When will we give up on the idea of a leader who will magically bring consensus and unity to our politics?
At election time, candidates seduce us with promises to bring America together, but inevitably fall short and end up leaving office with the country more polarized than when they arrived. After blaming them for their failure to unite us, we turn to the next crop of presidential aspirants and the cycle of hope and disappointment begins all over again.
The latest example of this pattern, of course, is President Obama. His 2008 campaign was premised on his ability to forge new coalitions in Washington, which Hillary Rodham Clinton mocked at the time as “Let’s get everybody together, let’s get unified, the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing.”
In office, though, he has never succeeded in overcoming Republican resistance to his agenda, forcing him to pass his most significant legislative accomplishments with few or no GOP votes. After his party’s decisive defeat in last month’s midterm elections, the administration has now largely given up on the pursuit of bipartisan dealmaking and is pursuing its policy goals on issues like immigration and the environment through executive action.
The debate over why Obama failed to achieve some larger consensus has already begun. Some have suggested that if only he had not pursued health care reform or had a less detached and analytical personal style he might have won over the public and his opponents in Congress. It may be true that Obama has made mistakes, but our disappointment with him ultimately reflects the mismatch between our expectations for presidents and the partisan realities of the contemporary era.
The public and the news media still want someone who meets the mid-20th-century ideal for a modern president: a uniting figure who works across the aisle to build support for his agenda and commands public opinion from the bully pulpit. While this image was always mostly a myth – presidents typically struggle to move polls or legislators’ votes – the political realities of the time did allow presidents to build more diffuse coalitions in Congress and attract broad public support when the circumstances were favorable.
However, the political system that helped enable this approach is disappearing. The mid-20th century was a historical anomaly – a low point in polarization that was made possible by the ugly history of race in this country, which enabled the rise of a group of conservative Southern Democrats who functioned almost as a third party. After the civil rights movement, the parties realigned on the issue of race, setting in motion a return to the historic norm of polarization that prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th century. This process, which is transforming all of our nation’s political institutions, has been supercharged by the way the parties have become more closely aligned with ideological movements than ever before.
A result is what the political scientist Richard Skinner calls the partisan presidency. In this era, presidents are dividers, not uniters (to reverse Bush’s famous phrase); their public appeal is deeply polarized along party lines and they depend overwhelmingly on the support of co-partisans in Congress to enact legislation. They are particularly vulnerable to obstruction from the opposition party, which can withhold support as congressional Republicans have done, denying the president the imprimatur of bipartisanship and producing legislative gridlock for which the president is often blamed.
That’s why it’s a mistake to personalize Obama’s failures so much, as his critics often do. Critics suggest that Obama is too aloof and hasn’t done enough to solicit Republican support or build relationships with legislators.
Both may be true, but as John Harwood recently noted in the New York Times, Bill Clinton’s more successful outreach to his opponents didn’t keep him from getting impeached. Likewise, Bush was more gregarious than Obama, but it didn’t make him any more popular among Democrats once the post-9/11 glow had worn off.
It’s a common mistake to attribute other people’s behavior to their inherent characteristics in this way. We seem especially prone to this pattern, which is known as fundamental attribution error, with presidents. But as recent history shows, our current political system tends to produce division and conflict no matter the circumstances.
Comedian Chris Rock is ahead of most political analysts in recognizing this new reality. In a recent interview, he described how Bush adapted to this new political environment, saying Bush “only served the people who voted for him.”
“He literally operated like a cable network,” he added, while Obama is “a network guy.” He explained: “He’s trying to get everybody. And I think he’s figured out, and maybe a little late, that there’s some people he’s never going to get.”
As we approach the next presidential campaign, we need to stop asking who can achieve the unity that has eluded Obama. For better or worse, the partisan presidency is here to stay. There are some people the next president will never get, as Rock puts it. The question we should ask instead is whether the candidate we choose will – or can – govern well without their support.
Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College and a contributor to The Upshot at the New York Times.