Assignment Desk: Is Obama More Polarizing Than Past Presidents?


Paul Waldman notes a recent poll that shows declining public support for the idea of giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. In a familiar dynamic, though, this is mainly because Republican support has cratered since President Obama announced his executive order on immigration:

Before this latest immigration controversy, Republican voters were at least favorably inclined toward a path to citizenship. But then Barack Obama moves to grant temporary legal status to some undocumented people (and by the way, nothing he’s doing creates a path to citizenship for anyone, but that’s another story). It becomes a huge, headline-dominating story, in which every single prominent Republican denounces the move as one of the most vile offenses to which the Constitution has ever been subjected.

….What the Quinnipiac poll suggests — and granted, this is only one poll and we won’t know for sure until we get more evidence — this process also ends up shifting people’s underlying beliefs about the issue. In this case, the controversy makes Republicans more conservative

This, of course, is something that we’ve seen over and over, and it presents President Obama with an impossible dilemma. If he says nothing about an issue, he forfeits the chance to move public opinion. But if he speaks out, the subject instantly morphs into a partisan battering ram. Republicans will oppose his proposal regardless of how they felt about it before.

But I’m curious about whether this dynamic is stronger under Obama compared to other presidents. I figured Social Security privatization might be a good test, but I wasn’t able to dig up consistent poll information about it from before and after George Bush’s big push following the 2004 election. However, this is from Gallup’s Frank Newport in February 2005:

Basic support for the idea of privatizing Social Security has been at the majority level for well over a decade….[But] in the much more politicized environment of the last several months, survey questions asking about Social Security privatization show widely varying support levels.

….It is important to note that the privatization issue is rapidly becoming more partisan. The concept is now being actively promoted by a Republican president, and widely criticized by his Democratic congressional opposition. This suggests that public opinion on Social Security could devolve into nothing more than a referendum on the president.

This suggests, unsurprisingly, that Bush polarized public opinion in the same way Obama does. Perhaps all presidents do. Still, it sure seems as if Obama polarizes more than any previous president. I can think of several reasons this might be true:

  • Something to do with Obama himself. This could be anything from underlying racism to the nature of Obama’s rhetoric.
  • Our media environment has become increasingly loud and partisan over time, and this naturally polarizes opinions more than in the past.
  • The Republican Party has simply become more radicalized over the past decade or so.
  • In the past, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats acted as natural brakes on viewing everything through a purely partisan lens. But party and ideology have been converging for decades, and this naturally makes every issue more partisan.

In any case, this would be an interesting project for someone with access to high-quality polling data that reaches back over several decades. Is the partisan response to President Obama’s proposals more pronounced than it was for previous presidents? If so, is it a little more pronounced, or a lot? Someone needs to get on this.