Since when is Obama divisive?

In our charged political climate, it's become a common Republican refrain -- even if it makes no sense whatsoever

Topics: Barack Obama, Democratic Party, Mitt Romney, Republican Party, The American Prospect,

Since when is Obama divisive?(AP/Carolyn Kaster)
This article originally appeared on The American Prospect.

Of all the things Republicans have called President Obama in the last four years—socialist, radical, un-American, anti-American, elitist—perhaps the strangest is “divisive.” It seems so odd to the rest of us when we look at Obama, whose entire history, even from childhood, has been about carefully navigating through opposing ideas, resolving contradictions, and diffusing tensions, who has so often infuriated his supporters with compromises and attempts at conciliation. Yet conservatives look at him and see someone completely different. They see Obama plotting to set Americans at war with one another so he can profit from the destruction, perhaps cackling a sinister laugh as thunder rattles the windows on the West Wing and America’s demise is set in motion.

The American Prospect There has seldom been a clearer political case of what psychologists call “projection,” the propensity to ascribe to someone else one’s own thoughts, feelings, and sins. It’s true that we are in a polarized moment, and what is called nastiness often turns out to be genuine substantive differences between parties that represent distinct groups of Americans. But Republicans have been, shall we say, vigorous in their opposition to this president, both completely unified and unrestrained in their criticism. Yet they remain convinced that Barack Obama is the one who bears responsibility for whatever division has been sown.

Just a few examples, to let you know I’m not pulling this from nowhere. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, the man who proudly proclaimed, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” calls Obama “the most divisive [president] I’ve served with.” “We have not seen such a divisive figure in modern American history than we have over the last three and one-half years” says Senator Marco Rubio. “President Obama has become one of the most divisive presidents in American history,” charges GOP uber-strategist Ed Gillespie. RNC chair Reince Preibus calls Obama “divisive, nasty, negative.” Mitt Romney tells Obama to “take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America.”

The “divisive” charge isn’t just an accusation, it’s an entire narrative arc, awaiting only the conclusion in which the American people send Obama and his divisiveness packing. As the conservative Washington Times editorialized, “He said he would be a unifier, that he would reach across party lines, that he would forge consensus. Once he took office, however, armed with a hard-left agenda and backed by a supermajority in Congress, the arrogance of power overwhelmed the better angels of his nature.” This is a story Republicans tell often, a story in which Republicans themselves are strangely absent. That “hard-left agenda” wasn’t just inherently divisive, it was also enacted divisively; for instance, one often hears Republicans claim that the Affordable Care Act was “rammed through” Congress without Republican support. You might recall that in fact the ACA went through over a year of hearings, negotiations, conferences, health care summits, endless efforts to cajole and encourage and beg and plead for Republican support, before those Republicans successfully kept every last one of their troops in line to vote against it. But as on so many issues, all of that is washed from the story, leaving only Barack Obama and his divisive actions.

Don’t ask about Republicans’ unprecedented use of the filibuster to stifle Obama’s appointments and legislation, or how the Tea Party Republicans took the country to the brink of financial catastrophe, or how many elected members of their party question Obama’s patriotism and genuinely believe he isn’t actually an American. Don’t ask about conservative media figures who continually race-bait and encourage their legion of listeners to nurture a white-hot hatred for the president and liberals in general. No, the real viciousness belongs only to Barack Obama, and its horror can be seen in things like his suggestion that that the wealthiest Americans could tolerate an increase in the top tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent (a suggestion always accompanied by encomiums to success and the reassurance that the wealthy are fine people). Not only is Obama “demonizing the rich,” as Romney surrogate John Sununu says, “when he says ‘rich’ he says it with a snarl.” You may believe that no human being on this plane of reality has actually ever seen Barack Obama snarl, but that would just mean you aren’t looking closely enough.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that Romney’s advisers are now “convinced he needs a more combative footing against President Obama in order to appeal to white, working-class voters,” so they are making clear that this election is about us and them. If there’s any confusion about who’s who, you can turn on your television to find out. Romney is currently running ads charging falsely that Obama is taking tax money from hardworking people like you to support layabout welfare recipients who no longer have to satisfy work requirements, and has now turned to telling seniors (again, falsely), that “the money you paid for guaranteed health care is going to a massive new government program that’s not for you.” But I’m sure Romney does this more in sadness than in anger. After all, when faced with someone as divisive as Obama, what choice does he have?

Opinions of Obama are certainly polarized—Democrats love him and Republicans hate him. But is that a product of his actions, or of a time when the parties increasingly represent two distinct, non-overlapping ideologies? In his third year, Obama’s average approval in Gallup polls among Democrats was 80 percent, compared to only 12 percent among Republicans. This 68-point gap is large by historical standards, but it was smaller than the 70-point gap in George W. Bush’s sixth year. And the 72-point gap in George W. Bush’s fifth year. And the 76-point gap in George W. Bush’s fourth year. It would seem that Bush was actually the most polarizing president.

And like Obama, Bush came in to office hoping to heal partisan divisions. “I don’t have enemies to fight,” he said in his 2000 convention speech. “And I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years. I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect.” I suppose Republicans might say that Bush’s failure to succeed in that goal wasn’t the president’s fault but that of the opposition, while the continued acrimony during the Obama years isn’t the opposition’s fault but that of the president.

Ask Republicans what Obama might have done to be less divisive, and the most common response is that he could have abandoned his own agenda and adopted theirs instead; had he done that, they would have been happy to work with him. Which gives us a clue to the terrible thing Obama did to them. By making Republicans hate him with such a burning fire—by having the gall to win the presidency, then brazenly pursuing his party’s longstanding goals like health care reform—he brought out the worst in them. And they really can’t be blamed for that, can they?

Paul Waldman is a contributing editor for The American Prospect and the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>