The recent fight over changing Mt. McKinley’s name back to Denali shows how Presidents tend to polarize issues.
On of the most common reacuring memes in American political discourse is the idea that presidents should try to find a way to transcend partisan differences in Washington. Indeed none other than Barack Obama talked a lot about this while running for president not too long ago. But as the recent fight over changing the name of Mt. McKinley to Denali shows, it’s often a fools errand because regardless of their party of ideological stance, presidents just tend to polarize issues.
For decades, this has been a low-profile dispute pitting Ohio Republicans (who have been loyal to the assassinated president from the Buckeye State) against Alaskans of all political stripes — most of them Republicans — who used the older name. No less a partisan conservative than Sarah Palin has referred to “nature’s finest show — Denali, the great one, soaring under the midnight sun.”
But as soon as Obama became involved, many Republicans from the lower 48 who probably couldn’t tell you what state the mountain was in last week started protesting against the gross abuse of power intended to erase white people from U.S. history.
One of the stronger findings about the presidency from political scientists is that when presidents associate themselves with an issue, voters — Democrats and Republicans — tend to line up strongly for and against it based on party loyalty. This isn’t just about Obama; the same thing happened on small and big things alike when George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were presidents. (Democrats turned against a mission to Mars when Bush proposed one, for example.)
That’s exactly right. And it doesn’t just apply to symbolic issues like what to name a mountain or wonky issues like the future of space exploration. Trayvon Martain became a heavily polarizing figure only after President Obama said, “If I had a son he’d look like Trayvon.” Likewise once upon a time all sorts of Republican politicians thought that climate change needed to taken seriously. But after the issue became associated with Barack Obama, Republicans rapidly distanced themselves to the point that current presidential aspirant Jeb Bush won’t even acknowledge that climate change is real.
Does this mean presidents can’t get anything done because the other side will always oppose them? Well not necessarily. As Bernstein points out sometimes partisan unity is what president’s need to get their agenda passed through Congress. This is precisely how Obama got his health care law passed and it will also probably be the key to enacting the recent Iran deal.
Furthermore partisan lines appear to harden largely when presidents take highly visible public positions on issues with things like big speeches or major media pushes originating out of the White House. Thus by not taking a public stance and quietly working behind the scenes presidents can make progress on their agenda when it comes to certain issues. This is exactly how Obama was able to end the military’s so called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy while President Clinton’s big public attempt to simply end the ban on gay people in the military back in the early 90’s polarized the issue and then promptly blew up in his face, thus forcing him to accept the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the first place.
Finally if the Denali fight tells us anything else it’s that that aspiring presidents should ignore pundits’ never ending calls for somehow becoming a nonpartisan president. The system just doesn’t work that way.
For better or for worse presidents just tend to polarize the issues the highlight.
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