Post-Partisanship? Let’s See

Jan 20, 2009 1:36pm

The buzz surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration – made explicit in his address today – is the prospect of a post-partisan presidency. The reality: Let’s see.

Part of the challenge is that post-partisanship means bridging fundamentally substantive political divisions – itself no easy task. But there’s more: Those divisions in fact have grown sharper over the last generation. A post-partisan Obama would need not only to reach across the gap, but to reverse its direction of the past 30 years.

What’s been increasing is not ideology per se – the number of conservatives, moderates or liberals in this country, which has been largely stable – but the way these groups align themselves politically. Political scientists have noted an increasing correlation between ideology and partisanship over the years, and our own ABC/Post data confirm it.

A correlation indicates whether trends move together (a perfect match is expressed as 1), in opposite directions (-1), or independently of one another (0). In ABC/Post polls in 1981, the first year for which we have data, ideology and political partisanship correlated at a fairly weak .20. By 1988 it was .31; by 1996, .40; by 2004, .45; and last year a new peak .48 – a dramatic increase over these years in the association of ideology and political allegiance.

We’ve looked at exit poll data to see if they confirm the trend, and they do: A correlation between ideology and political affiliation of .32 in the 1976 election grew to .57 in the 2004 election, holding there last year. Click here for a table showing these data, and here for a chart showing the trend in our ongoing ABC/Post polls – pretty remarkable stuff.

There are plenty of theories about the source of this trend. One is the Republican Party’s explicit embrace of conservatism as a basic tenet of its beliefs – an approach that, until recently, successfully made it the ascendant political party.

Another suggestion is that ideology has become more conflated with partisanship because it’s lost some of its independent meaning. Liberalism once favored federalism over state’s rights, conservatism the opposite; on many issues those tables have been reversed. Liberalism once meant support for a larger government more involved in people’s lives, conservatism the opposite; that distinction’s been blurred as well.

Nonetheless there are still real differences. We asked in our last poll whether Americans prefer smaller government with fewer services or larger government with more services: Sixty-eight percent of conservatives took the former, 62 percent of liberals the latter. Fifty-six percent of moderates sided with the smaller-government crowd – the train Bill Clinton climbed aboard in 1996, declaring the death of the era of big government.

Government, of course, has not shrunk in the days since Clinton’s pronouncement, and the real issue – as Obama said today – is not so much government's size but what it does, for whom, how well. Nor did Clinton himself clear the shoals of ideology and partisanship: His career average approval rating was just 36 percent among conservatives, 28 percent among Republicans and 18 percent among conservative Republicans. George W. Bush, similarly, managed a career average of just 28 approval among liberals, 27 percent among Democrats and 18 percent among liberal Democrats.

Now it’s Obama’s turn. He’s got prospects: Sixty-five percent of Americans in our latest poll called him “about right” ideologically (as opposed to too liberal or too conservative), the most for any president in data back to 1979.

But post-partisanship? Not yet. Among Republicans, 70 percent called Obama “too liberal”; among conservatives, 55 percent. Overall, 61 percent of Americans said they trust Obama to make the right decisions for the country – but that plummeted to 37 percent among conservatives and 27 percent among Republicans.

Moving beyond the atmospherics of the inauguration to the grunt work of politics will hardly lessen the hazards of ideological and partisan appraisals. “The stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply,” Obama said today; the question is whether that’s so. He’s pledged to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; 58 percent of conservatives and 69 percent of Republicans would keep it open. He plans to federally fund stem-cell research; 57 percent of conservatives and 55 percent of Republicans are opposed. And from perennials such as gay marriage and abortion and beyond, there are plenty more hot-button issues ahead.

The economy, of course, is what matters most. Eighty-two percent of Democrats and 79 percent of liberals say Obama’s off to a good start on it – but barely over half as many conservatives and Republicans agree, 46 percent and 42 percent, respectively. And nearly six in 10 in both those groups say holding down the deficit is more important than the massive stimulus spending Obama’s proposed.

Another result marks the challenges another way: Seventy percent of Republicans and 58 percent of conservatives say Obama should compromise with GOP leaders on important issues, while 67 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of liberals say he should not. As policies are forged, someone is going to be disappointed.

Obama’s ratings, like his predecessors’, ultimately will be performance-based. His greatest immediate risk is less partisanship than the deep economic discontent he’s inherited – it’s among the single greatest hazards to a president’s popularity.

In the end, though, ideology and partisanship are among the most powerful forces in American politics, and as a generation of data show, they’re linked more closely than ever. Among the impressive list of tasks Obama faces, edging the nation toward a post-partisan alignment might be the single most daunting of all.

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