President Obama campaigned in 2008 on his ability to unite the country with the lofty claim that he would be the “change” he thought America needed. In 2012, he campaigned with the slogan, “Forward” ostensibly to signal that, if elected, he would continue to lead the charge for a better future for the nation. “Better” is a relative term and whether or not the state of the nation has improved is highly debatable. However, a recent study titled “Political Polarization in the American Public” by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press establishes that Obama’s title of “Great Uniter” was a misnomer – even the mainstream media has abandoned it because it reeks of hyperbole.
The majority of Americans are still somewhat left, or somewhat right of the political midpoint. However, according to the Pew Research Center (PRC), a recent survey of 10,000 adults across the nation revealed that the ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans and the “antipathy” between the two is “deeper and more extensive” than it has been in the past two decades. Further, statistically the divide is greater between those adults who are the “most engaged and active in the political process.”
It is those who are engaged in the political process that tend to be the most civically active in that they are more likely to support candidates, vote, and hold to a consistent political and cultural ideology. Based on the results of the PRC study, the political divide may be greater now because a higher percentage of Americans are currently “consistently conservative” and “consistently liberal.” In 1994, just 10 percent held a consistent political ideology, while the current statistics stand at 21 percent.
The study also revealed that the level of “partisan animosity” among voters in opposing parties has increased dramatically although, with a 24/7 cycle of news coverage it probably did not take a study to make this clear to the average American. This animosity, also seen in the halls of the Capitol, has likely contributed to the partisan gridlock so prevalent in Congress – a gridlock that does little to further the economic or national security of the nation. One might even go so far as to define the behavior in Congress as that of political warfare at the expense of the nation.
According to Michael Dimock, the primary author of the PRC study,
We are trying to unpack whether the polarization in Congress is bottom-up, reflecting the divisions in the public, or whether there is something about the way politics is being conducted at the elite level that is influencing how people feel personally.
Obama also did not serve to unite the nation with his righteous attempts to prop up the notion of a “war on women” replete with cringe-worthy comments such as the one he made to dismiss pro-life conservatives and bolster pro-choice liberals. Recall his family folksy statement that if one of his daughters made a “mistake” he would not want them “saddled with a baby.”
Obama has also hammered home the concept of unequal pay to support the notion of a “war on women” but has not taken into account the individual choices women make in the workforce. White House Press secretary Jay Carney is on record as saying that his wife Claire Shipman, who is an ABC News correspondent chose to work part-time so that she would have more opportunities to “hang out with the kids.” According to Carney, this flexibility is what many women want.
Clearly, choices around participation in the workforce do have an impact on job pay. Further, despite Obama claiming to be a champion for women, the gender gap in pay at the White House sits at 12%, which is more than twice the level than it is in Washington DC proper. The president’s stance continues to be that Republicans, and by association, conservatives, do not care about women – a stance that is patently untrue and yet serves to divide the nation further.
Obama has also been instrumental in inflaming race relations in the nation. He and First Lady Michelle Obama’s rhetoric claiming that the nation’s schools are being “re-segregated” (which flies in the face of Federal Education Data that shows otherwise) has fostered resentment. In another example, Obama made the statement that if he had son, he would look like Trayvon Martin. Martin was the 17-year-old African-American teen that was killed in a 2012 altercation with Hispanic adult George Zimmerman and Obama’s statement was interpreted by many as “race baiting” and deliberately adding fuel to the flame of racial tensions at the time.
While Obama may claim to be the “Great Uniter,” according to an early 2014 survey by the Emerson College Polling Society, 61 percent of African-Americans polled indicated that race relations are not getting better in the United States, they are getting worse. Forty-two percent of Hispanics polled held the same view, as did 41 percent of Caucasians. To put this in perspective, at the beginning of Obama’s first term, 63 percent of African-Americans and 79 percent of Caucasians believed race relations in America were improving.
President Obama, rather than bringing the nation together, has done little to unite opposing political or ideological factions – neither in Congress nor in the populace – as is clearly illustrated by the current PRC study. Rather the president has served to inflame the political divide with his rhetoric against Republicans and conservatives and his use of race and gender issues as tools to gain party support.
While the negative rhetoric in Congress and in the general populace runs in both political directions and contributes to the divide, as president and as the “Great Uniter” Obama could have played his hand differently were he actually intent on building bipartisan relations. Obama appears to be as firmly stuck on his “side of aisle” as his liberal cohorts are and he has no qualms about wielding his voice and executive powers to promote his vision of “change” for America. He is not the first president to assume a politically intractable position, but it can be argued that he is the first to do so while claiming to be the “Great Uniter.”
Opinion by Alana Marie Burke