Barack Obama is a masterful politician, one of the best in American history. So it’s rather strange that his most important idea about politics is complete nonsense — one which he refuses to ditch after it has repeatedly blown up in his face.
I’m speaking of his belief that partisan divides in America are overstated. He has long deprecated fighting between the parties, and put himself forward as someone who can reverse the long trend toward increasingly vicious partisanship and gridlock. Even after a presidency marked by the most brutal national-level political combat since 1876, he is still promoting the bankrupt idea that compromise and calm discussion can defuse the problems with American politics.
Anti-partisanship has been the major theme of Obama’s entire career in national politics, starting with his famous DNC speech in 2004, where he said: “It is that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — that makes this country work…There is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America.”
It’s Obama at his best, with all his electric charisma. But the sentiment starts to fray on close inspection. That speech was delivered as part of an election in which the Democratic nominee was smeared with accusations he had lied to get his combat medals in Vietnam (a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts). The accusations were completely fabricated, but it didn’t stop Republicans from handing out Purple Heart band-aids at their convention.
But four years later, after being elected president on the strength of his immense political talent and disaffection with Republicans due to the ruinous failure of George W. Bush’s presidency, Obama still repeatedly bent over backwards to try to get Republican support for his major legislation. He desperately wanted to get sweeping bipartisan majorities for his stimulus package and health-care reform, but despite offering olive branch after olive branch, he got a bare handful for the stimulus in the Senate and one in the House for ObamaCare. In the latter case, Chuck Grassley played him and Max Baucus for fools, stringing them along with false promises to extract concessions before filibustering the bill anyway.
If it wasn’t obvious by this point that Republicans were dedicated to no-holds-barred partisan warfare no matter what sort of compromises Democrats offered, the 2010 elections should have settled it. Republicans won huge victories at the state level during a census year, and used the opportunity to cheat themselves a 7-point handicap in the House (and even worse in many state legislatures) by gerrymandering district boundaries as much as they could.
But it still didn’t take. The absolute nadir of Obama’s presidency was the moment he chose to try to negotiate with Republicans over the debt ceiling (which limits the amount the federal government can borrow) to try to get a “grand bargain” on taxes and social insurance. If Republicans would agree to some tax hikes, he would get Democrats to support large cuts to Social Security and Medicare. This was stone idiocy on several levels: It accepted the legitimacy of Republicans taking the debt ceiling hostage — thus threatening national default and world financial crisis — to extract unrelated policy concessions; and as policy it was actively harmful. The narrative of looming debt crisis due to excessively generous social insurance was and is despicable garbage — and austerity and cuts to social insurance were the exact opposite of what was needed in July 2011, when the unemployment rate was 9.0 percent.
Obama was so enamored of the idea of being the president who finally cut through the partisan gridlock that he nearly undermined two of the country’s most foundational programs. The only reason the grand bargain didn’t pass was that the extremist faction of House Republicans refused to countenance any tax increases whatsoever.
After that humiliating failure, Obama retreated somewhat from trying to get compromises. Locked out of traditional governing, but still needing to address emergencies like climate change, he ended up resorting to a lot of unilateral executive orders.
But it seems this was merely a tactical retreat. In his 2015 State of the Union address, and again at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, he once more sounded the same anti-partisan notes of compromise and reasoned discussion. And as Jeff Stein reports after interviewing multiple top figures in Obama circles, the former president is preparing to redouble his anti-partisan efforts with a new foundation dedicated towards a rather content-free notion of “citizenship.” This was also one major reason why Obama installed his loyal follower Tom Perez at the DNC — because he could liberate “himself from having to personally respond to Trump over the next several years” and thus stay above the partisan fray.
Now, as Steve Randy Waldman writes, it’s not wrong to believe that a nation-state needs a basic commonality of belief and fellow feeling among the citizenry to succeed. Tying the nation together with cords of mutual dependence is one underrated function of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, for instance. But when confronted with a political faction fanatically dedicated to cutting those cords, the right approach is not to keep reaching across the aisle to get tased. Instead, as FDR showed when New Deal Democrats constructed the basic structure of modern American society, one must comprehensively defeat that faction politically, over and over, until their views are exiled from the political mainstream. With agreement again defined along reasonable lines, civil political discourse will flourish once more.
But until then, it’s fight or lose.