Meeting with a bipartisan delegation of congressional leaders and their spouses Monday night, President Obama received that rarest of Washington gifts—a sustained, standing ovation, bestowed after he brought up Osama bin Laden’s death.
The bipartisan spirit of generosity in the wake of the end of a man who killed so many Americans extended to both sides of the aisle; House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, joined in the applause and commended the president, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called former President George W. Bush on Tuesday to congratulate him for his role.
But as the week has worn on, the parties returned to the squabbles that have come to define Washington in an era of hyper-partisanship. Allies of both Obama and Bush argued over which administration deserves credit for bin Laden’s death. Congress returned from a two-week recess to take up a debate over the federal deficit and the debt ceiling that promises to make last month’s budget fight look cordial by comparison.
In short, Obama is going to receive a shot in the arm from what is undeniably the best political moment of his first term. But because of a poisoned environment in which Democrats and Republicans feud over which side is more extreme, Obama’s call to make this a moment of national unity will fall flat.
Polls show Obama is already receiving a bounce from bin Laden’s death. A Pew Research Center/Washington Post poll, conducted on Monday night among 654 adults, pegged Obama’s approval rating at 56 percent, a point he has not reached in a Pew survey since June 2009. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll of 649 registered voters, also conducted on a single night, was more tempered, but still showed a 52 percent approval rating. Both polls had 4-point error margins.
Obama’s biggest boost came in a two-night New York Times/CBS survey, which showed his approval ratings at 57 percent. That survey was conducted Monday and Tuesday among 532 adults and has a 4-point error margin. Obama hasn’t seen those heights since July 2009, just weeks before raucous town hall meetings during an August recess caused Democrats real damage thanks to their health care reform proposals.
Still, such bounces are less impressive than previous presidents have experienced after their own major foreign policy or homeland security events. After 9/11, Bush’s approval ratings shot up 35 points; he didn’t fall back to his pre-attack approval ratings for more than two years. Bush even got a 15-point bounce after Saddam Hussein was captured in 2003. His father, George H.W. Bush, received a 23-point bounce after the first Gulf War began, a crest he rode for 41 weeks, according to Gallup survey data compiled by the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies.
In many cases, the benefit a president feels from a significant foreign policy victory resonates for months. The elder Bush’s Gulf War bounce lasted for 10 months; Richard Nixon benefited from a 15-point boost for more than three months after ending the Vietnam War. According to Public Opinion Strategies, which analyzed major foreign policy victories under 11 presidents, the average bounce lasts for 22 weeks.
The reason Obama’s bounce is likely to be smaller than that of his predecessors is that Obama simply has less room with which to work. The highly charged partisan atmosphere means the nation is sharply divided between Obama backers and his detractors. The huge number of voters who are hardened in their opinions of Obama means even his best deeds can only win over a small handful of new fans.
Consider the state of the electorate in recent years. Since the health care debate heated up in July 2009, at least 40 percent of Americans have disapproved of the job Obama is doing, while his approval ratings have never dropped below about 45 percent, according to numerous polls conducted on behalf of media organizations.
That means, in that period, fully 85 percent of Americans have a defined opinion of the president, while only 15 percent or so—and usually far fewer—have malleable feelings over his job performance. And it’s not only Obama who’s feeling the sting of partisanship; in that same period, Democrats in Congress and Republicans in Congress have watched their popularity plummet as independent voters register their disgust with Washington. The highest approval rating for Congress since July 2009 was 33 percent, registered by the Associated Press’s pollsters twice in fall 2009.
Throughout American history, partisanship rolls in cycles, and Obama is hardly the first to experience a hardened electorate. During virtually every presidency, there comes a time when pundits and political observers bemoan the never-before-seen levels of acrimony flooding Washington. The blame game grows louder with an economy in turmoil, when voters are eager to blame the other side for myriad perceived sins.
Republicans, faced with the threat of a primary electorate eager to knock off all but the purest of the species, are in no position to compromise with a Democratic administration. Democrats, on the other hand, need to fire up their base, and nothing does that better than picking a fight with the GOP. In fact, it is in both parties’ interests to continue squabbling, rather than to make peace.
Obama’s White House should enjoy this bounce while it lasts. It proves he still has positive relationships with enough voters to provide a path to victory next year. But it’s a commentary on our fragmented politics—and a warning sign for those who follow in Obama’s footsteps to the White House.
This article appears in the May 5, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.