George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 as the “compassionate conservative,” trying to shift the Republican Party to the political center after the intense partisanship of House Republicans under the leadership of Newt Gingrich.
Eight years later, Barack Obama was elected president after having launched his career with a speech in 2004 urging Americans to move beyond divides of race, religion and politics.
But neither of the two presidents, who will appear together at Southern Methodist University in Texas for the dedication of Bush’s presidential library, came anywhere close to uniting the country.
In fact, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, neither of whom was considered an ideologue before they entered office, have presided over the most politically divisive time in modern American history.
Two of the most polarizing presidents ever
Gallup’s polling, averaged over all of 2012, showed Obama with an 86 percent approval rating among Democrats, compared to a 10 percent approval among Republicans, a whopping 76-point gap. Since Gallup started collecting such data, during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, the only other gap so large was in 2004, when 91 percent of Republicans approved of George W. Bush, compared to 15 percent of Democrats.
In a sign of the partisanship of the last 12 years, Bill Clinton was a less divisive figure with the public than either of his successors, and he was impeached by House Republicans. Jimmy Carter, the name Republicans invoke every four years in trying to cast a Democratic presidential candidate as weak and ineffective, actually had a 24 percent approval rating among Republicans, double that of Obama’s.
What happened? You could argue that Bush’s leadership, with massive tax cuts, the Iraq War, controversial anti-terrorism policies, and a series of conservative appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, galvanized conservatives and angered liberals, then Obama completely reversed the country’s course with large increases in federal spending and a universal health care bill bound to create a similar partisan divide.
But was Obama more liberal for his times than Lyndon Johnson, the man who presided over a series of progressive policy achievements that included Medicare? Was Bush more conservative than Ronald Reagan?
A country divided ideologically
Data suggests the political divide may be the American public’s fault as much as the politicians. According to a Pew Research Center report last year, the divide between how Republicans and Democrats view the world has grown dramatically over the last decade. That gap is much larger than differing perceptions between blacks and whites or people with a college degree versus those who don’t have one.
The era in which some Democrats opposed civil rights legislation or Republicans would back a large health care expansion are over. Now, Americans are more likely to align strongly with one party or the other and view events through that prism. Many Democrats solely blame George W. Bush for the Iraq War, even as it was authorized by a Senate controlled by Democrats. During the 2012, polls consistently showed that Democrats viewed the condition of the American economy more positively than Republicans. This was not because Democrats had more jobs than Republicans, but rather the condition of the economy had turned into a political issue, and members of both parties took that question as a proxy for their views on President Obama.
When Obama announced he supported gay marriage in 2008, this was at first described as a risky political move. It was not, as the results of the election showed. Because party shapes the views of so many Americans, once Obama declared his support for same-sex unions, Democrats who had been wary of gay marriage did not shift away from Obama but toward his gay marriage position. And Obama didn’t get any new Republican opposition, as GOP voters are increasingly conservative on both moral values issues and other policies. Christian conservatives didn’t need Obama’s support of gay marriage to move them to vote against him, they had already strongly opposed his health care bill and economic stimulus.
Bush’s last four years were widely seen by experts as being ineffective, as he presided over an economic meltdown and a dismal recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina. Only 6 percent of Democrats approved of his performance in 2008, according to Gallup. But in an another illustration of how party trumps virtually anything in American politics, 67 percent of Republicans approved of Bush even then.
Would any president have fallen short?
The polarization of the electorate suggests that a President Hillary Clinton elected in 2008 or John McCain in 2000 would also have struggled to unify the country.
There is a route to a president becoming a more unifying figure: leaving office. Bush’s approval ratings have vastly increased among Democrats since 2009. Hillary Clinton is more popular than ever, having left electoral politics to become Secretary of State, and Republicans are likely to view her much less favorably if she becomes the Democratic presidential nominee or the president.
Many Democrats believe Obama has suffered a special kind of hate from Republicans because of his youth, rapid rise from state legislator to the Oval Office, and race. Those factors may all have contributed, but the most important one is that Obama is a Democratic president during an era of hyper-partisanship. Republicans will find nice things to say about Obama when he is dedicating his presidential library in a few years.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr