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.