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In Defense of Polarizing Politicians

What Margaret Thatcher could teach Obama-era pundits

Derrick Ceyrac/Getty Images

Political opponents are wont to describe Barack Obama as a polarizing figure in American politics. In fact, they angrily note, the most polarizing of all presidents. They decry this in the context of his 2008 campaign, during which he presented himself as a figure almost above partisanship, or at least capable of transcending it for the common good. Of course his critics, as a general rule, never really believed Obama was actually some sort of fusionist post-partisan; they thought he was a liberal Democrat (or worse). But the point among critics, it seems fair to say, has been to paint a portrait of an Obama who has descended from the lofty heights he once claimed to get down and dirty in the political arena — perhaps unpresidentially so.

Polling does indeed support this view of Obama as a polarizing figure, or at least as the focal point of a polarized nation. While he took office with high approval ratings, even by April 2009, Pew was announcing survey results showing that the partisan gap in approval of Obama, at 61 percent, well above that of George W. Bush (51 percent) and Bill Clinton (45 percent) at the same point in their first terms. Strident criticism of Obama for being a polarizer began early as well—and continued as the gap has edged up. A recent Gallup survey put the partisan gap for Obama at the start of his second term at a record-tying 76 percent, slightly higher than Bush’s at the start of 2005 (and even-steven with Bush the year before).

Obama’s critics, and many of his admirers, seem to take it as a given that there’s something bad about this. This week’s encomiums for the late Margaret Thatcher, though, are a reminder that disdain for polarizing political figures can be somewhat selective. Conservatives rightly rank Thatcher in a pantheon whose two other leading members are Ronald Reagan and John Paul II. Yet by all accounts, Thatcher was a hugely polarizing figure in British politics and remains so today. It seems plausible that the biggest reason Reagan’s partisan approval gap (46 percent) wasn’t higher when he took office was the “Reagan Democrat” phenomenon — the two major parties were still in the process of sorting themselves out along ideological lines.

Now, perhaps Reagan and Thatcher supporters will say that the polarization was a product of irrational hatred on the part of critics. But Thatcher was in no sense a model of post-partisan outreach in British politics. She had an ambitious agenda and majority support in Parliament, and she seems to have understood that the antipathy of her opponents would strengthen the convictions of her supporters as well. Considering this calculus, Obama as a polarizing figure begins to emerge in a different light. It’s true that the post-partisan Obama of the 2008 campaign little resembles Obama in office or on the 2012 campaign trail. But maybe that’s because becoming a polarizing figure, in addition to its negative effects, also has its uses, or at least is a price at times worth paying.

If Obama had thought it was a problem of the first magnitude, he could readily have taken action to address his emergence as an increasingly polarizing figure during the first two years of his first term: All he would have had to do was abandon his increasingly unpopular effort to enact health care reform — in short, give up the top legislative policy priority of his presidency. If he had, probably Republicans would have disapproved of him a little less, and Democrats would have disapproved of him more: voilà, less polarization. But how exactly would that have been good for him politically? Emerging as a polarizing figure, under the circumstances, was good politics.

It’s worth noting that in terms of enacting an agenda, Thatcher had substantially more latitude than Obama, even with Democratic control of the Senate and House his first two years. The prime minster has, by definition, a parliamentary majority at her disposal. By constitutional design, passing legislation in the American system is much harder. But once Obama concluded that he would be seeking passage of health care reform without any GOP votes, his course was clear. The success or failure of his first term was on the line, and in the event of failure, the fracturing of disappointed Democrats in response might well have made it his only term. “There is no alternative,” as Thatcher liked to say.

Polarization seems to be a viable political strategy—not the only possible strategy, but a viable one—when you are confident that your polarizing positions still enable you to command majority support. Obama proved that with his reelection. He has yet to demonstrate that he can recapture the Democratic legislative majority he began with, but it certainly seems that he is trying, and that the effort is more important to him than anything he can get done legislatively with a GOP-controlled House.

Alas, polarization as a strategy means something rather different when it can’t produce a majority: It may then amount to no more than a test of fidelity to a losing cause among a minority. The GOP might take note here. Opposition to abortion, which is not per se politically debilitating, can become so when someone is insisting he wouldn’t allow one in the case of a teenager raped by her uncle. So if Obama, like Thatcher, is a polarizing figure, maybe this is not despite his (or her) best effort to be beloved of many. Maybe it’s a price one is willing to pay in order to further an ambitious political agenda.

Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Follow him on Twitter: @todlindberg