The New York Times has a story about whether Bill Clinton fared better than Obama in an equally- if not more – polarized environment. Is this claim completely ridiculous? Obama has certainly dealt with some challenging political conditions, but as Clinton and various others in the Times piece point out, the forty-second president was impeached and accused of murder. How does this compare to the political environment in which Obama operates? How can we compare the achievements of the two presidents, in light of their distinct circumstances? And are their circumstances different points on the same spectrum, or are they qualitatively different?

Let’s turn first to the question of achievements. The Times piece doesn’t mention this, but Obama was able to achieve several of the signature items that eluded Clinton during this first two years in office. That is to say, both presidents began their terms in environments that were a bit hostile and more than a bit polarized – but with unified government. Clinton struck out on health care reform, “gays in the military” (a phrasing that now seems beyond clunky), and economic stimulus. Obama, at various points and to varying degrees, saw the passage of important legislation on all three.

After the 1994 midterms, however, Clinton worked with the Republican Congress to achieve another one of his promises: to end welfare as we know it. At various points in his presidency, Clinton also backed “tough on crime” policies, and efforts to manage “indecency” on TV – all issues typically owned by conservatives.

Broadly speaking, one lesson we can take away is that Obama did better with unified government, while Clinton’s experience of divided government, while marred by impeachment, also featured some significant legislation.

There are a number of possible reasons for this. Obama’s main political image is that of a liberal, Northern Democrat, while Clinton’s political identity was firmly rooted in the centrist, and Southern, tradition of the Democratic Leadership Council. The two also met different kinds of Democratic majorities in Congress. Obama’s was a newly energized majority; Clinton’s a bit sleepy after a nearly 40 uninterrupted years of control in the House, and only a six-year interruption in the Senate during the Reagan years. Finally, as I’ve indicated in previous posts, timing is everything. The 2008 election presented a clear choice on economic, foreign policy, and social issues (or so we thought; some of these differences have been more apparent than others). The 1992 election, though delivering a rejection for the incumbent Bush administration, was in large part a contest among competing visions of centrism. Although Clinton defeated an incumbent, the sense of a demand for change in policy direction was arguably more clear in 2009.

Substantial evidence suggests that Obama operates in a much more hostile and divided environment than Clinton did, even after the 1994 elections. Congressional polarization has increased. The presidential approval gap has expanded. Right-wing media has proliferated. Some new research that Amber Wichowsky, Jordyn Cziep, and I presented at APSA also suggests that the language used by the Speaker of the House (in floor speeches and other contexts) has become more sharply polarized over time – more negative toward the president and the other party, more negative about the idea of compromise. So if we are going to measure polarization spatially, or in terms of a continuum, Obama’s presidency is pretty clearly more polarized.

The more difficult question is whether the two presidents’ difficulties are comparable. Clinton was more literally threatened with removal from office – it may happen yet, but Obama hasn’t been impeached and the House seems to have lost momentum for its lawsuit.

Clinton suffered from some major early political setbacks. Even before the health care debacle, he began his first term with low approval ratings and a shaky claim to electoral legitimacy. Although the margin was decisive, the 1992 election brought Clinton to office with only 43% of the vote, and in some circles Clinton was perceived as having won only because Perot “stole” votes that would have otherwise gone to George H.W. Bush.

Obama won the largest share of the popular vote of any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson, and enjoyed high initial approval. But even before the election, Obama’s legitimacy was contested in terms of his religion, race, and background. The most significant of these challenges, of course was the so-called “Birther Movement,” whose core claim was that Obama had not been born in Hawaii as he said, but instead in Kenya, rendering him ineligible to serve as president.

Clinton was the subject of jokes about his class and Southern background, as well as sexist jabs at then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. Nevertheless, there’s a case to be made that the kinds of insults directed at Obama are qualitatively different from much of what previous presidents in general, and Clinton in particular, have had to endure. These attacks get at Obama’s honesty – something familiar to Clinton and to other politicians too – but also at the most basic aspects of his identity: his name, his heritage, and the color of his skin.

The discourse surrounding the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency has tapped into broader political conflicts. Racial, religious, and ethnic attacks say a lot about the people launching them, and they bring people who might not have otherwise been as personally invested into the argument. In this sense, the political implications of the Obama presidency have been a lot different from the Clinton presidency. The nature of polarization in the Obama presidency is evidence of a long-dormant, unfinished conversation in American politics about race.

Despite this important qualitative difference, the fact remains that we are having this conversation about the last two Democratic presidents. Reagan and both Bushes dealt with some of the factors inherent to an age of polarization. But were the legitimacy questions the same? They were certainly present to some extent. We saw bumper stickers about “a village in Texas missing its idiot” and declaring “he’s not my president.” But a serious impeachment movement never took off. Bush’s right to be in office – despite the complications of the 2000 election – was rarely questioned; he certainly never had to produce any additional documentation establishing his right to be in office.

Like Clinton before him, Obama has had a rocky and rancorous presidency. The Bush presidency, too, was marked by intense polarization and debate, and the formation of a clear opposition. But there were far fewer protests against his right to hold office. When we ask who had it worse, Clinton or Obama, the premise of the question may be as revealing as the answers. Have the deepest legitimacy challenges been aimed at recent Democratic presidents, while their Republican counterparts have been spared?

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.