It's lonely at the top.

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Obama's Denali Divide

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Presidents polarize. It's a basic condition of their jobs. 

Let's look at the lessons from the current kerfuffle over Mount McKinley -- make that Denali, since Barack Obama officially restored the original name of the Alaska peak.

For decades, this has been a low-profile dispute pitting Ohio Republicans (who have been loyal to the assassinated president from the Buckeye State) against Alaskans of all political stripes -- most of them Republicans -- who used the older name. No less a partisan conservative than Sarah Palin has referred to “nature's finest show -- Denali, the great one, soaring under the midnight sun.”

But as soon as Obama became involved, many Republicans from the lower 48 who probably couldn't tell you what state the mountain was in last week started protesting against the gross abuse of power intended to erase white people from U.S. history.

One of the stronger findings about the presidency from political scientists is that when presidents associate themselves with an issue, voters -- Democrats and Republicans -- tend to line up strongly for and against it based on party loyalty. This isn't just about Obama; the same thing happened on small and big things alike when George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were presidents. (Democrats turned against a mission to Mars when Bush proposed one, for example.) 

In general, a president's attempts to “lead” by mobilizing public opinion through high-profile speeches are destined to fail if he needs bipartisan support. See, for example, Obama's battle for gun-control measures earlier in his second term.

But when all that’s needed is to win over members of his own party, presidential speeches that polarize can be extremely helpful. This was true during Obama’s first two years in office, when Democrats had majorities in the House and Senate. It has also been the case recently with the Iran deal: Obama may have deliberately chosen a partisan path to ensure that Democrats in the House and Senate stayed on board.

Granted, the stakes are a lot lower when we're just talking about the name of a mountain that no one really cares about. Even if some Republicans feel outraged about it right now.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net