Divider in chief: Book explores the polarized presidency

Love him or hate him.

That is the dynamic that defines the modern American presidency, reflecting a polarization that began with Franklin D. Roosevelt and kicked into high gear with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The reason, according to a new book from SF State Professor of Political Science Robert C. Smith, is Roosevelt's creation, and the Republican party's eventual rejection, of the welfare state.

Professor of Political Science Robert C. Smith

Professor of Political Science Robert C. Smith

"Roosevelt established the idea that it was the government's responsibility to provide retirement income, health care, housing and social security for the people," Smith said. "He was bitterly opposed by those who, correctly, claimed that he was breaking the American tradition of limited government."

Smith and his co-author, Richard A. Seltzer of Howard University, explore the role of presidents and presidential candidates in polarizing American politics in "Polarization and the Presidency: From FDR to Barack Obama," published earlier this month. In the book, they define a polarizing president as one for whom the difference between Democrats' and Republicans' approval rating is greater than 40 percentage points.

"Presidents have the attention of the public and media in a way that Congress will never have," Smith said. "When they pursue polarizing policies, and in addition are polarizing characters overall, they have a much larger effect on dividing the country than 535 members of Congress."

Roosevelt became the first modern polarizing president when he enacted the New Deal. But while the reforms were initially controversial, they eventually became quite popular. As a result, subsequent Democratic presidents worked to expand the programs, and Republican presidents accepted them.

Everything changed, however, in 1964, when the GOP nominated Barry Goldwater for the presidency.

"It was the first time Republicans had nominated someone who opposed Roosevelt's reforms," Smith said. "The conservative faction of the Republican Party took control and nominated Ronald Reagan in 1980, who immediately began to try to undo the reforms."

Actions by the Democratic Party -- specifically Lyndon Johnson's embrace of the civil rights movement and the 1972 nomination of the anti-war George McGovern -- sent conservative Democrats into the arms of the GOP and, conversely, attracted liberal Republicans, creating the more ideologically homogeneous entities seen today.

"You now have this almost irreconcilable difference between the parties, where one wishes to raise taxes on the wealthy to expand the welfare state and the other wishes to do the opposite," Smith said. Since 1980, George H. W. Bush has been the only non-polarizing president, as defined by Smith and Seltzer.

Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all been divisive figures in American politics, but Smith said the research outlined in the book indicates their polarized presidencies are the result of policies, not personality.

"The polarization is about real issues in terms of the future of the country, it's not a matter of personality or a matter of people not being able to get along," he said. "The Democrats and Republicans have serious differences as to how the country can be governed."

According to Smith, the fever is unlikely to be broken until one party clearly triumphs by winning the presidency and both houses of Congress and is able to enact its agenda unimpeded. The Democrats are better positioned to do this in the long term, he said, because of their demographic advantages and the growing unpopularity of the GOP agenda. But, he added, the nomination and possible election of the highly polarizing Hillary Clinton could ensure at least another four to eight years of gridlock.

"This polarization is not good," Smith said. "The country is not being governed, you just have this oscillation back and forth. The country is not served well when the divisions are this deep."

-- Jonathan Morales