Obama's Politics of Rancor

President Obama's recent speech erased all traces of candidate Obama's pledge to transform Washington's poisonous political culture.

The question that emerges from President Obama’s Tuesday attack on his Republican opponents is this: Is this rhetorical aggressiveness and ferocity an intrinsic part of his nature? Or is it a necessary byproduct of his effort to take the country into a new era of power consolidation in Washington and governmental intrusiveness into American households and businesses?

This is a rare level of presidential invective directed at the opposition party. We all know of Harry Truman’s assault on the “Do Nothing Congress” of 1948 and Franklin Roosevelt’s delight in mocking three of his most nettlesome Republican opponents as “Mar-ton, Bar-ton and Fish,” with playful emphasis on each syllable and a wrinkled face of disgust at the name of “Fish.” (He was referring to Congressmen Joe Martin, Bruce Barton and Hamilton Stuyvesant Fish III.)

And of course stinging rhetoric is as much a part of the American political tradition as campaign buttons and opposition research.

But seldom has an incumbent president moved so early in an election year to thrust at his opponents such brutal language aimed at questioning their motives and delegitimizing their political positions. He said the GOP budget plan passed by the House and the philosophy behind it were “antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody.” He accused Republicans of harboring sentiments of “social Darwinism,” which they were seeking to slyly insert into society through use of a “Trojan Horse.” He called it a “radical vision” and “a prescription for decline.”

News articles described the speech as “blistering” (Wall Street Journal), “scathing” (New York Times) and “stinging” (Washington Post). The Times editorial page, which of course loved this “thunderclap of a speech,” headlined its editorial, “Calling Radicalism by Its Name.”

The Times editorial page can afford to indulge in such rhetorical blows because it has no responsibility for governing. Not so, presidents. And thus we return to the question of whether this is the essential Obama or whether his bellicose approach is a product of political necessity born of his own policies.

To seek an answer, let’s review the record. Recall that Obama, when he was emerging on the national scene at the 2004 Democratic Convention, declared that “there’s no red America, there’s no blue America.” Recall also that he ran in 2008 on a promise to transform the poisonous political culture in Washington.

Then practically his first action was to cede the task of drafting his stimulus package to House Democrats, who promptly—and predictably—produced a plan guaranteed to send Republicans running for the exits. The result was that his first opportunity to foster a bipartisan atmosphere in Washington had precisely the opposite effect. There’s hardly been a bipartisan day in the Capital since.

Now, of course, the opposition party has contributed mightily to the ongoing partisan bitterness in Washington. But it was Obama, not his opposition, who ran for office on a commitment to address the problem. He owed it to those who voted for him to at least make an effort in that regard. Instead, his early actions quickly exacerbated the atmosphere of animosity.

Thereafter he sought to govern largely through the Democratic majority in Congress. He diverted the nation’s attention away from the lingering economic stagnation by pushing for his big health-care overhaul—and pushing it through Congress with not a single Republican vote in the House and hardly any in the Senate. Never has the country seen such a significant piece of legislation make its way through Congress on such a partisan basis.

And seldom has Congress passed legislation of such magnitude that has turned out to be so unpopular. That was the keystone to Obama’s subsequent precipitous descent in political standing, culminating in the “shellacking” (his word) he took at the hands of the voters in the 2010 midterm elections. Meanwhile, the economy has only recently begun to show modest and halting improvement.

It is important to consider Obama’s campaign-year rhetoric in the context of this history. He must transfer the blame for the lingering problems faced by the country he leads, and that means the Republicans must become his whipping boys. It’s a matter of political necessity.

And yet one can discern a certain zest in his pugilistic rhetoric that would indicate it’s more than just a matter of necessity. One of Obama’s favorite words is “audacity,” and he certainly sought to govern with an audacious resolve to transform the country’s political landscape and move it in a new direction. His proposals and governmental rhetoric revealed a firm desire to foster a greater concentration of power in Washington and a more robust and intrusive federal government. The so-called ObamaCare law was part of that, as was his expansive energy proposal that died in Congress. A host of regulatory actions reflect it as well.

But the voters didn’t buy it when they went to the polls in 2010, and that put Obama on the defensive. When President Bill Clinton had his head handed to him by the voters in 1994, he promptly changed course, moved deftly to the Center-Left and crafted a political approach of “triangulation” designed to calibrate precisely the combination of positions and expressions that would cement for him a foundation of majority sentiment.

But Obama is a man of principle. He doesn’t like being on the defensive, and he doesn’t like trimming his philosophy. Furthermore, he doesn’t much like the opposition. In his view, they’re wrong, and he’s right. The only way he’s going to get back on track to push his audacious agenda is to smash them at the next election. The only way he can do that, by his lights, is to attack them relentlessly throughout the campaign year.

And so political necessity gets thrown into the same mixer with elements of temperament that drive his particular brand of rhetoric as he faces this particular campaign-year challenge. It certainly seems to come naturally.

Will it work? The irony is that it probably won’t make much of a difference in his electoral fate, one way or the other. Those who view presidential campaigns as generally referendums on the incumbent or incumbent party, as I do, believe Obama will rise or fall based on his record and the voters’ collective comfort level with that record at the moment they cast their ballots. Whether the campaign rhetoric is lofty or nasty will not determine the outcome.

But, in the meantime, we have the spectacle of a president who rose to the White House by presenting himself as a fresh kind of politician imbued with an old-fashioned charitable spirit now blazing new ground in the politics of rancor.

Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His next book, Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians, is due out from Simon & Schuster on June 26.