Ezra Klein spends two paragraphs describing how President Obama divides America but candidate Obama didn't, but why is this true?
This all speaks to a point that the White House never forgets: President Obama's speeches polarize in a way candidate Obama's didn't. Obama's supporters often want to see their president "leading," but the White House knows that when Obama leads, his critics become even less likely to follow. The evidence political scientists have gathered documenting this dynamic is overwhelming, and Frances Lee lays it out well here:
If Obama's speeches aren't as dramatic as they used to be, this is why: the White House believes a presidential speech on a politically charged topic is as likely to make things worse as to make things better. It is as likely to infuriate conservatives as it is to inspire liberals. And in a country riven by political polarization, widening that divide can take hard problems and make them impossible problems.
So why is the country "riven by political polarization"? 10 possible explanations:
- Racial prejudice: lots of people either love or hate President Obama because of his skin color. Since the President's skin color has remained the same these feelings have intensified over time, leading to polarization.
- Reaction to performance: Americans had only a vague sense of candidate Obama's agenda/competence, but now that we've seen him in action for 6+ years you either love him or hate him.
- Bandwagon bias: we're each surrounded by like-minded people who reinforce and magnify our otherwise moderate opinions.
- Choice-supportive bias: we all tend to interpret evidence in a way that vindicates our past actions. However, it seems that there are a lot of people who voted for Obama once or twice in the past and aren't too fond of him now.
- Distrust: people perceive that President Obama's words and actions don't match, so when he gives a speech it highlights a new position of his to distrust. If he keeps his mouth shut the distrust is less focused and specific.
- Divide and conquer: people and groups of people have been intentionally manipulated into conflict with each other to serve some hidden purpose. But now we're too divided to accomplish anything?
- Limitations of the presidency: candidate Obama could please listeners with his speeches because he could say anything he wanted, but President Obama is constrained by the realities of the office he now holds. E.g., Obama can't go to Ferguson to give a speech because then people will expect him, as President, to solve their problems, which he can't do.
- New speechwriters: maybe President Obama's speechwriters just aren't as proficient as the ones who worked on his campaign.
- Degradation of capability: maybe President Obama has lost some of the ability that he possessed six years ago.
- Apathy: maybe candidate Obama cared more about winning the presidency than President Obama cares about executing the office. He just isn't trying that hard.