rest of society. The shift began 40-50 years ago with the polarization of Congress, a trend Federico says later trickled down the public at large. As we self-sorted into two distinct camps (and this is often true of two social groups in any setting, not just politics), the parties became more homogenous within themselves and more farther removed from each other.
The polarization has been reinforced by a number of phenomena Miller-McCune has followed: our likelihood to see in something like the State of the Union what we want to see; our pursuit of information that confirms what we already think; and our stubbornness in holding on to beliefs — even those proven to be wrong.
"It's been a long time coming," Federico said. "What we think of as polarization now has been building up for quite some time."
He reminds us: Before Obama was the most polarizing president in history, George W. Bush was (although, in that year-one Gallup poll, Bill Clinton got even more dismal marks, but since his own party was also a bit leery, the gap wasn't so extreme).
Federico concludes with what we were hoping not to hear.
"Things are going to be like this for a while," he said. "If President Obama didn't win in 2012, and we had a Republican, it would be the same way. That person would not be any more well loved; feelings about them would not be any less polarized."
Social scientists anticipate only one trend that may counteract this. There tends to be less polarization among voters 18-30 years old. If they hold their beliefs as they age, and as today's older voters pass out of the electorate, maybe that will turn what's now a half-century-long trend in the making.
In the short term, this may put Democrats in an awkward position: If a Republican would just get elected in 2012, he (or she) might prove that the problem was never really Obama himself or the way he tried to govern. Rather, it was the rest of us.