President Barack Obama campaigned on the notion of bringing Americans together. And George W. Bush proclaimed himself "a uniter, not a divider" when he led the nation.
Yet, the two most recent presidents have been the most polarizing leaders in modern U.S. history, a new Gallup poll shows.
In the last year of their first terms, both Obama and Bush had a split between approval ratings among Democrats and Republicans of 76 percentage points — the highest since Gallup started conducting approval polls during the Eisenhower presidency in 1953.
For Obama, 86 percent of Democrats approved of his job performance, compared with 10 percent of Republicans. Bush received a thumbs-up from 91 percent of Republicans but only 15 percent of Democrats.
Bush's average approval gap for both his terms was 61 points, according to the survey. The average for Obama, who just kicked off another four years Monday, is 70 points.
"Both Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, have made overtures toward bringing Americans together," said Gallup analyst Jeffrey Jones.
"The reality is that under both of their presidencies, Americans have been more politically divided than ever before," he said. "It is not clear how much of that is due to their governing styles and how much is just a reflection on how Americans approach politics and the presidency these days."
Jimmy Carter had the smallest gap — 29 points — primarily because only 53 percent of his fellow Democrats liked how he did his job.
Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan had gaps of 61 points and 60 points, respectively. George H.W. Bush had a 54-point gap. The numbers for Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower were 44 points and 45 points.
The last nine years — the final five for Bush and Obama's first four — all rank in the top 10 of the most polarized, a signal to Jones that Americans aren't looking much beyond party affiliation to evaluate the president's job performance.
Such a charged political environment makes governing much tougher because the president can't use the bully pulpit as effectively when "a substantial minority" of the public won't support him for almost any reason, Jones said.
"Given divided control of government, it may be especially important for the president...to inspire Americans to pressure...Congress to act," he said.
"And to move forward with legislation to address the nation's biggest issues, Americans and their elected representatives must be willing to both listen to the proposals of those in the other party and to accept compromise."
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