Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Who has been the most polarizing new president of recent times? Richard Nixon? Ronald Reagan? George W. Bush?

No, that honor belongs to President Barack Obama. According to the Pew Research Center, the gap between Republican and Democratic approval ratings for Bush a few months into his first term was about 51 percentage points. For Obama, this partisan gap stands at 61 points. Obama has been a unifier, of sorts. He has united Democrats and united Republicans -- against each other.

The Pew report notes that this is the extension of a long-term trend. Decades ago, a majority of Democrats approved of Richard Nixon's job performance early in his first term. A majority of Republicans did the same for Jimmy Carter. But that has not been true for any president since.

Ron Brownstein, the author of "The Second Civil War," cites a variety of structural reasons for intensified division. There has been a "sorting-out" of the political parties, making each more ideologically uniform. Long, nasty presidential campaigns stoke our differences. Media outlets have become more partisan. Ideological interest groups have proliferated. Congressional leaders have changed the rules, making it easier to impose party discipline.

But Obama was supposed to be the antidote to the poison of partisanship. During the presidential campaign, chief strategist David Axelrod told Brownstein, "If there's an enhanced Democratic majority, I think that he's going ... to urge a special sense of responsibility to try and forge coalitions around these answers, not because we won't be able to force our will in many cases, but because, ultimately, effective governance requires it in the long term."

That makes last week's votes on the budget resolutions a landmark of ineffective governance. Not a single Republican in the House or Senate supported the bill, largely because the Democratic majority forced its will. Republicans were flattened, not consulted. Democratic leaders talk of enacting controversial elements of the budget through the reconciliation process -- which would require 51 Senate votes, not the normal 60, for passage. Only in Washington would the word "reconciliation" refer to a form of partisan warfare.

Without Republican input or influence, the budget is a tax-and-spend caricature. Obama has complained of inheriting a $1.3 trillion debt. According to economist Michael Boskin, Obama's proposals would add $6.5 trillion in debt over the next decade -- about $163,000 for every American taxpaying family.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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