The New York Times Debates the Obama Presidency: Disappointment or Disaster?

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President Obama speaks at the Democratic National Committee's Women's Leadership Forum -DC
What does it take to please you people?Photo: Olivier Douliery/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” column today debates “the defining aspects of Obama’s legacy.” Six writers contributed to the discussion. It is safe to say the debate has not gone well for the Obama administration:

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This, in somewhat exaggerated form, is how the public debate has played out through the seven years of the Obama presidency. The conservative opposition has been apoplectic, and liberal supporters disappointed. The left has focused far more attention on holding the administration’s feet to the fire and guarding against complacency than advocating for (and celebrating) its achievements. And the right has maintained a wall of totalistic opposition that cannot be cracked by any amount of real-world developments.

Here is one of the oddities of the last seven years. Barack Obama won a clear majority in both his election and his reelection, fulfilled most of his policy goals as president, is presiding over a solid economic recovery, and has avoided any real scandal (i.e., one that exists outside the opposition fever swamps). Yet his approval ratings have consistently trailed his vote percentages. More than half of the electorate voted for him twice, but well under half approves of his job performance. Despite the fact that he accomplished what he said he would, Obama quickly lost a chunk of the public that voted for him, and has never won them back.

In large part this represents negative polarization, the dominant political force of our time. Negative polarization is a phenomenon defined by political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster. It means that the public has sorted itself into hardened political camps with firm voting habits, but these loyalties are based more on antipathy for the opposing party than affirmative support for one’s own side. Indeed, a growing share of voters describes itself as “independent” even as its behavior shows that it is more, not less, consistent in its support for a single party. In a negative-polarization world, many of Obama’s supporters will express dissatisfaction with his job performance but vote for him and his party anyway, because they loathe the Republicans so much. The same phenomenon would likely hold true in reverse if a Republican held office. (It may have: George W. Bush’s approval ratings rose in the run-up to the 2004 election, and then fell back, as his supporters went from assessing his performance in a vacuum to comparing him to the loathsome, cheesesteak-bungling Frenchie John Kerry.)

But I wonder whether the tone of the Obama-era debate has contributed as well. Most major Obama-era policy debates have resulted in a mix of right-wing apocalyptic rage and liberal dismay. The stimulus was too small, Obamacare lacked a public option, Dodd-Frank failed to break up the big banks, and on and on. When the public that barely follows the debate hears that one side considers Obama’s bill the destruction of freedom in America, and the other side considers it a disappointing compromise, the impression that comes off is not positive. None of this is to say that the left has an obligation to support the administration or hold back its criticisms, only that guarding against complacency has costs of its own. In the light of history, the Obama administration is likely to be seen as a triumph. The sour perspective maintained by his supporters in his own time will be forgotten — or, if and when it is revisited, it will seem very weird.