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Polarizing or just plain popular?

Deeply committed to a political strategy of opposition to everything President Obama is for, the Republican attack machine constantly searches for any line of criticism that might stick — and deploys it.

Its latest tactic is to argue that President Obama is a “polarizing figure” who has done more to divide the country than any of his predecessors. Behind this attack is a Pew poll finding “Barack Obama has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades.” This claim rests on a single statistic: “a 61-point partisan gap in opinions about Obama’s job performance,” which Pew analysts explain as “the result of a combination of high Democratic ratings for the president — 88 percent job approval among Democrats — and relatively low approval ratings among Republicans (27 percent).”

While I have used this statistic myself in the past, in this instance it has some serious limitations that cast major doubt on just how “divisive” the president actually is.

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Real understanding requires putting this 61-point gap in context. First, as I argued here in the wake of election ’04, there has been a long-term trend toward greater partisan coherence in our politics. America has fewer centrist and liberal Republicans than we used to, as well as fewer conservative Democrats. As the number of ideologically cross-pressured partisans decline, Democrats are increasingly likely to approve of a Democratic president, while Republicans are more likely to be negative.

That pattern is on display in these data. Since 1989, the partisan approval gap in the spring of the first year — the difference in approval between Democrats and Republicans — has grown for each succeeding president. For the first President Bush it was 38 points, for President Clinton 45, and for President George W. Bush it was 51 points. Given the trend, it would be surprising if President Obama did not set a new record.

Second, action begets opposition and partly because of the crises he inherited from Bush, President Obama has taken more action in his first three months than any president since FDR. By contrast, a contemporaneous CNN review of George Bush’s first hundred days highlighted his punctuality and his requirement for formal dress in the White House, as well as his domestic travel — hardly actions capable of engendering opposition. The one crisis Bush faced — “a U.S. reconnaissance plane was forced to make an emergency landing on a Chinese island” — wasn’t exactly restructuring the economy for recovery, changing direction in Iraq and Afghanistan or dealing with Somali pirates.

Finally, putting the current numbers in accurate perspective requires taking into account the shrinking GOP base. If Rush Limbaugh were the only Republican left, and he continued spewing hatred for Barack Obama, while everyone else loved the president, we would have a 100-point partisan approval gap, but could we truly say the country is polarized?

Though not quite that bad off, GOP identification has shrunk by four points in Pew’s polling since 2001, leaving a smaller number of hardcore Obama-haters, while Democratic identification has increased by five points, creating a larger pool of Obama-lovers — enough to account for the difference in the partisan gap between Bush and Obama.

As a result, when all is said and done, Barack Obama enjoys an approval rating that is five points higher than George Bush’s was in April 2001, while Obama’s disapproval is actually a point lower. Indeed, you would have to go back four presidents — to Ronald Reagan — to find a chief executive as popular as Barack Obama is, at this stage of his term.

 Only fuzzy GOP math can turn the strongest first-term April approval rating in 28 years into a line of attack.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.

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