Sunday, October 28, 2012

It Takes 2 to Tango: Challenging the Myth that Obama Caused the Political Divide in Washington

The other day, PBS ran a special election documentary entitled "The Choice 2012" which attempted to take an in-depth look at the 2 candidates currently running for President.  Towards the end of Obama's segment, the documentary notes the deep partisan division that has plagued Obama's presidency, but, oddly enough, it doesn't explain how it came to be.  In a rather cursory analysis, it left out some pretty key elements of the story that are critical to understanding how our nation got to be as divided as we are today.  While it is true that Obama ran on a platform of bridging the ideological chasm that existed (and still exists) in Washington, and while it is also true that Washington is more ideologically divided now more than any time in recent history, it is intellectually dishonest to lay 100% of the blame for this divide at the feet of the President.  In fact, I'm going to challenge this seemingly popular notion that Obama is mostly to blame for this partisan divide that is tearing our country apart.  Since the PBS documentary failed to thoroughly unearth the major elements that contributed to our nation's divide, let's take a look after the jump.

Walk back with me, if you will, to 2008.  Obama has just won the general election for the office of the president, and America is, for the first time in a long time, able to proudly take credit for a major step forward in race relations.  However, if we would have looked a little deeper behind the thrill of the victory then we would have discovered a rather troubling fact: Obama won the presidency but he lost the White vote.  Although Obama won 53% of the popular vote to John McCain's 46%, Obama only won 43% of the White vote.  That means that if it were up to Whites and Whites alone, Obama would not be President of the United States.  As uncomfortable as that fact may be, it's important that we let that fact sink in for a moment.

Before Obama had even taken office on January 20, 2009, a recently formed group known as the Tea Party had already held national protests against him.   In other words, before Obama had even been given a chance to implement a single policy, a group of conservatives (mostly White) had decided that Obama was bad for the country.

This wave of opposition among a certain segment of the American public did not take long to make its way into Washington.  In Washington, where the #1 goal among both Republican and Democratic politicians is to get re-elected, the reaction was predictable: members of congress, particularly in the House of Representatives where re-election occurs every 2 years, felt compelled to manifest their new-found hatred of all things Obama by jumping in front of the news cameras and taking to the cable TV news shows.  For many people, it became en vogue to hate the President, question his birthplace, and characterize him as "not one of us."  Both Republicans and so-called "Blue Dog" Democrats alike made it a point to assuage the anti-Obama crowds among their respective districts.

This culminated in a January 29, 2009 House Republican retreat -- just 9 days after Obama had taken office -- where President Obama crossed over to the other side of the aisle and spoke with his opposition (without any teleprompters) for over an hour and a half straight about the importance of working together to solve the nation's problems.  At this meeting, Obama attempted to bridge the divide between the Left and Right when he told House Republicans:
Although, that's the -- that's one of the points that I made earlier. I mean, we've got to be careful about what we say about each other sometimes because it boxes us in in ways that makes it difficult for us to work together because our constituents start believing us. They don't know sometimes this is just politics, what you guys, you know, or folks on my side do sometimes. So just a tone of civility instead of slash-and-burn would be helpful.
The problem we have sometimes is a media that responds only to slash- and-burn-style politics. You don't get a lot of credit if I say, "You know, I think Paul Ryan's a pretty sincere guy and has a beautiful family." Nobody's going to run that in the newspapers, right?
The anti-Obama sentiment continued among House Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats who represented constituencies primarily in the South.   And the main stream media, disinterested in whether the claims against Obama actually had any merit, was all too happy to fuel the flames of controversy if it meant that ratings would increase.

Perhaps the most significant sign of irrational anti-Obama sentiment came later that same year in 2009 when conservative ideologues declared that they would rather pull their children out of school than allow them to be indoctrinated by President Obama's obviously evil "stay in school" message.  In reality, the President spoke about the importance of setting educational goals and advised students against dropping out of school.  The Right-wing ideologues, however, accused the President of "downplaying academic achievement in favor of left-wing radical activism in the public schools."

But it didn't stop there.

Two months later, during a formal address to Congress, South Carolina Representative, Joe Wilson, shouted out "You Lie!!!" in the middle of President Obama's speech.  It was the first time in the then 220-year history of the United States of America that any member of Congress had publicly disrespected a sitting President during a formal Presidential address.

In the U.S. Senate, the Republicans made a conscious effort to block President Obama at unprecedented levels.  During President Obama's time in office, 246 cloture motions have been filed to end Republican filibusters of the President's proposed legislation.  That is the highest number of filibusters ever used by either party to block any President throughout the history of the United States. By contrast, at the end of George W. Bush's first term, a total of 133 cloture motions had been filed to end Democratic filibusters in the Senate.  Indeed, the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, now famously said flat out that the Republican party's #1 priority is to make President Obama a one term president.

And the list goes on.

There are many more examples that we can point to but the pattern should be painfully obvious by now.  We can speculate as to whether this opposition was purely political in nature, driven by racial animosity (a new report shows that 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey), or some combination of the two, but it is beyond dispute that Obama has experienced unprecedented levels of opposition.  Moreover, the evidence does not support the proposition that Obama is mostly to blame for this opposition.  On the contrary, we have seen example after example after example of recalcitrant forces who made up their minds a long time ago that they were going to oppose this President no matter what.  To be sure, Obama has made several mistakes and there are many things that you can blame him for; people who decided to oppose him before he even took office, however, is not one of them.  To blame the President for their decision to withhold their support is not only illogical but it also completely ignores all the facts that we have seen over the past 4 years.   

Finally, it's worth noting that before politics was involved, President Obama (back when he was law student Obama) was able to go into one of the most hostile environments imaginable (the Harvard Law Review) and bridge the ideological divide between conservatives and liberals.  In fact, he was so effective at crossing the aisle that both sides unanimously elected him to become the first Black President of the Harvard Law Review.  As a person who made the Law Review at my own respective law school, I can assure you from first hand experience that what he did is no easy task.  Members of the Law Review have no problem whatsoever about expressing their extreme hatred towards you.  To get a majority of these people to agree on a leader is nothing short of a miracle.  I bring all of this up to ask a question: if somebody like Barack Obama can successfully cross the ideological divide among people who genuinely did not agree with each other, what does that say about the state of our politics in Washington that he was unable to do the same there?

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