Over the past few weeks, several analysts have noted that President Barack Obama's recent approval ratings and downward trajectory look "nearly identical" to former President George W. Bush's fifth-year numbers. Pew Research and Gallup have each remarked on the similarities. These presidents' mirror opposite yet equally polarized levels of support are even more striking when one looks at Gallup's approval level by party data.
While many loyal partisans on both sides of the aisle are aghast at this comparison, no one should be surprised by this development. As I explained last spring, "you get what you campaign on." And since Obama and Bush each ran for re-election on the message, "Be afraid: the other guy is much worse," it was all terribly predictable that when "the other guy" became history, so, too, would these incumbents' fear-inflated support levels.
What I didn't mention last March is that these presidents' base mobilization strategies, which relied on outlandish characterizations of the other party, made it nearly impossible to govern once each incumbent had secured re-election. Bush's campaign depicted Democrats as not only wrong, but dangerous; Obama's team framed Republicans as not only misguided, but crazy.
So why in the world would a triumphal president ever work with a dangerous and/or crazy opposition later in their tenure to solve the nation's problems? How could a president justify that? Etch-a-Sketches are children's toys, not political props.
This is part of what makes former President Bill Clinton such a master politician. Not only does he recognize that breaking campaign promises fosters legitimacy problems, but he also knows that even "a broken clock is right twice a day." In this statement, there is wiggle room, and that's where politics is made – in the spaces between the absolutist positions. Successful politicians are those who work to craft electoral rhetoric that increases rather than constrains their future governing opportunities.
Herein is our problem. Both parties have decided that they want to completely vanquish, humiliate and, if possible, totally obliterate their opposition. They've forgotten that the other side is not their "enemy," but their "opponent." They don't need to "destroy," they only need to "win." Said another way, we've got vengeful partisans running around Washington rather than professional politicians.
Yes, President Obama, it's true that "elections have consequences," and now as tragically as President Bush, you're finding out what those from a "scorched earth" campaign are.