Barack Obama won the White House in a landslide in 2008, posting the most convincing win of any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. By promising "hope" and "change," he garnered more than 69 million votes, winning just under 53 percent of the popular vote and 365 votes in the electoral college.
He did it by campaigning as a post-partisan centrist, tapping into the resentment many Americans felt against the party in power over issues ranging from the war in Iraq to the Wall Street bailout. His manner of governing, however, has been a far cry from the kind of president he promised to be.
Beginning with the earliest days of his administration, Obama has come across as a man who doesn't care to listen to the people with whom he disagrees. From his dismissal of GOP congressional critics because "I won" to his walking away from Arizona GOP Gov. Jan Brewer in the middle of a conversation at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, the president shows little tolerance for those who think differently about the way the nation should be governed. To put it bluntly, the president is a polarizing figure, something that is reflected in the latest Gallup Poll released Friday. Democrats love him, and Republicans? Well, not so much.
According to Gallup, "the historically high gap" between what Republicans and Democrats think of Obama has existed for most of his tenure in office. "In fact, Obama's Year Three average 68-percentage-point partisan gap is tied for the fourth highest" the venerable polling firm has recorded, going back to the Eisenhower administration—and little surprise, as 80 percent of Democrats and only 12 percent of Republicans approve of the job he is doing as president.
Some, especially those who say George W. Bush was also a polarizing president, say the numbers are consistent with divisions that dominate the political life of the nation and are not an indictment of the current president. Others suggest that Obama's numbers are a reflection of his own presidency, of the way in which he himself has sought to polarize the country. That he sees the country as a collection of opposing interest groups—like the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent, or labor vs. management, or the rich vs. the middle class—is evident from his rhetoric on the stump.
As he prepares to campaign in earnest for a second term, it is clear that he and his campaign team want a "base election," one in which the two major party candidates battle it out to see who can deliver the most reliable supporters to the polls. Such a campaign leaves little room for casual voters, disaffected members of either party, and self-described independents—all of whom want to vote "for" something rather than cast a ballot "against" someone. It's the strategy that George W. Bush successfully employed to defeat Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 election.
But it's a strategy that has costs. It is difficult to come out of a base election claiming much of a mandate, something Bush found out as he tried to introduce new initiatives in his second term that required a mass consensus to get them through Congress. Instead, as the polarization increased, his party lost control of Congress just two years later—although not exclusively for reasons tied to the president's agenda.
Obama will not, it appears, be able to bring America together in the next campaign which means he has to come up with an entirely new strategy for victory. Whether he can and still win re-election depends on whether America remains a center-right country, as many political observers believe it to still be. Running to the left could hurt Obama in November. Unfortunately, it's the only place he has to go.