In today's New York Times, Peter Beinart describes President Obama as having "failed in the effort to be the nonpolarizing president" and calls him "our third highly polarizing president in a row":
"Let's face it, he's failed in the effort to be the nonpolarizing president, the one who can use rationality and calm debate to bridge our traditional divides," said Peter Beinart, a liberal essayist who is publishing a history of hubris in politics. "It turns out he's our third highly polarizing president in a row. But for his liberal base, it confirms that they were right to believe in the guy -- and they had their doubts."
There's no question that Obama has highly polarized approval ratings. It's less clear whether he could have done anything to avoid this fate, particularly given the GOP strategy of unified opposition to his initiatives. Beinart seems to think Obama's decision not to scale back health care reform was polarizing, but as Matthew Yglesias points out in The Daily Beast there was no one in the GOP caucus to compromise with. And even if Obama had struck a deal with a handful of moderate Republicans, does anyone think it would have closed the partisan gap in his approval ratings?
In general, the problem with Beinart's analysis, which seems to fault Obama for this outcome, is that it's virtually impossible to be a non-polarizing president in contemporary American politics. Like George W. Bush, Obama made unrealistic promises to bring the parties together, but there was little chance he would succeed. As UCSD's Gary Jacobson has shown, presidential approval ratings by party have diverged widely over the last thirty or so years (the one partial exception is George H.W. Bush, a non-conservative holdover from the pre-Reagan era):
For the foreseeable future, every president will have highly polarized approval ratings outside of honeymoon periods, wars, and foreign policy crises. Obama's inability to escape this fate isn't a "failure" so much as it is, well, reality.
But there is no doubt that in the course of this debate, Mr. Obama has lost something -- and lost it for good. Gone is the promise on which he rode to victory less than a year and a half ago -- the promise of a "postpartisan" Washington in which rationality and calm discourse replaced partisan bickering.
The same argument applies.