Some of this is Obama’s own doing. He has been a master, as good politicians are, at presenting different sides of himself to different constituencies. In 2008, he was the man who would bring us together by overcoming the deep mistrust between red and blue America and the champion of progressive change, the liberal answer to Ronald Reagan.
Also like most successful politicians, Obama probably saw no contradiction between his two politically useful selves. Since so many of the red/blue divides are based on misunderstandings — as he said in 2004, blue state folks worship “an awesome God” while red staters care about their gay friends — getting past them would be easy enough. This, in turn, would open the way to a forward-looking approach to government. In 2012, he thought his re-election would “break the fever” on the right.
No such luck. For Obama’s rise was accompanied by a hardening of opinion in the Republican Party fostered by a long-term defection of moderates from the GOP primary electorate, the growing influence of right-wing media in shaping the conservative conversation, and the rise of the tea party and its allies as the most dynamic forces on the right end of politics. This has the effect of tugging the political center, as perceived and presented by the media, to the right, further distorting how Obama is viewed.
In fact, Obama is a tempered sort of progressive who repeatedly annoys his party’s left with an incessant pursuit of Republican support for “grand bargains” — one reason why his health care plan is so state-oriented and gives Republican governors and legislatures so much opportunity to undermine it.