Why Obama Is the Most Polarizing President Ever

A chief political correspondent shares his views of this year’s stormy summer – and what lies ahead for voters this fall and beyond. 

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The Fiscal Times
August 22, 2014

The summer of 2014 is going down as an extraordinary period of social, political and international upheaval and crisis.

President Obama and members of Congress left for vacation this month with the expectation of relative calm before a resumption of political wrangling this fall over immigration reform and spending measures – and before a critical mid-term election campaign. 

Related: It May Be Time for Obama to Come Home from Vacation 

Instead, violence broke out in Ferguson, Mo., after an unarmed black youth was shot to death by a police officer; the world was stunned by a video of the beheading of an American journalist by an Islamic State terrorist in the Middle East; and a humanitarian crisis festered along the U.S.-Mexican border caused by a massive influx of unaccompanied Central American children into this country.

With so much going on, The Fiscal Times asked Dan Balz, The Washington Post’s highly regarded chief political correspondent, to discuss these and other fast-moving developments. Here are portions of the interview conducted on Thursday:

Eric Pianin (EP): With the crisis in Ferguson and the Middle East, what are the optics of President Obama’s continued vacation on Martha’s Vineyard?

Dan Balz (DB): This comes up any time a president is away in August and there’s a crisis. When the Iraqis invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, President [George H.W.] Bush went off to Kennebunkport in a kind of defiant way. I think people respect the fact that even presidents deserve vacations. It is harder today because of the intensity of the media spotlight. The most important thing for Obama is not where he is, but how he is handling himself and do people have confidence in his decisions.  

EP: Speaking of confidence levels, a Quinnipiac University poll in July found that 33 percent of voters think President Obama is the worst president since 1945, and his approval rating hovers in the 40 percent range. You’ve covered him from the start: Why does he engender such strong feelings of resentment, even among some Democrats?

Related: McConnell Vows Tough Action – Even If it Means Another Shutdown 

DB: For a couple of reasons. I think he is the most polarizing president we’ve ever had, which is to say the difference between the way Democrats feel versus Republicans. That gap is as big as we’ve ever seen. But the second most polarizing president, I believe, was George W. Bush and probably the third most polarizing president was Bill Clinton. The country is polarized and has been polarized about [Obama] since he was elected. We lost sight of that at the time he was elected in 2008. 

The second thing is we are in a time of turmoil. All over the world there is crisis, turmoil, unrest, conflict. Foreign policy for Obama was kind of an anchor. He always got better ratings on foreign policy than he did on handling the economy or health care. His foreign policy numbers have gone down now as a result of just the sense of the world spinning out of control and what do we do about it.  

EP: Many are predicting the Republicans will take back control of the Senate in the November election by picking up at least six seats, but I gather you don’t think they have a lock on it yet.  

DB: Yes, I think we’re in a time right now where the Republicans have a good opportunity to win the Senate…. There are more than enough [vulnerable Democratic seats] on the table for the Republicans to do it, but I think we’re going to see a very intense fight during the fall. It’s not clear at this point if there is a single or a couple of issues that will determine the outcome. These are going to be fought out in very negative ways. Advertising wars are going to be important and candidate performance is going to be important.  

Related: ‘Do-Nothing Congress’ Gets Ready for An Unearned 5-Week Vacation    

EP: Where do things stand on immigration? The issue seems to have died out since Congress recessed for the summer. 

DB: It remains to be seen whether the president will do anything by executive order after Labor Day. If he does, that will re-inject immigration at least for a time back into the political debate in a significant way. I think there are some Democrats watching these Senate races who are worried about what he might do if he does something before the election.

EP: All eyes are on Ferguson, but with few exceptions, potential 2016 presidential candidates have had relatively little to say about it. Does it have any larger political implications for the country? 

DB: I think it has larger political implications, but I don’t know if that means it will affect the outcome of these elections. It’s a reminder of the degree to which race is still an important factor in our politics and criminal justice system and the way communities relate to one another. It’s difficult for prospective 2016 candidates to wade into the middle of that, because it is so much easier to make a misstep or look like you are trying to take political advantage of a situation than actually being able to be constructive.

Related: Hillary Clinton’s Steady March to a 2016 Nomination    

EP: Hillary Clinton appears to be the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2016, but the Republican field seems far less settled. How do you size up the GOP field – do you think is in the strongest position?

DB: Any time you have as many potential candidates as the Republicans have and the polling shows that nobody is above 12 or 13 percent on any consistent basis, and the person at the top is a point ahead of whoever is second, that tells you that this is as wide open as a race can be. There are lots of people [including Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and others] who have had a moment in the spotlight and have run into some problems. This is a very, very wide open race.

EP: Do you think Mitt Romney will run again?

DB: Since nobody has broken out of the pack, people look at Romney and say, He was a better candidate than we gave him credit for; or, he came pretty close and would do better in 2016; or, he was right about some things he said during the campaign and didn’t get credit for that.

Related: Romney’s Political Stock Continues to Rise in Muddled GOP Field

He’s been pretty insistent that he has no intention of running, so one would have to assume he’s not going to be a candidate. Having said that, stranger things have happened in politics. So I never say never about anything.

EP: What about Hillary Clinton?

DB: She has not had a good summer. My sense is if [she and her advisers] made a mistake, it was thinking her book tour was a book tour, and not thinking more strategically that it would be seen as the opening stage of a presidential campaign… . We don’t have any good sense of who might challenge her if she runs. At this point there's no equivalent of Barack Obama in late 2006 on the horizon who is making a lot of waves. The closest is Senator Elizabeth Warren, and she has been adamant she’s not going to run.   

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.