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Obama's Legacy: Partisan or Post-Partisan?

01/21/2013 12:45 pm ET | Updated Mar 23, 2013
  • John Sides Associate professor of political science, George Washington University

There are many ways to evaluate a president's legacy. One is by the policies enacted into law. By that measure Obama will leave a lasting legacy. Policies like the Affordable Care Act will reshape social, political and economic life regardless of whether you agree with them. But I want to focus on a different aspect of Obama's presidency, something at the heart of his first campaign in 2008: how he has or has not reshaped the political process. Here his legacy will largely be a disappointment. But this is hardly surprising or even unusual. Presidents almost always promise to change politics, but they rarely succeed.

Every president wants to be, to borrow George W. Bush's famous expression, a uniter, not a divider. When Obama campaigned in 2008, he promised a politics much different from what Americans were accustomed to. In February 2008 he said:

We know it takes more than one night -- or even one election -- to overcome decades of money and the influence; bitter partisanship and petty bickering that's shut you out, let you down and told you to settle. We know our road will not be easy. But we also know that at this moment the cynics can no longer say our hope is false.

Obama's "hope and change" message was about fundamentally changing the political process: less partisanship, bickering and gridlock. This was the "post-partisan" Obama. It was a message voters always want to hear. They tend not to understand why bickering is even necessary, as documented in research by political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. It was a message Republicans feared, as well.

But post-partisanship proved chimerical. The GOP stood firm in opposition to much of Obama's first-term agenda. And as typically happens when leaders on each side disagree, public opinion about Obama quickly polarized along partisan lines, much as it had done under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. If anything, opinion of Obama was more polarized. Then the Republican takeover of the House in 2010 ushered in divided government and, predictably, more gridlock. Democrats blamed Republicans for their intransigence -- particularly for delaying tactics in the Senate. Republicans blamed Obama for pursuing an extremist agenda.

Some of that blame may be deserved. Politics would not be as polarized without the decisions and actions of individual leaders. When the Speaker of the House tells the Senate Majority Leader to "go f--k" himself, that's sounds an awful lot like the "petty bickering" that Obama lamented.

But my purpose is not to decide which party deserves more blame. It is to point out that polarization and partisanship have deep roots and cannot easily be changed by a single political leader, even the president. This is why Obama's promise as a post-partisan would never last long.

The polarization of the parties in Congress was decades-old when Obama took office. This polarization derives from fundamental forces in American politics. One is the realignment of the parties on civil rights issues, which replaced conservative Southern Democrats with Republicans. (Lamentably, the least polarized period in recent American history derived in part from bipartisan opposition to civil rights for African-Americans.) Polarization has also increased alongside income inequality, according to research by political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal. In short, polarization is being driven by intractable trends, not by how rudely politicians treat each other (though such rudeness certainly doesn't help). Such trends are beyond the control of any president.

Compared with members of Congress, voters are not as ideologically polarized along partisan lines, but they do reflect some of the Beltway partisanship. Partisans have become more numerous as the number of "pure" independents has shrunk. And partisanship has become a stronger, not weaker, influence on how the public votes and what the public thinks about presidents, wars and the economy. Consider this trend documented by Shanto Iyengar, Gaurav Sood and Yphtach Lelkes: In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would be upset if their child married a member of the opposite party. In 2010 those numbers had increased to 49 percent and 33 percent, respectively. Presidents confront partisanship not only on Pennsylvania Avenue but on Main Streets everywhere.

A more fundamental lesson about political institutions also appeared to elude Obama in 2008, although it has ceaselessly confronted him since. Political institutions change slowly, when they change at all. As political scientist Eric Schickler has argued, institutions tend to change via a "layering" of new on top of old, which produces an often unwieldy hybrid that serves the goals of neither reformers nor defenders of the status quo. One cannot simply clean house. Instead, the institutions of politics -- congressional committees and parties, interest groups, etc. -- remain much as they are. As a result, when it came to a signature achievement like the Affordable Care Act, Obama ended up fighting with Republicans, waiting on congressional committees to act, cutting deals with interest groups like "Big Pharma" and pretty much acting like a politician, not a post-partisan.

Indeed, the legacy of Obama might be proving just how necessary and effective partisanship is, especially in this polarized era. After all, many if not most of his signature achievements derive not from successful bipartisanship but from having large and loyal Democratic majorities in both chambers in 2009-10.

This is not a criticism of President Obama. He is navigating a tension in American political life that cannot easily be resolved. Americans want politics to do two things: They want it to "work," so they complain about incivility, partisanship, gridlock and so on, but they also want politics to give them the policies they want. When people complain about gridlock, it's not because they want just any policy to pass. They want their preferred policy to pass. And the easiest way to enact landmark legislation, as Obama's first term illustrates, is to get large partisan majorities and leverage their power, even at the risk of the occasional "go f--k yourself."

Hence the basic irony inherent in the Obama presidency: He campaigned as a post-partisan, but his most lasting accomplishments will be those of a partisan.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and George Washington University that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read the companion article by HuffPost's Jon Ward, click here. To read the companion blog post by Arshad Hasan of Democracy for America, click here. To read all the other posts in the series, click here.

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