Obama Is Tearing America Apart

On November 25th, New York Post columinist Michael Goodwin, an Obama backer turned critic, published "Obama's Failed Promise to Heal a Polarized Nation." Goodwin wrote that, "Obama's promise to heal a polarized nation has proven to be as big a lie as his promise that you can keep your health insurance."

He added that, "America is now so divided and demoralized that there is no hope Obama can fix it." Moreover, "[a]s last week proved, he doesn't even pretend to try any more."

The last reference was to Obama's complicity in Harry Reid's coup in the Senate that severely curtailed the filibuster, thus seriously weakening the Republican minority's ability to thwart Obama's increasingly tyrannical tendencies.

Once upon a time, Obama promised to close America's partisan, ideological, racial, etc. divisions. Proving that the will-to-believe is powerful, some conservative pundits wanted to cut Obama some slack after he was elected in 2008. (For Peggy Noonan, this continued until only a few months ago.)

Obama governed as a leftist during his first term in office. He has ruled as a hard leftist since being re-elected. On December 3rd, he launched a campaign intended to last until Christmas that began by blaming the Republicans for "sabotaging" Obamacare. He followed the next day with another of his patented "class warfare" battle cries. One is hard-pressed to see how such a crusade could have any other outcome than further polarization.

Charges that Americans are polarized require proof, but evidence that Americans are badly divided is easy to find.

One way to demonstrate that the public is polarized -- probably the most frequently chosen method -- is to compare Democrats' and Republicans' opinions on a series of major issues such as the central government's power, government's responsibility to provide health care, abortion, taxation, government spending, national debt, gay marriage, terrorism, etc.

Two examples suffice. The first deals with government's responsibility for providing Americans with health care, a topic that has been on the political agenda for decades. In early November, 2013, the Gallup poll asked a random sample of adults "[d]o you think it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have healthcare coverage, or is that not the responsibility of the federal government?" Eighty-six percent of Republicans opined that it is not the central government's responsibility to provide all Americans with health care coverage, compared to 30% of those who said they were Democrats.

The second taps a facet of the Nanny State that has emerged in America. In late October-early November, 2013, the Pew Research Center asked a random sample of adults if they thought "[g]overnment should play a significant role in reducing obesity." Thirty-seven percent of Democrats said "no," and 60% replied "yes." Sentiment was almost reversed among Republicans, 77% of whom said "no," and 20% said "yes."

Additional evidence along these lines comes from a series of polls done by the Times Mirror/Pew Research Center for The People & The Press between 1987 and 2012. If we look at the average percentage-point difference between Democrats' and Republicans' responses on 48 values questions asked over the 25 years, we find that "the values gap" of 9-10 points when the series began reached 16 and 18 points in the two polls done such Obama became president (2009 and 2012). This may not seem much larger than during the Bush #43 presidency, but given the size of these polls, the differences are significant.

One can also demonstrate how polarized our society has become by looking at how Democrats and Republicans characterize themselves and the opposing party.

At least twice in 2013, the Pew Research Center asked random samples of adults if they thought five different phrases applied to the Democrat and the Republican parties. In late February, the five phrases were: "out of touch with the American people," "too extreme," "open to change," "has strong principles," and "looking out for the country's long-term future." In late July, they were: "too extreme," "has strong principles," "stands up for individual rights," "tolerant and open to all groups of people," and "cares about working class Americans."

Respondents could tell interviewers that the five phrases either applied to the Democrats/Republicans or did not. Hence, if we look at Democrats' characterization of Republicans and Democrats and the same for Republicans, we have twenty opportunities to see how partisans view their party and the opposition.

Although one wishes Pew had included additional, or even different, phrases, these will do. Collectively, they capture many of the notions one or the other of the two major political parties touts about itself, and/or claims that the opposing party may be tarred by.

There is no need to cover all twenty comparisons. Based on the respective partisans' characterizations of their party and the opposition, polarization seems to be the proper assessment. Democrats' and Republicans' characterization of their fellow partisans and their political opponents are virtually mirror images.

By overwhelming majorities, Democrats usually attribute negative qualities to their Republican opponents, but offer positive depictions of other Democrats. Republicans return the favor.

A few examples illustrate the point. Roughly three-quarters of Democrats believe Republicans are "too extreme." By contrast, only about one-fifth of Republicans think their party is "too extreme." Between 15 and 18 percent of Democrats say their party is "too extreme," but roughly 70% of Republicans think that about Democrats.

Another point of division is over the phrase "looking out for the country's long-term future." Roughly a quarter Democrats told Pew's interviewers this phrase applies to the GOP, but about four-fifths believe it fits their party. Only 16% of Republicans say the phrase aptly characterizes the Democrats, while three-fourths claim it applies to the GOP.

There is one note of (approximate) agreement. Just over half of the Democrats told Pew's interviewers that the GOP "has strong principles," a characterization manifested by three-quarters to four-fifths of Republicans.

Agreement breaks down, however, when the phrase is applied to the Democrats, roughly three-fourths of whom say their party "has strong principles," but only about a third of Republicans think that applies to Democrats.

A Gallup report from January, 2013 depicts a 76 percentage point gulf between Democrats' and Republicans' approval of him during his fourth year in office (January, 2012 to January, 2013). That ties George W. Bush's record during his fourth year in office.

Bush and Obama were running for re-election in their fourth year, and that might account for the level of polarization Gallup detected. It does NOT, however, account for the fact that approval gaps between Democrats and Republicans ranged from 65 to 68 percentage points in Obama's first three years in office. (One can say much the same about Bush #43, but Obama promised to be the not-Bush.)

Whether one looks at partisans' opinions on policy issues, political values, or their characterizations of their party and the opposition, the data show the American public has been badly polarized while Obama has been president. Obama has not unified the country. Perhaps the most apt thing to say about his presidency is that if Americans like their polarization, they can keep it. Period.

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