There are many benefits to the bully pulpit. The President can easily bring attention to a previously obscure issue and move it to the center of debate in Washington. As the de facto leader of a party, the President can also significantly sway the opinions of his base on a range of issues. A big downside, though, is that once the President takes ownership of an issue it is instantly polarized by also turning many Republicans against it.
A new Washington Post poll perfectly highlights this phenomenon by asking half their sample if they support an issue position and the other half if they support the “Obama proposed” position.
Without Obama’s name attached, a pathway for citizenship has the support of 70 percent of Americans, including 60 percent of Republicans. When Obama’s name is attached to the idea, however, its overall support drops to just 59 percent primarily because only 39 percent of Republicans would support the “Obama proposed” pathway.
The poll also asked if people would favor policies to address climate change. The overall level of support was the same with or without Obama’s name attached but the phrasing of the question made a big difference in the partisan breakdown. Among Democrats, 65 percent support policies to reduce climate change but 71 percent of Democrats support Obama-backed policies. While 32 percent of Republicans were open to the federal government addressing climate change, support dropped to just 24 percent when Obama’s name was attached.
The best chance for immigration reform will be if Obama is able to thread the needle. The President needs to push for it without being seen as taking ownership of it.