President Obama greets guests of a "Kids' State Dinner"… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was the promise that first brought Barack Obama to national attention, and the one that his presidency has most conspicuously been unable to fulfill — the hope of national unity.
"There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America," Obama, then a candidate for the U.S. Senate and relatively unknown outside Illinois, declared in his keynote speech to the Democratic convention in 2004.
That speech — and the image it created of a political leader with potential to reach across partisan bounds — formed the springboard that helped Obama make the improbable leap from freshman senator to the Oval Office just four years later. Against the backdrop of deep partisan division during George W. Bush's presidency, many voters saw a potential healer in the young, biracial candidate who had spent limited time as a member of the deeply unpopular Washington political elite.
Today, as he prepares to accept his party's nomination for a second term, 3 1/2 years in office have ground away much of that nonpartisan aura, leaving behind a deeply polarized view of the nation's 44th president.
Many Republicans denounce Obama as a "socialist." They express fears that he seeks to radically transform the country. Polls repeatedly have shown Republican voters expressing pessimism about the country's future and worrying that the U.S. has been set on a path toward decline.
At the same time, despite complaints from the left about issues as diverse as the war in Afghanistan, which he has pursued, and efforts to cap greenhouse gases, which he has not, Obama has retained strong support within his own party.
As measured by Gallup, his job approval during most of his tenure among members of his own party has surpassed that of any Democratic president since John F. Kennedy.
The partisan gap in views of Obama is among the largest in modern history, only exceeded — and then just barely — by the division over Bush.
Republicans have sought to exploit a shift in Obama's public image. His rival, Mitt Romney, seldom lets a speech go by without criticizing Obama as a "divider."
Ironically, however, if Obama wins a second term, a shift toward greater partisanship that began a year ago may well prove the single most important reason why — the key to his recovery from near-collapse last summer.
Obama portrays his failure to bridge the partisan gap as among his biggest frustrations in office.
"I haven't been able to change the atmosphere here in Washington to reflect the decency and common sense of ordinary people — Democrats, Republicans and independents — who I think just want to see their leadership solve problems," he said earlier this summer in an interview with CBS correspondent Charlie Rose. "And, you know, there's enough blame to go around for that.
"I think there is no doubt that I underestimated the degree to which in this town politics trumps problem-solving," Obama added.
As a political leader whose desire to build bridges across the political divide at least appears genuine, Obama had the bad luck to come to office when that divide — both in Washington and among voters nationwide — yawned wider than at any time since before World War II.
Ever since the late 1980s, the percentage of Americans who call themselves strong partisans has risen, accelerating over the last decade. Republicans have moved several steps to the right on average, while Democrats have moved a somewhat smaller degree to the left.
That gap posed a fundamental problem for the new administration from its beginning, said a longtime Democratic strategist who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid straining his close ties to the White House. In his 2008 campaign, the strategist said, Obama made two overarching promises: On the one hand, he pledged to create a new kind of politics; on the other, to enact major structural reforms in healthcare, the financial markets and the energy industry.
"He found out you couldn't do both," the strategist said.
Obama's legislative goals — a government guarantee of health coverage, stronger regulation of the financial industry, new environmental controls to fight global warming — all would expand government. Pushing those ideas, even in forms that some liberals found too weak, clashed directly with the intensifying desire of Republican voters to roll government back. That made the bipartisan politics Obama had spoken of all but impossible.
Republican leaders, meanwhile, eagerly grabbed opportunities to block Obama's path — frustrating the new administration's plans while highlighting the differences between the parties.
All that took a toll.
Shortly after his inauguration, a Fox News poll found Americans evenly divided over whether Obama would bring about "real change" in Washington or "more of the same." By one year into his administration, "more of the same" was prevailing nearly 2 to 1.