The partisan gap contradicts one of the most prevalent themes in President Obama's campaign: Only he could unify the country. Although I always questioned and really never believed this narrative (not believing that any candidate would reduce partisanship), the theme strongly shaped his campaign and proved highly effective.
In February 2008, the Editorial Board of the Austin American-Statesman published an editorial that offers very effusive support for Obama and passionately embraces the "unity" theme:
Obama presents a view of governing that is inclusive and relies on Americans to work with their government to solve sobering problems at home and abroad. Obama’s familiar refrain on the campaign trail is, “Yes, we can.”That rosy vision has not taken hold.
[Obama's] optimism, unifying vision and ability to inspire are the kind of healing balm the country needs at this moment in history. . . .
At home, we’re divided into red and blue camps. Democrats and Republicans have stoked divisions to advance their party’s interests. Meanwhile, Washington is stumbling along with its red leg moving right and blue one lurching left.
Along the way, elected officials - and the public - have forgotten that those legs are part of the same body. It’s not surprising, therefore, that we’ve danced in place, failing to make progress on the big challenges that confront our country. . . .
No other candidate except Obama offers a way out of that rut. He has articulated a vision that would allow the legs of government to again move fluidly in a natural motion that takes the country forward [boldface text added].
The Pew study suggests that the partisanship gap results not only from Republican disapproval of President Obama, but from Democratic approval of him as well. These numbers reflect a historical trend.
Beginning with George Bush, Republicans and Democrats have almost uniformly opposed Presidents from the other party, but they have strongly endorsed their own party's leader. The level of support and disapproval for Carter, Bush, Sr. and Clinton, however, was more evenly distributed among voters in both parties. Although Obama promised to reverse the pattern of partisanship, it seems to have grown larger during his presidency.
Related Reading on Dissenting Justice: Look Who's "Divisive" Now: The Anti-Obama Attacks Similar to Republican Smearing of the Clintons