Despite calls for a "post-partisan" presidency, a recent Pew Research Center study found that President Obama has the most polarized early job approval ratings for a new president in 40 years.
The 61-point gap in opinion is driven by almost universal support from his party (Democrats give him an 88 percent approval rating) and very low approval ratings (27 percent) from Republicans. In comparison, President Bush had a 51-point gap in April 2001 (he had higher approval ratings among Democrats than Obama has among Republicans), while President Clinton had a 45-point gap in April 1993 (his support among Democrats wasn't as strong as Obama's, though he had the same approval ratings among Republicans).
Focusing on a president's ability to bridge the partisan gap seems, well, outdated.
This sounds shocking on its face -- Obama more polarizing than Bush after the 2000 election? But it shouldn't come as that much of a surprise. After all, when a president pushes -- and passes -- an agenda that leans heavily on government spending, Democrats rally around him while Republicans move away from him. Our own polling backs up this theory.
The most recent Diageo/Hotline poll found that just 19 percent of Republicans thought more government involvement in the economy is a good idea, compared with 79 percent of Democrats. Asked if they think the stimulus plan will be successful in turning the economy around, 72 percent of Republicans said no while 86 percent of Democrats said yes.
But, in what could be a foreshadowing of problems for Obama down the road, Republicans are more confident about the stimulus package's failure than Democrats are of its success. Just 28 percent of Democrats say they are very confident of the success of the stimulus, compared with 40 percent of Republicans who say they are not at all confident in the legislation.
Furthermore, focusing on a president's ability to bridge the partisan gap seems, well, outdated. In this day and age, voters who identify with a party almost universally support that party in the next election. Even before he was elected president, Obama wasn't getting much support from Republicans, and he ended up with just 9 percent of the GOP vote.
Instead, when we talk about bipartisanship, we're really talking about how well a president and his party are doing among those who are not aligned with a party. How Obama and the Democrats are faring with independents will tell us more than Obama's support among Republicans about how much success his party is enjoying at the legislative and electoral level.
At first glance, Obama's job approval ratings among independents have stayed consistent over the last three months, between 67 percent and 63 percent. But those who said they "strongly" approved of the job he was doing dropped 13 points between the end of January and the end of March. Obama carried independent voters in November by 52 percent to 44 percent.
Also interesting to note is the fact that independents have started to drift away from congressional Democrats as well. From the beginning of March to the end of the month, the approval ratings of congressional Democrats among independent voters dropped 10 points, from 48 percent to 38 percent. Same goes for the generic ballot test. In our most recent poll, independents gave a slight edge to Republicans (26 percent to 23 percent) -- a 6-point drop for Democrats since early March.
But don't get too excited about this, Republicans. Just as support dropped for Democrats, there was no corresponding gain for Republicans on either measure. Just 26 percent of independents approve of the job Republicans are doing in Congress (a 4-point drop since early March). The 26 percent that Republicans are getting in the generic matchup is unchanged since early March as well. This means that while independents may be growing disenchanted with Democrats, they aren't sold on the GOP, either.
Bottom line: With almost universal support from Democrats, Obama doesn't have to worry so much about keeping his base happy. But the fact that he has so little support from Republicans means that he can't afford to lose his standing with independent voters. At this point, independent voters are showing signs of disenchantment with the Democrats, but Republicans still need to give them a reason to support them and their policies.